The Heritage Community’s newest facility isn’t meant to just be a house; it’s a home.
“If you are trying to teach someone skills in a high-stress environment, it doesn’t really work,” said Neil Wallace, the executive director of Spark Academy at The Heritage Community.
The Michael S. Sproul Smart Home will begin seeing residents next week. The $2 million home, which broke ground in October 2018, will house 24 teens who are considered to be on the high-functioning side of the autism spectrum, have a developmental disability or have been diagnosed with a learning disability.
The house is a collaboration between Vivint Smart Home, The Heritage Community and the Loveland Family Foundation of Utah.
Inside, the home is designed to be a safe space for its residents, with light, homey decor, earth tones, a virtual reality room, sensory spaces and an art room that reminds its occupants that “art has no rules.”
The typical stay for a resident at the facility is expected to be 14 months.
Wallace said the home will collaborate with the nearby ScenicView Academy, a facility for adults on the autism spectrum.
In Utah, 1 in 54 children will be diagnosed with autism, compared to the national level of 1 in 68, according to statistics from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
For its residents, Wallace said a live-in facility where environmental factors can be controlled is key in order for the teens to feel less anxious.
“For a lot of our students, they require a high level of consistency in order for their brain to be able to calm down enough to not feel threatened,” Wallace said.
The facility seeks to help the traditionally-underserved age group of the autism spectrum. Wallace said most services are aimed at young children or those who are considered to be on the lower-functioning side of the spectrum. The new home hopes to bridge that gap.
“We really saw the opportunity to specialize in and create a safe space and be around a place where people are like them,” Wallace said.
Wallace said those who are considered neurodiverse are often the targets of jokes and bullying and wonder why they aren’t invited to birthday parties or sleepovers with friends. The home seeks to give them skills to succeed in social situations.
“This is a highly compassionate group,” Wallace said. “Lots of empathy. They want to connect. They are not intellectually impaired, they are very bright kids and they can tell something is off.”
The home will also use virtual reality to teach students skills, something that Vivint found unique.
“This is on the leading edge of technology that’s available to help this population,” said Holly Mero-Bench, the director of Vivint Gives Back.
The philanthropic arm of Vivint has been focusing on the autism community since 2014 and began offering its smart home technology to families of children on the spectrum after discovering that their parents’ stress levels were similar to soldiers in combat.
The building is named after Michael Sproul, a late Vivint Gives Back employee who helped people with intellectual disabilities through his work with the organization, by serving on the CREATE Advisory Board through Spectrum Academy — a public charter school in Pleasant Grove for students with autism — and by collaborating with the Autism Council of Utah.
Sproul died in 2017 while hiking in Havasupai Canyon in Arizona.
By placing a large mural of Sproul in the home’s entryway, he’ll be the first thing its residents see.
“He would be so proud and so excited for the kids who get to move in here and what this means to them and their futures,” Mero-Bench said.
She said she has an overload of gratitude to have known Sproul and has heard countless stories about how he was a friend to those with disabilities as a child. As she traveled the world with him, it was something she witnessed firsthand.
“Kids especially on the spectrum just loved him, and he was accepting,” she said.