PITTSBORO, N.C. — On any given day in Chatham County, you can find Walker McDonald pouring life into the ground beneath him.

From a distance, Dr. Jemma Grindstaff watches him water each plant as she walks uphill toward the fenced garden.

What You Need To Know

  • The Carolina Living & Learning Center is in Pittsboro

  • It is an extension of the UNC TEACCH program

  • People on the autism spectrum with severe needs live on site

  • The program is designed as a residential and vocational program

McDonald, 31, is one of the licensed clinical psychologist’s favorites at the Carolina Living & Learning Center (CLLC). 

“It's tremendous,” Grindstaff said.

She said that as someone who appreciates the independence McDonald has built and sustained at their communal living setting.

Just the sight of him brings a smile to her face. “You will see Walker is doing it on his own,” she said.

Without context, performing tasks by oneself without the help of another person sounds like a normal human function. In the case of McDonald, it is a much bigger deal on a much grander scale. He is a nonverbal communicator with severe autism. 

His father, John McDonald, said raising a son with needs day and night was full of roadblocks in Walker McDonald’s earlier years.

“That was our initial challenge. My wife and I honestly had our heads buried in the sand just for a couple of years,” John McDonald said. He and his wife, Emily, were doing the best they could. They were loving and nurturing a household full of children as well. 

Years down the road into Walker McDonald’s adulthood, the family made the determination to move him into a place where his needs can best be met. The CLLC, a communal living and vocational program for adults diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder whose needs require around-the-clock supervision, became home in 2017. 

“It is so meaningful to not just me and to my wife, but to my whole family that Walker is in a place where he can be more productive,” he said. “To me it is important that every individual find something that when they wake up in the mornings they can be excited about.”

John McDonald believes this environment, the chores and tailored lifestyle best fit his son.

“If my wife was sitting here with me, she would tell you we feel like we have won the lottery because this place is just awesome,” he said.

Creating a productive, healthy quality of life for residents is why Grindstaff runs the center. She says its culture is a glove fit for Walker McDonald.

People on the autism spectrum living with extreme needs often have nowhere to go for the type of care and support they deserve. 

Society is mostly geared toward meeting the expectations and demands of folks who do not have ASD. The Carolina Living & Learning Center works every day to change that narrative. 

The CLLC is a communal living facility in Pittsboro and is a cooperative extension of the TEACCH program at the University of North Carolina. The CLLC establishes a framework for day-to-day caring, organizing, scheduling and creating expectations for a successful, independent quality of life.

“It really is a testament that there really is lifelong learning. People don’t just stagnate as adults. At least not here at the CLLC they don’t,” Grindstaff said.

Up to 15 people are living on the grounds. The setup of the program structures daily activities using systems to fit the needs of every person.

"It's tremendous, like not to have to ask for help every two seconds to be able to complete something on your own, to look at it and know that you're finished with it. And you did that all yourself. It's really an incredible sense of self-efficacy,” Grindstaff said.

She said the staff works hard to take care of their residents.

Much like the budding plants in this garden, Walker McDonald is a makeshift gardener of sorts who is in need of love and attention, too.

“First of all, he really loves Disney characters,” Grindstaff said.

She pointed to mesh stickers beside each budding plant. Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse and Donald Duck are all part of a simple visual organizational system that tells McDonald which plants have and have not received water.

“These are photos of Disney movies and then he knows to match it to a picture that’s just alike. That’s how he knows where to put the water and to water in that spot,” Grindstaff said.

A fascinating straightforward concept determines how many times to fill and empty the watering can. “He can have a clear understanding of when he is finished with a task because all of the pictures inside are now moved to their spots out here,” Grindstaff said.

She believes the most important ingredients are the relationships staff members build with residents. Grindstaff said being in charge of the CLLC after working all 79 acres of this land during her early college years at UNC-Chapel Hill is a dream come true.

“That’s exactly how I describe it, it is full circle. It is the most amazing thing to see how the residents have grown and changed in those 30 years in between the first time I was here and when I came back as the director,” Grindstaff said.

The program is an extension of TEACCH’s system of community regional centers offering various core services to families experiencing autism.