A tearful mother, supported by her 26-year-old autistic son standing by her side, moved many to tears during an emotional moment at a Gainesville City Council meeting Tuesday night.
“When he was born they told us he would never walk, talk, he would be a midget and a vegetable,” Robbie Welch said. “He was 2 before he could walk. At 8, he was told he had Asperger’s syndrome…
“I have to tell you, at the time, I wish he’d been diagnosed with cancer,” Welch continued, “because autism scared the hell out of me, and cancer would have had a treatment and compassion. People are afraid of autism.”
Welch, and her tall son, Mac, came to the council meeting in support of a zoning change that would allow Brightstone Transitions to utilize a historic property at 446 Green St. to house up to eight young men with the same form of autism.
The young men, ages 18-24, are dealing with mild autism spectrum disorder — a condition marked by awkward social interaction, communication challenges and a tendency to engage in repetitive behavior.
Brightstone has a similar program for young women in Cumming.
The Gainesville Planning and Appeals Board recommended denial of Brightstone’s zoning amendment following a public hearing earlier this month in which one person spoke out against having the historic structure used for the program.
With the city council having final say on the matter, Welch and several other speakers came out in support of the Brightstone program.
The lone voice advocating that the petition be denied questioned the choice of the Green Street area.
“These people need to be treated,” said Edwin Lynch. “Is this the right place for this home?”
Jason Cox, director of programming and admissions at Brightstone Transitions, said in rebuttal that the young men in the program are smart, bright and want to be independent. He said the bus stop is near the property, and the young men could walk downtown to stores, restaurants and shops.
Ultimately, it was Welch, and her son who never said a word but stood quietly with his arm around his mother, who swayed the council. Welch said her son went through the Brightstone program, and she’s seen firsthand the wonderful work the organization is doing. She said her son recently moved into his own apartment.
“The program strives to bring out the best in young men and women that struggle to make their way in the ‘normal’ world, whatever that means… normal is just a setting on a dryer,” she said.
The council unanimously approved Brightstone’s use of the Green Street property for its program.