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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘We’re building it for him’: Family, builders fuel dream of swing set for autistic adult

Building an adult-sized swing set isn’t common, so Andria McAdams issued a plea over social media in August on behalf of her brother, Steven McAdams, 34, who has autism.

Steven lives with his sister, her fiance, Nic Casey, and the family’s children in Newman Lake. Andria serves as her brother’s primary caretaker, a role she took on after their parents’ deaths in recent years.

“He functions at about a 5- to 6-year-old level, verbal, but very much like a 5- or 6-year-old,” Andria said.

“We lost both of our parents – my dad about a year ago. We lost our mom earlier, but it’s been within the past five years. He (Steven) is kind of seeing the after effects that happen when some of these guys grow out of the system and lose their parents. He’s here with me. I want him with his family.”

Sensory input from swinging often is soothing for autistic individuals, including her brother, Andria said. With his size, he had already bent a child-sized swing set at their home, and trips to a playground under pandemic restrictions proved difficult. Steven saved his money for two years to have a sturdier set built, so Andria searched for a contractor willing to work with a $1,200 budget.

Now in their backyard, an elaborate play structure is taking shape with two swings as well as a tree fort.

“Swinging is one of my favorite things,” said Steven, who viewed the progress on Wednesday. “It helps me calm down. See, that’s a fort on top.”

Andria credits T&R Custom Woodwork co-owners Tim Tuttle and Ryan Schumacher for putting Steven’s dreams above their actual costs. They do custom woodworking and furniture and charged only $250 in labor while using the budget more toward supplies.

The co-owners, who saw the family’s post on Facebook, said they quickly signed on after talking to Steven about what he wanted. Their conversation led to them designing the 8-by-8-foot tree fort with side rails, two large swings in the center and a smaller platform on the other side for play features.

“Seeing the smile on his face when he could first swing on this was enough for me,” Schumacher said.

The two builders often create custom bunk beds, but they’ve done a couple of tree forts, Tuttle said. Steven weighs 120 pounds. To adjust for an adult, they used larger bolts and beams. They’re also planning a smaller tree platform and a slide coming off from the fort.

“We’re mainly volunteering our time to help him out; that (budget) was just enough for the lumber,” Tuttle said. “We’re not complaining; the community has helped us out. We’re building it for him.”

A little fun took over with the project, Schumacher added. “It’s a little bit, oh, this would be cool.”

Andria said the work started near the end of August and will likely take three weeks. “It’s evolved,” she said while smiling.

“We’re really appreciative that they’ve put in so much time and effort. We’d hoped maybe for two swings for him. When they came to do the quote, they listened to what his dreams were. They didn’t budget much for themselves at all.”

Sensory issues often accompany autism, aka autism spectrum disorder, says Autism Speaks, a nonprofit seeking to advance understanding and research. A repetitive body movement for self-stimulation – sometimes called stimming – can be calming with hypersensitivity to stimuli, and some people with the disorder seek swinging or another motion.

In the past, the family sometimes took Steven to an empty public park when kids weren’t around, Andria said. She did look into a Rainbow set but estimated the cost at “upwards of $5,000.”

“They don’t have swing sets that are really suitable for adults to buy in stores unless you go to the ones that are at parks with swing sets. We’d have to go early – hoping no one’s there.”

Andria said her brother as an adult with autism has limited resources, and the pandemic further narrowed options.

Facilities and programs don’t always take in someone if there are behavioral issues, she said. Her brother can sometimes have tantrums much like a 6-year-old, Andria added. Before the coronavirus restrictions, he did go regularly to a day program that he enjoyed.

“People don’t realize what the pandemic has done as far as the effect on individuals like my brother,” she said. “He used to go to a day program for a few hours where he could be with friends at a community center, but those are all closed.

“He’s just going stir crazy. We can’t take him out to a public playground right now. He can walk up to other people and pat their shoulders. He’s a very huggy guy. He doesn’t understand that people don’t want that.”

Her brother has talked about having his own swing set since around age 21. Now, Andria’s 7-year-old daughter and Steven can play together on the new play structure as a way to build their relationship, she said.

“It will make it much easier on us. We don’t have to navigate times to get him to a playground. If he needs to calm down, he can just go to his own backyard.”