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Woman with autism finds the independence she dreamed of

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 2/14/2018 Suzy Fleming Leonard
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WEST MELBOURNE, FL  - At 28, almost 29, Rachel Rodrigues is living the dream.

She has a job, and an apartment, with a cozy bedroom bathed in pink light. The complex is still under construction, but soon it will include a swimming pool, a gym, an art center and a dining room.

Even now, she and her roommates and neighbors can enjoy activities like dance class and yoga. A note on her fridge reminds her: 4:30 p.m. Resident Meeting, 6: 30 p.m. Dance Fit.

This dream of independence, taken for granted by so many, seemed out of reach for Rachel.

"Since she graduated from high school, despite the challenge of autism, my daughter's dream has been to live on her own, work for herself and have fun with friends," said Rebecca Rodrigues, Rachel's mother. "We just hoped she'd be safe — and happy. After seven years of frustration, turned down for job after job, we'd watched her bright, eager hope extinguished."

"It can get depressing," Rachel said. "Because you can't do anything to foster your future."

A few weeks ago, Rachel moved into an apartment at Promise in Brevard, an independent living community in West Melbourne where adults with special needs can live and work.

"I'm really, really happy," she said. "It seems like the Lord is taking good care of us, and good care of me."

She's adjusting well to apartment living.

"It really is refreshing," she said. "It's fun to live with people my own age instead of with my parents. It's kind of like a college dorm."

a person posing for the camera: Rachel sits in her bedroom in the Promise in Brevard community. © Florida Today Rachel sits in her bedroom in the Promise in Brevard community. It's not all fun and pajama parties with roommates, though.

Rachel works at Five Guys at the Avenue Viera, where wipes down tables with meticulous care to make sure the dining room is tidy and pleasant for guests. She hopes soon she'll be able to transition into washing dishes and food prep.

Her father, Stan Rodrigues is teaching her to manage her money. Her mom stops by sometimes with groceries, but reminds Rachel that food isn't always going to magically appear in the kitchen. 

Promise has a van to take residents grocery runs, and Rachel is learning to navigate the store to get the things she needs, including snacks.

She's also learning to take care of routine housework.

"I do my own laundry," she said. "I'm keeping up real good with that. Every now and then, I'll dust, clean the floor, clean the bathroom."

She's been so busy settling into the routine of normal life, just like other 20-somethings, she hasn't had time to be homesick or to miss her parents.

"It's always good to see them," she said, "but no, I don't really feel sad. It's really happy that I'm here and independent."

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