Christopher Manente, the executive director of the Rutgers Center for Adult Autism Services (RCAAS) and an associate professor in the Department of Applied Professional Psychology, recently received the NJBIZ Veterans in Business award, honoring veterans who improve their communities through entrepreneurship.
The award recognizes Manente's work in founding the RCAAS in 2016, the nation's first institution that focuses on providing independence to adults with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) through its services, research and training.
Located on Douglass campus, RCAAS is an inclusive space that allows people with ASD to access vocational training and academic support services through the Supporting Community Access through Leisure and Employment Program and College Support Program, respectively.
The center's clinical services range from psychological assessments to behavioral and mental health support by licensed professionals, according to its overview page. The center also offers research and training for future leaders to address the needs of the adult autism community.
"Rutgers, especially with (University President Jonathan Holloway's) message of (a) 'beloved community,' is a place where everyone, regardless of their identity or neurodiversity status, should have the right to be accepted and be included," Manente said.
They said that although entire disciplines have been created for children with autism, the needs of autistic adults have been overlooked. RCAAS aims to fill that gap by assisting people across the spectrum, from those who struggle to meet daily necessities to those who are fully independent, Manente said.
In 2017, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that approximately 5.5 million adults live with ASD in the U.S.
Manente said that the University has initiated support for individuals with ASD through the creation of the Douglass Developmental Disabilities Center (DDDC) in 1972 — three years prior to the historic Individuals with Disabilities Education Act that ensured special education for students with disabilities.
Manente founded the Neurodiversity Task Force in 2021 to increase accessibility and explore intersectionality and neurodiversity on Rutgers campuses through community partnerships. The task force is composed of the Rutgers University Police Department's Chief of Police, deans from the School of Social Work, faculty, staff and students, they said.
After graduating from Rutgers and formerly serving in the military's infantry from July 2000 to December 2004, instead of choosing the usual path of law enforcement, Manente decided to educate those underserved by school systems, they said.
"After I had that experience as an undergraduate student at Rutgers, (helping adults with ADS) really just became a calling for me," Manente said. "I just ran towards the field, full speed and took every job I could to learn more."
After completing a master's degree in education, Manente helmed the same adult disabilities program at DDDC, where they began volunteering. Later, they earned a Ph.D. and began building RCAAS.
RCAAS's newest project is constructing a deluxe apartment complex for autistic adults in Red Bank to foster engagement with their communities and live a productive, independent lifestyle, Manente said.
Manente hopes other universities adopt similar models for creating a network of resources for adults with ASD, they said. They advocate adequately training practitioners and empowering adults to live respectable lives in their community, they said.
"People with autism are amongst some of the most brilliant, most creative, divergent minds we have living among us," Manente said. "And frankly, by not giving them the opportunity to succeed, our entire species is missing out on the benefit that would come from having these brilliant divergent minds, tackling some of our world's most complex, greatest issues and problems."