When Ashley was younger, she lived in a dormlike setting on the campus of the state's school for the deaf and blind. Her frequent visits home, her mother said, were difficult.

"She'd get in the fridge and break every egg, or into the cupboard and break every glass. We couldn't control her."Marilyn Call's daughter is autistic. But things are different today for the little girl and her family.

Ashley's 12 years old and lives in a small group home (there are only three other children), so she receives the individualized attention that she couldn't get when she was one of many in a dorm.

In the residential, community settings a small facility offers, the mentally retarded learn how to behave in public. That's not possible in a large, institutional setting for several reasons, according to Call.

"For one thing, in the community, they use local facilities like stores and restaurants, so they have to be taught how to behave. In a large place (like a good-sized nursing home) there's a huge laundry and cafeteria, so they don't learn how to do their washing or cooking."

One of the biggest differences, though, is in the difficulty or ease of training those with mental disabilities.

In a small setting, there is more opportunity to work on skills with individuals. Recent research indicates that a mentally retarded individual flourishes much better in a community setting than in a large, somewhat more impersonal facility.

Utah lawmakers recognized the validity of such research, too, and after several years of study and discussion, approved legislation to ensure the propagation of community settings for the mentally retarded.

By law, beginning in 1990, no operating license will be granted to any new large, nursing home-style intermediate care facility for the mentally retarded (ICF/MR).

New facilities will have to have 15 or fewer beds. Existing facilities will not find their status changed under the new law.

A 15-bed facility is not the same as a group home, which has eight or fewer beds. But it's a step in the right direction.

And because they are larger than group homes, and fall under different zoning regulations, these mid-sized facilities will not be built in residential areas, so they won't compete with group homes for placement.

That might not seem terribly important, but placement of group homes is always a problem.

Entire neighborhoods rally to protest their placement, admitting such homes are necessary but asserting that they should be placed somewhere else.

Sometimes the protest is successful, sometimes not, but almost invariably a follow-up interview after the home is in place indicates that neighbors have had no problems.

The measure was born out of efforts by members of the Utah Council for the Handicapped and Developmentally Disabled Persons.

Proponents of the measure say it was a long time coming. The council started the initiative during Keith MacMillan's term as chairman, then Tonya Peacock took his place and the quiet battle continued. A task force wrestled with the issue nearly five years ago.

It came close to passage last year - in fact, it received the necessary votes in both the House and the Senate. Then, too late to do anything about it, it was discovered that through a technicality (it wasn't in the possession of the Senate during the voting) it didn't actually pass, although it had the votes in both bodies of the Legislature. During the past session, it finally made it through.

It bodes well for the future of the mentally handicapped in our state. And for the families and friends who dearly love them and want each one to achieve his fullest potential.

Literally scores of people were involved over the year in promoting the community-style living concept. Their efforts will mean a better shot at life for hundreds of Utah's frailest, most overlooked citizens - the mentally retarded or autistic.