courtesy Greg Prince
Greg and JaLynn Prince.

SALT LAKE CITY

Greg and JaLynn Prince have a cause. If they’re not yet in their golden years, they’re approaching them, and they don’t want to worry about the future. They’d like more reassurance — a lot more — that things are going to be OK down the road.

Not their future. It’s their son Madison’s future they’re worried about — him and every other adult on the autism spectrum.

From firsthand experience, the Princes know of the various programs that society has put in place for kids with autism. Federal law mandates services through the public school system up to age 21.

But then?

Nothing.

“It’s as if it’s assumed that when they become 21 they won’t be autistic anymore,” says Greg Prince.

• • •

Like lots of parents in the 1990s, Greg and JaLynn Prince were completely unprepared for the reality of autism. At their home in suburban Maryland, they were busy raising their first two children when Madison came along and they got busy raising him, too.

It wasn’t until Madison was 6 years old that, Greg Prince says, “we got the dagger in the heart diagnosis that he was autistic.”

Their world changed irreversibly as it became apparent how much hands-on attention and extra time Madison would require.

The Princes didn’t balk.

“You play the hand you’ve been dealt,” Greg Prince says. They adjusted their schedules accordingly, they made sure Madison got all the attention he needed.

It wasn’t until their son was in junior high that they started focusing on “What’s Next?”

“We found this is the age when most parents suddenly realize, ‘Hey, this isn’t going to last forever,’” says Greg Prince. “When that happened to us we started to look around at what would be available for Madison when he turned 21. The answer was nothing. There wasn’t a single organization in the country that focused on adults on the autism spectrum. Nobody was paying attention to this.”

But now, at least, the Princes were.

In 2008 they drew up plans for a charity with one purpose: to provide help for adults on the autism spectrum. In 2009, the year Madison Prince turned 19, the Madison House Autism Foundation was established.

Ever since, the Princes and their allies have been working at developing programs that will effectively provide housing and employment for adults on the autism spectrum.

“We basically had to do our own curricula to understand what the landscape looked like for adults, what existed, what didn’t exist, and what needed to exist to be able to help those on the spectrum to have security,” says JaLynn Prince, “and to make it so their parents wouldn’t lose sleep every night wondering what would happen to their adult child when they were no longer around.”

With an estimated 3 million adults with autism in the United States and more joining the ranks every day, it’s an audacious goal to attempt to take care of them all, but Greg Prince, of all people, knows a little something about solving big problems from small beginnings. The research he did as a doctoral candidate at UCLA in the 1970s paved the way for a powerful drug, Synagis, that helps prevent pneumonia in high-risk infants and is given to more than a quarter-million newborns around the world every year.

Now, with the help of his wife, he’s branching out from saving lives at the front end to securing them at the back end.

The Princes concede they are comfortable enough financially they don’t have to do what they’re doing.

“We could just have easily said, look, we’ve got the resources, we could build a nest for Madison that would accommodate him for the rest of his life and then lie down on a beach somewhere,” Greg Prince admits. “But we just felt very, very strongly compelled to try to make a difference. Particularly when we saw a vacuum there, a black hole, and nobody was filling it …

“ … and we know how it feels.”

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“But we can’t do it alone,” says JaLynn Prince. “We’re trying to be a catalyst. We’re hoping what we’ve started becomes a national movement.”

To jumpstart their cause in Utah, the Princes, who have strong ties here — she grew up in Heber City and he graduated from Dixie State before moving on to UCLA — have organized an “Autism After 21” breakfast at the Grand America Hotel on Thursday. Civic leaders, policymakers and autism experts have been invited to learn more about what can be done about the future. For information, go to madisonhouseautism.org.