By Scot Bellavia, B.E.S.T. Coordinator

Your child or grandchild has just been diagnosed with autism. High school is a distant thought, and anything after that seems unrealistic – an absurdity even. But, as with any other child, the years go quickly, and your son or granddaughter is doing well in high school, with the textbook social deficits and perhaps more visible differences that are part and parcel of being on the autism spectrum. 

Now on the precipice of graduation, you and your child have been supported by caring teachers, paraprofessionals, counselors, and coaches for more than 12 years. These people were there every day, knowing where your child would go and what they’d learn, able and ready to mitigate problems due to schedule changes and classmate relationships. They got to know your child personally, who grew to love and trust their circle of support implicitly and other individualized attention they need and, thus, deserve.

But now, what about the transition into adulthood?

What’s Next After High School?
Hopefully schools haven’t left you too far in the lurch. Along the way, you might have become familiar with the alphabet soup in special education: ADA, ADL, CDC-A, COS, DIDD, IDEA, IEP,  TSW, VR, WIOA. Unfortunately, many parents are left without a plan for their child’s next steps and they have to scramble to unscramble these acronyms themselves.

In 1999, Knoxville parents of recent graduates with autism were just such a group and added one more acronym: R&R. The Respite and Recreation Program takes adults with autism and other disabilities into the community to participate in activities just as any citizen would. They go to the movies, attend festivals, hike and explore, and visit local attractions. Being “in the community” gives them the opportunity to develop social skills as they talk with restaurant and business employees and other customers. They learn appropriate etiquette, how to handle money, and go places school might not have been able to take them.

The Beginnings of Autism Breakthrough
Then volunteer-led R&R was just the beginning of what is now Autism Breakthrough of Knoxville, a nonprofit whose mission is enabling adults with autism to lead purposeful lives. Their name came from the hope they had for their children: “to break through and have a life of their own,” as co-founder and first executive director Beth Ritchie put it.

Originally operating from an office in a YMCA, Breakthrough’s headquarters moved to a warehouse on Maryville Pike and then to a business plaza on East Hill Avenue. A decade after its inception, Breakthrough purchased residential facilities and hired 24-hour support staff so residents with autism could live away from their parents without going to a group home. 

In planning this yet-greatest service, the board thought of a college campus setup. “We made a list of what would be utopia for us, and that directed what the campus would look like,” said Beth. In addition to nine houses in South Knoxville with two or three roommates apiece, other residents live in East and West Knoxville and Maryville. 

Supported Employment Options
Another essential service Breakthrough provides is Supported Employment (SE). This department heads Project SEARCH at the University of Tennessee Medical Center and the B.E.S.T. (Bridge to Employment in Service and Tourism) Program at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. In a matter of months, a class of interns, usually just out of high school, get competitive job experience and develop workplace skills that results in them getting hired, sometimes at those reputable locations. SE also offers job specialists and coaches who help job-seekers with autism find and retain a job. 

Continued Growth
Since Kendrise Colebrooke was promoted as executive director in 2019, she has overseen Breakthrough’s biggest breakthrough: 1700 Liberty Street. From her first day, she was tasked with finding a permanent location for the nonprofit, and she has delivered.

“When people think of autism in East Tennessee, I want them to think of Breakthrough,” said Kendrise. There’s no better place for this than the new “international headquarters,” as it’s humorously been called. In a 17,000 square foot building a block from the light at Middlebrook and Liberty, Breakthrough is only expanding. It has every reason and opportunity to do so – the building is massive.

Upstairs houses the administrative staff, but downstairs is where the excitement happens. There, there is more than enough room for learning and play: a multipurpose room for physical activities and team building, a boardroom for planning Breakthrough’s future, a technology room with a driving simulator and virtual reality system, a sensory room to engage the physical needs of the individuals Breakthrough serves, and therapists’ offices.

The recreational therapists continue the R&R tradition while leading other activities like Special Olympics training and the book and garden clubs. A Speech-Language Pathologist and a Physical Therapist add services previously unprovided to adults with autism in the Knoxville area. 

Disability services are notorious for their waitlists, and the companies providing them seem perpetually understaffed. Yet, they and others in our area are united in a common mission and so, collaborate to offer whole-life support toward independence for adults with disabilities in East Tennessee.

For the adult with autism or parent of a student with autism, Breakthrough is the one-stop shop to improve the lives of adults with autism. For more information on Breakthrough, its programs, and potential partnerships or needs, call 865-247-0065 or visit

Autism Breakthrough provides services that enable adults with autism to lead purposeful lives.

  •  Therapeutic Services:
    • Recreation Therapy
    • Respite & Recreation
    • ABA Therapy
    • Speech Therapy
    • Physical Therapy
    • Social Skills
    • Spelling to Communicate
  • Community Employment
  • Community Living
  • Independent Living
  • Enabling Technology
  • Community Liaison
  • Asperger’s Support Group
  • Community Services