(2019 Summer Series, Blog #1)

Matt is a 28-year-old man with “classic” autism who has been able to work, communicate with some limitations and enjoy a good game of Uno or Scrabble. We take stock in these and other strengths, including his ability to make most of his meals (in part due to his self-limited menu). And yet, while he’s learned how to peel and cut apple slices (one of two fruits he’ll eat), he’s not able to tell a good apple from a rotten one.

So here’s what Matt can do:

In a relatively short time, Matt has learned the value of his apartment key and what to do if he forgets or loses it, the joys of Face Timing with mom and dad, and the creature comforts of his new digs.

And then there’s what he can’t do:

More about Matt is documented in the First Place Interest Survey, reminding us of his interests and those we’d like him to explore, and his Personal Profile, acknowledging areas where he can be independent, needs some support or is totally dependent.

We’re still working on more accurate responses to Matt’s confounding “wh…” questions, thanks to weekly parent training sessions and monthly staff meetings, including those with clinicians from the Southwest Autism Research & Resource Center (SARRC).

But learning to live independently didn’t start here. It started with dedicated First Place staff to build a week in his life, day by day, figuring out how it would all come together. Matt started with just a few pieces of furniture and a few overnights a week at First Place with me sleeping on the couch—listening, lying awake, scribbling notes about Matt’s many needs (OK, and fretting some, too…).

We’ve started this journey grateful that we’re by his side—and that First Place and SARRC are by ours, keeping us all on the right path and feeling more confident in our futures.

Next up, Small Steps and a Big Team: The benefits of high- and low-tech solutions (Summer 2019 Series, Blog #2)

After an exciting, jam-packed week, the very first Transition Academy participants can now call themselves graduates! Last Wednesday, the graduates were honored at a special convocation ceremony and lunch at GateWay Community College in Phoenix. Thursday was the actual graduation ceremony. The week wrapped up on Friday with a leisurely, delicious brunch at 29 Palms generously provided by First Watch. Family members, friends and SARRC and First Place staff gathered to mingle and reminisce. The big take-away was everything they learned over the last two years on their way to living more independent and joyful lives. Great things await our graduates!

A few graduates took the time to share their insights when asked to weigh in on the following:

1) Someone you know is interested in attending the Transition Academy and is asking you questions about your experience there. What advice would you give that person to get them started?

2) Tell us about one of your most special memories from the past two years.

By Denise Resnik, Matt’s mom; originally posted on Different Brains 

In 1993, we were one of those families.

At age 2, our son had just received a diagnosis of autism. Back then, we didn’t know what to do or where to go. We barely knew what autism was. The landscape was barren and the internet just emerging.

I connected with a small support group of mothers of children with autism who met regularly at a local coffee shop. One table became two, then four—then an entire restaurant was filled with moms and dads.

We were all focused on the many pressing questions of the day. We pursued any and all answers and remedies: intensive early intervention; applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy; vitamins; pork hormones; therapies supported by data and some not—but which might help our children sleep, eat or stop chewing the leather from the living room couch.

Then there were the really big questions: How did this happen? Will he recover? Was I to blame? What happens after school ends? Where will he live as an adult? How can I be the mom he needs and deserves when there’s so much I don’t know and so much I fear?

We found answers in our supportive Phoenix community of friends and families.

In 1997, the Southwest Autism Research & Resource Center, or SARRC, was founded quite humbly—without funding, staff or office space but with big dreams and lots of ideas. We believed that if SARRC focused on what was right for our families and the community at large, then we could create a model for communities everywhere.

Today, SARRC is 150 employees strong, an organization with a $10 million-plus annual operating budget serving as one of the most robust autism research sites in North America, including the enrollment of subjects in pharmaceutical trials.

Thanks to SARRC and our supportive community, the stage was set for the creation of First Place AZ. Established in 2012 as a sister nonprofit to SARRC, First Place is focused on ensuring that housing and community options are as bountiful for people with autism and other neuro-diversities as they are for everyone else.

Answering “What’s Next” for Adults with Autism

Once again, families are gathering in living rooms, coffee shops and agencies throughout the community, planning for what’s next. New residential models are being introduced, informing and empowering a marketplace to offer more choices for the diverse needs of this population. At First Place, we’re adding to the mix with an innovative residential model that is replicable, scalable, financially sustainable, as well as affordable through sources of government funding.

First Place–Phoenix, our first model property, broke ground in December 2016 and is proceeding with vertical construction. It will open next spring in the heart of downtown Phoenix.

The First Place Apartments are being formally introduced to the marketplace this month. Informative meetings are taking place as we launch our leasing program. Families and individuals are gathering for monthly Q&A sessions to explore what’s next—and what’s best—for them and their adult children with autism and other neurodiversities.

First Place continues work that is consistent with SARRC’s early mantra of answering questions and questioning answers. We are focusing on the importance of person-centered planning and community-based solutions that offer security, health care, friends, jobs and lifelong learning—all at a “first home away from home.”

This community is hard at work addressing that looming question: “Who will care for our adult children when our families are no longer able to?” This community is giving our children and adults more chances to succeed, filling hearts with more hope than fear and giving us more much-needed reasons to smile.

Thank you, Phoenix, for your leadership and partnership, which are enabling us all to create what just one year ago PBS NewsHour named “the most autism-friendly city in the world.”

At first glance, First Place is like any other building—it has a blueprint and the basic building blocks that make up a structure, with rooms and places for activities. Sitting empty, you could walk through the halls and imagine many things happening here.

But then a magic ingredient is added—community.

 Over the course of the First Place blog and stories, we’ll be sharing a lot of those magic ingredients. Community is just the first of many essentials that take First Place and sets it apart, gives it power, and helps it become a place that empowers. But, for now, community is a great place to start, because when it comes to First Place, community is at its heart.

The idea of community can take on many meanings, and for First Place, there are quite a few. First, there is the physical—where is this community? First Place is located in the heart of Greater Phoenix, the 6th largest metropolitan area in the U.S. A transit-oriented development, First Place is leveraging the benefits of a supportive urban area, connecting residents to jobs, friends, lifelong education, the arts, recreation and other aspects of a community.

However, beyond those things that you see when you walk out the door, First Place is a development that brings together the essential intangibles of community, like learning about your neighbor, making friends, forming memories and creating a true sense of home, purpose and belonging—socially as well as physically.

The Goals of First Place:

1) Create an internationally recognized development with a mix of residential options that serves as home for individuals with autism and other special abilities.

a. Develop the First Place Apartments, a 50-unit property of studio, one- and two-bedroom units, that is community connected, transit-oriented and sustained by a suite of amenities, supportive services and sound business principles.

b. Establish the First Place Academy, a two-year residential learning opportunity for 32 students who are transitioning to more independent living and who reside at First Place in year one, and off-campus in year two.

2) Demonstrate success of residents and students through quality of life indicators including health, joy and fulfillment, community engagement and productivity, greater self-sufficiency and independence, and peace of mind for their families.

a. Establish results-oriented, well-documented transition programs for First Place residents and Academy graduates.

b. Collaborate with the Southwest Autism Research & Resource Center (SARRC) and other local and national research partners to conduct longitudinal studies.

c. Demonstrate success of “Resident Fellow” program focused on promising outcomes for graduate students and medical residents and what it means to be a good neighbor.

3) Serve as a site for education, training and thought leadership focused on expanding quality housing options.

a. Represented by a faculty of luminaries from across the country, the First Place Leadership Institute is set to focus on pressing concerns for differently abled individuals at both the local and national levels.

b. Create a location and platform for geographically and programmatically diverse organizations united in their mission of creating more housing choices for individuals with autism and other special abilities.

4) Empower advancements in public policy to support new models based on positive outcomes; respected, evidence-based research; and sound financial frameworks, facilitating the scalability of similar future developments.

a. Advance discussions for national standards of support and clinically informed policy.

b. Research and analyze public policy; coordinate and collaborate with local and national advocates.

c. Develop and host sought after international “Think Tanks” with First Place faculty and other thought leaders.