By Denise D. Resnik, Matt’s mom; To students at GateWay Community College, who have welcomed differently abled adults on campus through the First Place Transition Academy, allowing our First Place students to benefit from campus life and life skills classes while also benefitting from employment opportunities and a supportive culture.

To employers that are opening doors more easily and broadly, recognizing the skills and abilities of individuals with autism and other special needs, and bringing out goodness and kindness in co-workers.

To customers who learn about SMILE Biscotti and become enthusiastic promoters, helping us spread the word that individuals with autism are productive, contributing members of our community.

To the families who walk through the doors at SARRC, entering as overwhelmed, worried strangers and leaving as friends empowered with resources, support and, most importantly, hope.

To the grocery store shopper in aisle 10, who volunteered to rummage through my purse for Matt’s seizure medication when he fell into my arms during last week’s grand mal seizure, easing the stress of a very stressful situation.

No longer are we strangers. We are moms, dads, neighbors, friends, employers and communities working together to write new history for how adults with autism and other special abilities are paving the way for our society to be more aware, accepting and engaged –giving us all more reasons to smile.

Please join us in spreading holiday cheer this season through your acts of kindness, compassion and sharing.

By Sydnee Schwartz, Contributing Writer

Students at the First Place Transition Academy have been learning a lot since they moved in. They are finding the importance in knowing how to balance jobs, school and free time, as well as adjust to living independently. They have also been focusing on three main areas of independence and adulthood: developing friendships, meal planning and taking care of their space.

Developing strong friendships is an important aspect of adulthood. The students at First Place take a course at GateWay Community College to help them with the fundamental tools of bonding with peers in their everyday lives. “The most important thing I learned was that friendships are a process,” said student Jake, “you want to work slow, see their interests, and find out if they would make a good friend for you.” Many of the students have already applied these tools to their classmates and neighbors, and have created budding friendships. “I enjoy hanging out with my neighbors and friends. It helps create a good community to be around,” Jake added.

Students have also learned things like making a menu, planning and shopping for meals, cooking new foods, and the importance of budgeting. Many of the residents enjoy cooking and enjoy the process and independence that comes along with making your own meal. It’s been an adjustment for them to figure out what meal they want, budget for the ingredients, and prepare it on their own, but they are handling the task well. New resident Max said his cooking is still a work in progress, but he hopes to learn to make foods like enchiladas and pastas.

Another important focus is apartment maintenance. Fridays are cleaning days, and the students are expected to divide cleaning responsibilities with their roommate to keep their space nice and clean. “Learning the importance of cleaning has been a good experience,” said current student Josh. Many of the students find cleaning to be easy and see the benefit in a clean space, but had trouble adjusting to task. “There were a lot of ups and downs, but overall, I like the independence,” Josh’s roommate Jake said.

The students here are really enjoying their adulthood and the community they are involved in. “Living at First Place has been good,” Josh said, “I feel like I will be able to apply what I learn here to my life when I am done with the program.” The students like the environment they are in; they are forming strong friendships, and they are confident that the skills they are learning now will help them succeed.

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

When our son Matt graduated from high school in 2013, his daily routines and patterns, developed for years within the same supportive environment, came to an end. We asked ourselves, “how can we fill 168 hours each week with meaningful, purposeful activities and not allow Matt to slide backward?”

At the age of 24, Matt is part of a generation of more than 500,000 U.S. children with autism entering adulthood this decade. As the school bus stops coming, parents and communities are faced with autism’s perfect storm: an increasing population of special needs adults, many whom cannot live independently; dwindling government resources; and few housing options. Families are also faced with medical issues, developmental regression and aging parents.

In response to this challenge and with the support of the Southwest Autism Research & Resource Center (SARRC) and its Rising Entrepreneurs Program, our family created SMILE® Biscotti (an acronym for Supporting Matt’s Independent Living Enterprise) and home bakery business. Matt’s now a proud, hard-working entrepreneur, an employer and is contributing to the community through his food bank donations and so much more.

We are not just in the business of mixing, baking and packaging, but of spreading the word that individuals with different abilities can be valued, contributing members of our communities. We are also in the business of making people happy—the happiness that comes with hope. We’re talking about the promise of a future we can embrace, not the one so many of us anticipated when our children were diagnosed and we were told to “love, accept and make plans to institutionalize them.”

Matt at Peet's Coffee & Tea
Matt at Peet’s Coffee & Tea

We had bigger dreams back then and still do. In 1997, I co-founded SARRC with the bold mission of advancing discoveries and supporting individuals with autism and their families throughout their lifetimes. The year before Matt’s graduation, in 2012, I also formed a separate nonprofit to develop new and innovative housing options for adults with autism and related disorders, something I’ve been dreaming about from the first day the school bus arrived. First Place AZ continues the important work of SARRC, and importantly, separates the real estate ownership from the supportive services, creating more opportunities for choice.

Following nearly 15 years of research, travels, ideation and the benefit of thought leaders from Arizona and across the U.S., First Place is preparing to break ground in 2016 on its first model property, a residential community development sited in the heart of Phoenix. It will include apartments for residents, a residential academy for students and a national leadership institute for training professionals and support-service providers. The transit-oriented development is leveraging the benefits of a supportive urban area in Central Phoenix that will connect residents to jobs, friends, healthcare, lifelong education and their community.

I’m thrilled to be part of the Different Brains community; eager to share more about SMILE, First Place and life on this journey; and to continue learning many more lessons from Matt and you along the way!