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

Cleaning out closets, drawers and the garage seemed like a good plan for ringing in the New Year. Matt’s closets took the longest. The biggest challenge: parting with the cue cards, flashcards, Velcro-backed picture cards and all kinds of games, systems and tools that have helped Matt learn, communicate and advocate for himself.

Still significantly impacted by his autism, Matt’s perseverance and our own have empowered him to learn, connect and enjoy the benefits of a job well done. In 2013, Matt launched SMILE Biscotti®, his Phoenix-based baking business in 2013, to further his independence.  It has done much more than that already! SMILE reflects daily how the early intervention and many efforts through the years have paid off.  While completing over 100 holiday orders late last year, we saw new evidence of Matt’s supervisory skills, as he modeled for co-workers how to more efficiently package their biscotti, quietly correcting a few of their mistakes along the way.

Community building is something we’ve been demonstrating in Greater Phoenix for nearly two decades through SARRC®, and now First Place AZ®. For us, community speaks broadly to embrace differences and celebrate diversity; involving our neighborhoods and schools, places of work and worship, health and wellness centers, and creation of new home options.I also paused to reflect on our unexpected life’s journey while reading the newly released historical account on autism, “In a Different Key,” written by  journalists John Donvan and Caren Zucker. Powerfully written, informative and captivating, the book evokes the many struggles, triumphs and chapters of our life with Matt, which were shared by the pioneers in the field and those who have joined the fight since his diagnosis.  Caren is a fellow mother on a mission who reinforces, “how good a life can be when your community embraces you!.”

SMILE Biscotti’s success is a beautiful example of how a community has embraced Matt and his coworkers. Also noteworthy is the community they’ve built together, connecting through teamwork, common interests like “Uno” breaks and shared satisfaction of a job well done. These young adults and hope are the most important ingredients in SMILE Biscotti.

I’ve clung tightly to my hope. Hope that the California doctor who confirmed Matt’s diagnosis was wrong when he said, “love, accept and plan to institutionalize him.” Hope that his epileptic seizures could be controlled and not stand in the way of greater independence. Hope that he would find a community where he can live successfully and happily with friends and away from our family home.

What I didn’t find in our closets or in those three-ring, four-inch binders documenting Matt’s history was a roadmap that would predict his future — something I longed for during those early years. I wanted someone, anyone to tell me it was going to be OK, that he was going to be fine, as would our entire family. Instead, we created our own hope and dreams together with other parents, family members and a supportive community who wanted the same outcomes.  And together, we are moving mountains.

Excited to share more in the year ahead about the expansion of SMILE Biscotti, groundbreaking of First Place-Phoenix, a new residential model for adults with autism and other special abilities, and more community building, big dreams and history in the making.  Onward!

PHOENIX, Ariz. – January 26, 2016 – First Place®AZ, an Arizona-based nonprofit serving adults with autism and other special abilities, has received a $50,000 grant from the Phoenix-based Board of Visitors to launch the 360 Health & Wellness Initiative, increasing health independence.

The initiative will establish a continuous spectrum of health within a community framework through the creation of 30-40 learning modules for individuals with autism, their families and support providers, and health care professionals.

Far too often, medical issues are addressed through the lens of autism, such as viewing frequent drinking or urinating as obsessive and repetitive rather than as possible signs of diabetes; or framing irritability as increases in autistic behaviors rather than as potential underlying G.I. distress or other pain.

“Early detection of health issues is frequently missed due to the core characteristics of autism, which include social impairments, communication difficulties, and restricted, repetitive and stereotyped patterns of behavior,” said Denise D. Resnik, First Place president, Board chair and founder. “Through targeted education, the 360 Health & Wellness Initiative will increase independence for individuals with autism, improve healthcare access and empower families.”

More than 1.5 million Americans are living with an autism spectrum disorder, a number on the rise. The increased prevalence from one in 2,500 a few decades ago to one in 68 today (CDC Prevalence Study) is producing a growing population of children with autism now entering adulthood. More than 500,000 U.S. children with autism are transitioning to adulthood this decade.

First Place is teaming up with the Southwest Autism Research & Resource Center (SARRC) to spearhead and implement the 360 Health & Wellness Initiative. Composed of curriculum, toolkits and assessment strategies, the initiative is poised for a broad and cumulative impact, beginning with early adopter students and residents of First Place-Phoenix, a new residential model breaking ground in 2016; expanding to the greater community of special learners within Metropolitan Phoenix; and then pushing out to a national audience through online education.

The Board of Visitors is the oldest charitable organization in Arizona, serving the healthcare needs of women, children and the elderly. The Board of Visitors has distributed more than $17 million to nonprofits in the greater Phoenix area since 1908.

“The Board of Visitors, the oldest charitable organization in Arizona, is proud to support the work being done in our community by First Place and their ‘360 Health & Wellness Initiative.’ The program, which meets our mission statement of serving the healthcare need of women, children and the elderly, will have a positive impact on individuals with autism and provide support to their families,” said Sydney Fox, chairman of The Board of Visitors.

360 Health & Wellness Initiative collaborators:

Project Lead/Manager: Valerie Paradiz, Ph.D., First Place curriculum specialist and Director of the Autistic Global Initiative, a division of the Autism Research Institute. Dr. Paradiz serves as an NGO representative to the United Nations and brings many years of curriculum design, technical assistance and strategic planning to the team through her national work with schools, universities, corporations and agencies that support individuals with autism and related disabilities.

Medical Consultant: Raun Melmed, M.D., is director of the Melmed Center and co-founder and medical director of SARRC. He has set up physician training programs for the early identification of infants and toddlers with developmental and behavioral concerns, and authored a program geared toward the early screening for autism spectrum disorders.

Medical Consultant: Javier Cárdenas, M.D., is the director of the Barrow Concussion and Brain Injury Center, a multidisciplinary clinic that is nationally recognized for comprehensive patient care. He is also the director of the Barrow Concussion Network, the most comprehensive concussion program in the U.S. He serves on the NFL’s Head, Neck & Spine Committee, is chair of the Arizona Interscholastic Association Sport Medical Advisory Committee, and chair of the Arizona Governor’s Council on Spinal and Head Injuries.