The next time you’re at the grocery store, spend a few extra minutes in the bread aisle and take note of the seemingly infinite selection. As kids some 50 years ago, our choices were pretty limited: white, cinnamon raisin, rye, and wheat. Each had its own special appeal. White smothered with peanut butter and jelly was particularly comforting. Cinnamon raisin toasted and buttered or transformed into French toast was perfect for weekends. There was rye with corned beef for my grandfather. Last but not least, we opted for wheat when we would try (or pretend to try) to eat healthy.

Today, there’s something for everyone—all of the above plus new, unique offerings from baguettes, bagels, and naan to flatbread, brioche, and breads with more than 24 grains. And for those with dietary concerns, don’t forget gluten-free, sugar-free, egg-free, nut-free, and nearly calorie-free.

People love choices. They demand them. And the marketplace gladly delivers.

What about choices for people with special needs? When we say autism, ASD, or Asperger’s, what do they mean in terms of addressing the needs, wants, desires, and demands of these special populations? How does the marketplace respond?

Today, we are dealing with a scarcity of resources on many fronts but none more prevalent than the lack of funding for housing for adults with autism and other special abilities. The shelves are barren of options.

Age has been one way to segment the market to identify and attract funding streams, resulting in more resources directed to children than to adults. Not only does this ignore the vast heterogeneity of people with autism and their families, but it also disregards the fact that more than 50,000 members of this population are transitioning to adulthood annually.

THE NEED FOR OPTIONS

Just as bread makers have done with consumers, we need to find better ways of segmenting the population of people living with autism so that educators, healthcare providers, funders, and builders can better understand the market they’re serving and how those individuals need and want to be served.

We need to stock those shelves with more options for the range of consumers with autism and other special abilities who are looking for different kinds of home and community options now and at the various times, seasons, and cycles of their lives.

We need to inform the marketplace with a universal language—complete with definitions and nomenclature—that identifies and communicates who we are and is recognized by the public, private, philanthropic, and nonprofit sectors. It must be respectful and empower individuals to live healthier and more joyful lives, integrated into communities of their choosing.

We are today where senior housing was 50 years ago—and look at the plethora of choices the marketplace has developed for that group of people. We have a burgeoning special population in need of homes and services that must transcend outdated and limited models. We need new models that match the interests and needs of individuals with the right property location, design, and amenities rooted in communities everywhere. A new generation of dynamic housing models is only possible by collectively tapping private, public, philanthropic, and nonprofit interests.

BOUNTIFUL OPPORTUNITIES

We have an unprecedented opportunity to pioneer innovative housing and community development across North America. Together, we can build a new market that ensures housing options for people with autism and other neuro-diversities are as bountiful as they are for everyone else.

In that vein, First Place AZ will host a Global Leadership Institute Symposium October 24-26 in Phoenix and a kick-off meeting for a market segmentation study, being produced in collaboration with the Autism Housing Network, the Urban Land Institute, and thought leaders from across North America. The report is being designed to serve as a sister study to Opening Doors: A Discussion of Residential Options for Adults Living with Autism and Related Disorders (published in 2009). If you would like more information on the symposium or this groundbreaking study, please send an email to denise@firstplaceaz.org and include information about yourself, your organization, and area(s) of interest.

Much depends on us and how we choose to slice it. We need to do much better. And we can!

Leasing activity for the First Place Apartments has been underway for the past several months leading up to this month’s opening of First Place–Phoenix. A limited number of our 55 apartment units are being released monthly. The purposeful and gradual occupancy of First Place is a concerted effort to support new residents as they transition to their new homes. It’s a very exciting time in their lives and we want to be mindful of the possible challenges that may come up along the way. After all—moving can be stressful, no matter who you are!

We’re committed to helping residents settle into their new digs and become familiar with the many exciting features of this brand-new, state-of-the-art property. We are also taking time to familiarize everyone with the policies and procedures that govern how we live peacefully and happily as neighbors.

We’re excited to introduce residents to and acquaint them with their new community. Through the First Place Community Life Plan, we’re focused on bringing people out of their homes and into the mix through engaging, shared activities that allow them to participate, get to know their neighbors and make new friends.

From culinary classes, water aerobics and karaoke night to bowling leagues, movies and weekly barbecues, the Council of Resident Engagement—or CORE—of First Place has been hard at work preparing a long, fun to-do list.

The CORE is led by some of our very first residents, our “firsties.” You’ll be hearing much more from the CORE in the weeks ahead, so stay tuned!

First Place–Phoenix is buzzing with 30 new apartment residents and First Place Transition Academy students. A full range of emotions is ever-present, along with the excitement, adrenaline and to-do lists that have us all bustling nearly 24/7.

We’re enjoying the celebration of all kinds of firsts: first in the pool, the fitness room, the Zen room—even their own shower! First friend, bus ride, fireworks show, ice cream social and home-cooked meal. The first time doing laundry, filing an online maintenance request and learning a new recipe in the culinary teaching kitchen. And then there’s the first time in 30 years that a mom and dad slept alone in their home. We also received our first complaint: about the summer heat—and not so easily solved!

Beyond the thrill of it all, I have this new, special feeling. It’s a calmness I haven’t truly experienced since the worry began with Matt’s autism diagnosis 25 years ago. Many factors are likely at play. The opening of First Place–Phoenix and the ability to experience how the property lives and breathes. Confidence in our leadership team and positive early feedback from our ‘firsties,’ the very first residents to call First Place home. The support of family members who love Matt the most, helping us prepare for his transition to his new home this September. Families in similar situations who— together with residents, staff, first responders and more—are building an extraordinarily supportive community.

This unique sense of calm and peace of mind is a first for me and for us as a family.

While I recognize we have much work to do for Matt, our firsties and all our residents and Transition Academy participants, the mother in me is embracing this new and quite special first.

Just saying those words gives me a big case of the butterflies! In preparation for this momentous time in our family history, I’ve been reviewing lists upon lists, including reports, goals and objectives and a variety of technology options that will help us pull together Matt’s big, beautiful and complex life in preparation for his upcoming move to First Place–Phoenix.

While his physical bags have yet to be packed with his personal belongings and creature comforts, in my mind’s eye we’ve been packing them for several years. And I’ve been packing a virtual wish-list bag for First Place, too.

Here’s what’s been top-of-mind, especially as First Place–Phoenix opens its doors and welcomes our very first residents (“Firsties!”) this week:

These lists and more are coming together to build our confidence and excitement as we welcome our Firsties and help Matt pack his bags in the weeks ahead!