(October 2019 Series, Blog #3) 

Muir Woods of Northern California. Amazing beauty. A natural wonder. A refuge for cherished time reflecting, contemplating—and being away from life’s many (electronic!) distractions.

We were among those escaping from the city, enjoying together time and experiencing the many benefits of stepping away from it all. Getting outside of our everyday bubbles for fresh air, fun, learning and perspective is helpful, exhilarating and super constructive. While easier said than done with more things to do than hours in a day, I can attest to its rejuvenating value.

That time in the woods helped me reset and go “all in” at last week’s 1,300-strong International Economic Development Council annual conference in Indianapolis, where I learned more about the creative ways communities and professionals are prioritizing and addressing issues that involve the underserved, underrepresented and an amazing new term for me: underestimated. It also reinforced how important it is to engage “civilians”—those outside of the autism and neurodiversity bubble—so we can hardwire and fully integrate plans into the fabric of communities everywhere.

This week, First Place is hosting its sixth Global Leadership Institute symposium and collaborating with the Autism Housing Network on a think tank involving the Urban Land Institute, National Association of Home Builders, Arizona Multihousing Association, Arizona State University’s Morrison Institute for Public Policy and several others from across the U.S. and around the world. Together, we’ll be getting out of our bubbles to identify how we can continue to fuel a new wave of real estate and community development ensuring that housing and community options are as bountiful for adults with autism and other neurodiversities and they are for everyone else.

These important semiannual symposia are a testament to the fact that so many of us are working hard to change for the better the life course of special populations. We are also committed to changing the world so that others may experience their gifts, talents, kindness and the myriad ways they can and do contribute through pride, purpose and endless possibilities.

(October 2019 Series, Blog #2) 

It’s hard to imagine a time when air conditioning was a unique marketing feature of Phoenix homes. Few can live without it today in the Valley of the Sun. Perhaps there will also be a time when we no longer need to acknowledge a community as being autism-friendly, neuro-inclusive, integrated and diverse—because all communities will be that way.

During the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee (IACC) Housing Working Group meeting earlier this summer in D.C., I was humbled to learn of all the innovative initiatives happening across the country. The meeting was chaired by fellow pioneer and longtime, distinguished IACC Chair Alison Tepper Singer, founder and president of the Autism Science Foundation and treasurer of the National Council on Severe Autism.

Observing Alison’s leadership in action and surrounded by passionate leaders from across the country pursuing big dreams and ideas, it was clear we need a marketplace of options to address the diverse and ever-increasing demand—not a one-size-fits-all approach. Beyond product offerings, no one sector alone is able to do all the heavy lifting. And there’s no way to tackle the enormous issues and opportunities before us until we speak the same language, ask the right questions—and answer them, too.

At the present time, we can address several pressing concerns, including the creation of a universal nomenclature and segmentation; well-trained direct support and service providers in response to the human resource crisis; data on and drivers of outcomes, ensuring we’re moving the needle on quality of life; marketplace reports identifying demand and economic and societal impact; and the need for modeling what it means to build, cultivate and sustain a neuro-diverse and neuro-inclusive community.

Innovation is necessary to develop and expand housing options for special populations and build communities that support them. Real estate development and property operations are complex and must include sound financial frameworks, legal agreements, community policies, operational infrastructures and so much more. Community development is also key to connect people to employment, healthcare, recreation, lifelong learning and our perfectly imperfect communities that need to know and appreciate what autism is and is not.

Collectively, we must all understand what’s in demand, what’s buildable and sustainable, what can be scaled and expanded through public, private, nonprofit and philanthropic collaboration, and—just as important—what it takes to cultivate a community that is accepting, understanding and enabling of neuro-diversity in all its many forms. That’s what community is all about!

(October 2019 Series, Blog #1)

Highways are designed and built with much thought, engineering and investment. Rules of the road help us get where we’re going easily, quickly and safely. For drivers and passengers alike, onramps and offramps offer many choices, including opportunities to extend exciting journeys or return the way we came.

During this week’s Autism Speaks Thought Leadership Summit on Transition to Adulthood in Washington, D.C., I had the chance to share our family’s journey of Matt’s transition to adulthood and humbly reflect on the myriad challenges and opportunities associated with education, healthcare, employment, housing, research, life-course outcomes, system gaps—and so much more.

Consider this our time in history to build the superhighway for transitioning adolescents and adults with autism and other neuro-diversities. Each lane represents a different sector: public, philanthropic, private and nonprofit. Now consider where you want to go, what you’ll be driving or what may be driving you to your destination. Understandably, we won’t all arrive at the same time, in the same way. With the potential for traffic jams and gridlock, highways—and life—don’t work that way.

We need to phase in our ambitious plans by recognizing that each sector has much to offer as it diligently builds its respective lane of the superhighway:

Take a few moments to determine what you can contribute to or build for this superhighway. Perhaps a temporary or permanent supportive “overpass” while we’re under construction? An innovative model with proof points making a supportive, new ramp possible? Progressive policies representing those all-important guardrails for our collective safety? Critical funding and engineering fueling greater capacity and more positive life-course outcomes?

While some of us are close to our desired destinations, others have much longer distances to go before securing a job or moving away from the family home. And still others have taken a detour and need to get back on the road.

Rev up and join us on this journey! Working together with a common destination in mind, we can ensure housing and community options will be as bountiful for people with autism and other neuro-diversities as they are for everyone else.

Watch for the Autism Speaks report from this week’s summit—and join fellow pioneers at the First Place Global Leadership Institute Symposium in Phoenix, Oct. 23–25, too!

Next: Cultivating Supportive, Inclusive Communities (Blog #1 October Series) 

(October 2019 Blog Series – Intro)

“What brings you to D.C.?” someone asked me this week. The short answer? Learning with and being inspired by pioneers focused on achieving better life course outcomes for people with autism and other neuro-diversities.

This blog series focuses on the importance of collaboration. From this week’s Autism Speaks Thought Leadership Summit on Transition to Adulthood and this summer’s Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee Housing Work Group to the First Place® Global Leadership Institute Symposium the end of this month, ongoing collective impact is needed to move the needle.

Through innovation, proof points and new models that can be scaled, expanded and sustained in communities everywhere, we can engage our communities to harness the power, purpose and possibilities to positively impact those we love and others equally worthy of more joyful, healthy and fulfilling lives.

Next: Building the Superhighway for Transitioning Adolescents and Adults with Autism (Blog #1 October Series) 

The First Place–Phoenix team celebrates a year of firsts by sharing their favorite memories.

Fiona Falbo, Vocational Coordinator

I work with residents on their all-important, potentially life-changing job searches. Here is a list of some “first time” experiences I have had the privilege to help make possible and that resonate with me on a personal and professional level:
First time building a resume, interviewing, volunteering, interning, landing a job! First time feeling empowered, contributing, getting paid. First time learning the light rail, reaching personal goals, feeling the freedom of independence. First Time learning to be responsible, being receptive to feedback and change—and following dreams!

Brad Herron-Valenzuela, Transition Academy Instructor

My favorite “first” at First Place–Phoenix has been watching Transition Academy students and residents using and enjoying the social spaces together—the pool, game room, their apartments, on-site social events, etc. My most memorable moment was attending the first open house with our students and the people who designed and built this amazing property. Close second: seeing Matt Resnik start to transition into his new home at First Place—a very powerful full-circle moment after having worked with him in the past and imagining how impactful this must be for his family.

Alyssa Land, Digital Marketing & Creative Coordinator

“While I don’t typically experience all the fun happening at First Place–Phoenix daily, I love seeing the photos from activities, events and impromptu outings. The joy on our residents’ faces while they learn how to cook a new recipe, take the light rail to school/work and make new friends is priceless!

Jessica Noll, Southwest Autism Research & Resource Center (SARRC) Clinical Interventionist II

“The best part of my day is any time I get to talk with residents. I am often busy going from one location to another at First Place–Phoenix. Even in passing, residents are always sharing kind comments, greetings and stories of their day. I love hearing about their jobs and the employment goals they’ve achieved. It is great seeing them engaged in social activities and meeting new friends. The best part of my week is teaching yoga. We have many “regulars” and I love watching all the progress they’ve made and how much they enjoy having the time to tune in to their breath and body—and relax. The residents here make me feel welcome every day I come to work and are always glad to see me after I’ve been gone. They care about my plans and what’s happening in my life. I am so grateful for the connections I have made here!”

Marci Muhlestein, Director, Global Leadership Institute Center for Education, Training & Employment; Managing Director, Transition Academy


“The best part of my day is walking into the lobby in the morning and being greeted by residents who are just starting their day. It’s such a natural exchange and I’m always excited to hear what they each have planned. My favorite ‘first’ at First Place has been observing the development of true friendships among the residents: texting each other to get together at the pool, asking someone to go out to eat or inviting them to their apartment to watch a movie—seeing firsthand their pure joy of having someone to hang out with.

Denise D. Resnik, Founder & President/CEO


“While First Place offers a fun, entertaining and creative collection of community life activities, the best daily moment for me is experiencing those we don’t plan. Neighbors gathered in the fitness center outside of Workout Wednesday. Friends hanging out in the lobby, by the pool—or anywhere! BBQs at Joey’s Grill, where residents mentor each other, expanding everyone’s culinary capabilities. Staff and residents smiling, laughing and sharing high-fives. People who were once strangers now making weekend plans, holding hands and acknowledging they are the best of friends. And watching our son Matt experience this kind and supportive community, filling our hearts with his smiles, rekindled musical interests and new skills—while reminding us that we can, and do, learn at any age!”

Chuck Heimerdinger, Chief Financial Officer

“The best part of my day at First Place is interacting with residents and Transition Academy participants. This amazing group of individuals is experiencing new adventures and challenges each day as they grow and learn to become more independent adults. The stories and experiences they share are truly inspiring as they express their excitement about new jobs or community volunteering, social events with other residents or experiences out in the community—going to an arts & culture or sports event, shopping around town or just hanging out together at First Place. It’s also amazing to see how supportive the Phoenix community has been.

My most memorable event was orientation week when First Place–Phoenix first opened, watching the excited new residents move into their apartments and begin a new chapter in their lives: learning to live more independently. This was a very personal experience for my wife and me as our oldest daughter, Lauren, moved in that week as one of the ‘firsties.’ She has experienced many ‘firsts’ since becoming a resident that would not have been possible without First Place.”

Nancy Ottmann, Executive Director

“Favorite ‘first:’ Attending my first Global Leadership Institute symposium was one of the most inspirational and emotional professional experiences of my career. No price tag could be placed on Denise Resnik’s knowledge, expertise—and above all, passion—she shared on how to build a supportive housing community for adults with autism and other neuro-diversities. Her mission is going viral across the globe and I’m excited to be a part of this powerful movement!

A memorable moment: I attended a CORE meeting where the members wrote ‘Act of Kindness’ cards. They all noted how thankful they were to be at First Place. Someone wrote about a staff member, ‘April is always kind and hardworking. She cares about supporting the residents and makes sure they succeed.’ It was heartwarming to hear how thankful and happy they were to have a place to call home.

Best part of my day: I enjoy ending my day seeing residents socializing and actively participating in our community life activities—and I always look forward to seeing what’s for dinner on Wellness Wednesday!”

Nina Bernardo, Community Life Coordinator

“The best part of my day is when the residents are returning home from work or volunteering. Words can describe what I’m witnessing, but only the experience can be felt. As soon as they walk through the front doors, the lobby area fills with laughter as they share conversations about their day out in the community. Kindness is spoken, celebrations are sung, forgiveness is extended, appreciation is accepted, friendships are strengthened—and weekend plans are made! For me personally, it’s a chance for reflection but also a time when I learn something new from a resident. It’s a reminder that I’m part of something so innovative and meaningful here at First Place. It’s a time in my day when I feel closest to being a part of the residents’ home—and I sometimes don’t feel ready to go home yet because the community at First Place is so welcoming…because #weretheplaceforthat!”

Mary Ann Bashaw, Communication Specialist

“One of my tasks as communication specialist for First Place is to create quarterly reports. It’s a time-consuming effort that involves lots of researching, collaborating and compiling before I put the pieces together. Once the reports are complete, I always enjoy sitting back and taking stock of how they’re like treasure chests packed full of shiny, colorful, multifaceted gems that represent the many remarkable things happening at First Place each and every day!”

Renée Greene, Executive Liaison

“Seriously, the best part of my day is when one of Transition Academy students walks by my office window and waves to me. He’s a very quiet guy and it brightens my day that he makes the effort to say hello. My most memorable moment so far was at the recent celebration of the third cohort of Transition Academy students graduating from the program. The off-site event was being live-streamed from Grand Canyon University in Phoenix, so we had set up in the Cox Community Room at First Place–Phoenix, where a small group of residents and students were watching. I sat at a table with the same quiet young man who waves at me every day. He started asking lots of questions about me and we ended up having a nice conversation. It’s so great to see the progress he’s making and the relationships he’s building with staff, residents and fellow students.”

Mitch Barr, Senior Bookkeeper

“The best part of being on the First Place team is the opportunity to work with passionate and caring people. I love the fact that everyone I work with enjoys coming here every day. We all share a common desire to revolutionize housing for adults with autism and other neuro-diversities and that energy is contagious. My most memorable moment at First Place so far was enjoying an impromptu karaoke session for residents on one of our recent ‘Feel Good Fridays.’ Everyone was so inclusive and supportive of each other and couldn’t help but have a great time, whether or not they were a karaoke hero. I couldn’t help but think that all communities could benefit from such a positive environment as we have here—and that’s really special.”

Sara Hetrick, Resident & Family Outreach Director

“The best part of my day is conversations and interactions with students and residents where I get to hear or see them experience new ‘firsts,’ living their best, big lives. It always causes me to reflect on early, pre-move-in conversations with families during the application process and makes me truly appreciate both the individual and collective opportunities available and successes experienced through First Place. I love being able to witness residents experiencing the enormity of their own potential. The journey toward independence is never the same for any of our families or residents and I understand their fear at times.”