Humor. It’s a powerful thing that can get us through all kinds of life events, cycles and seasons.

My husband Rob and I recently celebrated our 37th wedding anniversary. Admittedly, the years haven’t always been easy as we’ve navigated a predictably unpredictable life with autism. During some of our most challenging moments, Rob’s humor has kept us laughing through the hard stuff.

I recall a memorable (though forgettable) era of house floods, including one particular Saturday morning when young Matt (diagnosed with autism at age 2) had enjoyed unraveling the toilet paper before flushing it (with the cardboard roll) down the toilet. I also remember the throbbing at my temples as we attempted to contain the water on hands and knees in our living room, the task too challenging for every bucket and towel in the house. Yet, Rob found some humor in it all, turning a pending migraine into hysterical laughter.

A recent communique by Korn Ferry CEO Gary Burnison conjured other situations where humor saved the day—even years! Gary writes about humor in business and life while reflecting on his early career: “If someone had asked me to describe a great leader, I probably would have said someone with vision, confidence, courage, strategic thinking, a growth mindset… But a sense of humor—not so much. Except humor can be a potent leadership tool when wielded with emotional intelligence—empathy, to know what the other person is going through; authenticity, to see ourselves and others clearly; and humility, to be able to laugh at ourselves.”

He’s right! Indeed, life with autism keeps us empathetic, authentic and humble—and humor can see us through.

With SARRC and First Place, we’ve teamed up with pioneering leaders from around the world throughout the decades—helping to keep us grounded, moving forward and finding all kinds of reasons to smile. Most recently, the First Place Global Leadership Institute partnered with the Autism Housing Network, ASU Morrison Institute for Public Policy and a Leadership Advisory Board to create A Place in the World: Fueling Housing and Community Options for Adults with Autism and Other Neurodiversities.

As the go-to source and new narrative for igniting a marketplace of options everywhere, we aim to raise the bar on a new generation of options so that a diagnosis need not stand in the way of friends, jobs, supportive communities—and homes. Through a broader and more robust marketplace, individuals can better match their needs and interests with homes they choose, combined with natural supports and long-term support services. Together, we can and will inform outcomes demonstrating what works, what needs to work better and how supportive policies can better align all sectors.

Thanks to this study, I’m also able to describe Matt in terms others can better understand as a man with moderate support needs living with self-directed support in a consumer-controlled property at First Place–Phoenix. Just as being a senior doesn’t reveal one’s housing needs and wants, neither does a diagnosis of autism, Down syndrome or other intellectual and developmental disabilities.

While I can’t always claim to understand Matt’s humor or his occasional hysterical laughter, I do know his smile can light up a room and inspire a business, SMILE Biscotti. Yet, there are many things people do not see about Matt that are not included in any study but still celebrate his individuality. Here’s are just a few ways we, his parents, describe him:

  • A man of few words but with a lot to say
  • A live-in-the-moment kind of guy who is more interested in playing a game and tying the score than winning
  • Master egg cracker and SMILE biscotti packager
  • Hardworking
  • Spirited and cheerful
  • Kind-hearted—Matt has never done a mean thing to anyone in his life!

Please mark your calendar and join us this spring for the ninth First Place Global Leadership Institute Symposium Webinar April 7–8, 2021, when we will gather to map out more priority items for the year(s) ahead—and surely share some smiles along the way!

(2019 Summer Series, Blog #5)

Since Matt moved into First Place–Phoenix, we’ve learned that when the skills, training and infrastructure are in place, so much is possible!

Still, we can’t (yet!) claim that everything is perfect for Matt; we still have plenty of things to worry about. His breakthrough seizures persist every six to eight weeks. I’m still pondering foolproof plans for cutting Matt’s fingernails and toenails every week (and checking for hangnails, too). We’re also working with First Place staff on a system for how Matt can take note of empty household and depleted grocery items and add them to his shopping list via his indispensable Alexa Echo.

And let’s not forget oh-so-important family discussions, wills, medical records and myriad other items, including ongoing updates with his state-appointed support coordinator and services providers.

As the next chapters unfold, we are making new lists of priorities and taking our next big steps with Matt.  We are preparing for his daily life and beyond, because we realize stuff changes—and so do we. Who among us is still working at our very first job, living in our first home or lucky enough to still be with their first love? (I proudly claim that last one!)

And yet, we’ve made exciting progress. Matt can live at First Place during the week and enjoy weekends at our home. He can join us for a vacation or find that he often prefers a staycation. He can hang with friends when he chooses for lunch, dinner or games of UNO or Scrabble. Based on this week’s schedule of bingo, bowling, “Beautiful Beats” drumming class (SUPER popular!) and The Beatles karaoke, I’d say we’re on our way.

What we all need are options and choices and ways to make decisions, so that we can support ourselves and those we love through family, friends, friends who become our family and a supportive community—a community that understands how to support Matt professionally through his therapy, personally through his life skills and more casually when a stranger spots him needing help in the grocery store or perhaps because he has lost his way.

While there’s still a lot of work to do, we’re getting closer to allaying our biggest worry of all about the future: wondering how Matt’s life will be like without us. After 28 years—26 of those post-diagnosis—of living with Matt, we’re now in a position to ensure that he can have a meaningful and enjoyable life. Matt is learning how to live his life (with support), while we’re exploring ways to live ours—all thanks to having choices.

Up next, blog #6 of our summer series, inspired by a collection of images over the past year reminding us of how far we’ve come!

(2019 Summer Series, Blog #4)

After working on Matt’s transition to his new home over several months (years!), Rob and I made the monumental decision for Matt to spend an entire week at First Place–Phoenix without us while we spent our 35th wedding anniversary in Kauai—just the two of us! With Matt making steady progress settling in and an able on-site staff, we took the plunge.

Leading up to our anniversary trip, we prepared and tested a lot: monthly master schedule for work, meals and socializing; daily schedules for his personal routines; high-tech tools, including camera apps and FaceTime practice sessions; and more. The combination of First Place staff and family being front and center for Matt also contributed to that critical peace of mind for us being so far away.

With systems in place, including his established SMILE Biscotti work routine, we just needed to get on the plane and put it all to the test:

Encouraged by the experience, we increased Matt’s time at First Place upon our return. He began spending weeknights there and weekends at our family home. Weekends provide us with valuable, concentrated time to observe what Matt can do, test out new skills and set goals for continued forward momentum toward increased independence. Years of IEPs have helped us appreciate the value of goal setting and the fact that Matt continues to learn—as do his parents!

Our next adventure? Yellowstone National Park this fall. Rob and I plan to experience all of the national parks in the years ahead as we enjoy Matt’s ever-increasing independence—from up close and afar!

Up next, blog #5 in our summer series: The journey continues!

(2019 Summer Series, Blog #3)

During months of trial and error and a detailed 16-step shaving process that Matt followed faithfully, his face cuts continued. That’s when we resorted to the one-step electric shaver solution. On this journey of right turns, left turns, U-turns and we-don’t-know-which-way-to-turn turns, simplicity is often the best solution, along with the attitude of not letting perfection get in the way of progress.

While the move to First Place–Phoenix Apartments happens over a weekend or a night for most residents, the course has been different for Matt, a young man with classic autism who lives in the moment and who has a higher level of support needs than many of his neighbors.

Our family has also had a lot to do with Matt’s extended orientation and transition. It has taken time to build our trust and confidence that protocols are in place, that our questions about how he’s doing at any moment can be answered and that his seizures are under better control. Our love, joyful time together and attachment to Matt also play a big role.

As noted in blog #2, lots of big stuff must be addressed on our watch—but there’s the little stuff, too:

Matt is not as independent as the typical First Place resident, as you may have seen in the PBS NewsHour series acknowledging Phoenix as “the most autism-friendly city in the world.” He has limited communication and social skills, is generally unaware of any kind of danger and lacks the ability to let you know when something isn’t right. He occasionally suffers from full-blown tonic-clonic seizures that are unpredictable and can be extremely dangerous.

But Matt also has a lot going for him. He’s sweet, friendly and highly adaptable. He’s an extremely hard worker and will, without fail, complete whatever tasks are on his daily schedule. He loves playing games with others, is always a good sport and brings out kindness in others. With those qualities in mind, and despite his challenges, we continue to do our part to ensure he’s comfortable, happy—and a good neighbor—at First Place.

Next up, Blog #4 – Test Run: Celebrating Matt at First Place—and our 35th anniversary with a vacation!

(2019 Summer Series, Blog #2)

At 7:30 p.m. one recent evening, Rob and I were alerted via the Life360 tracking app that Matt had left First Place and was traveling down Third Street toward Central Avenue. We knew the First Place van had taken Matt and other residents out for a weekly Tasty Tuesday excursion but had also returned everyone to the property. So, what compelled Matt to take a hike? He never leaves the property alone.

Alarmed to say the least, we proceeded to check out all the systems we have in place. First, Matt’s in-home camera didn’t show any activity. Second, we saw he had not yet checked off the next item on his iPad schedule or contacted me for our nightly FaceTime visit—both of which are listed on his list of daily to-do’s.

What to do next? We switched to a simple phone call to First Place inquiring why Matt had left the property and where he was going. With great relief, we learned from the concierge that Matt was safe and sound in his apartment—but without his iPad. He had left his backpack in the First Place van after the group dinner out at a local restaurant. In his trusty backpack were his iPad and iPhone, both with the Life360 tracking app.

Staff recognized immediately that his backpack was missing because it wasn’t hanging in the usual low-tech “drop and go” spot, an area where residents can routinely charge their electronics and store their keys and other belongings for quick drop-off/retrieval. Whew! What a great test of our systems; we passed with flying colors—this time!

Matt often accesses other items in his personal technology portfolio—namely Alexa on his Echo (high-tech) to bring The Beatles, Elton John and The Beach Boys into his home, update his grocery list and check the weather. Based on the forecast, he consults his laminated “What do I wear?” chart (low-tech!) before laying out his clothes for the next day. Another app allows Matt to recognize who’s at the door and respond to a ring accordingly (after ignoring our knocks and inadvertently leaving us stranded outside his apartment). And he depends on a Sharpie ink mark to tell his right shoe from his left.

Matt still deals with breakthrough seizures despite medication, so keeping a watchful eye on him and making sure he’s safe is priority number one. Nearly all his furniture is soft, and area rugs absorb sound and offer cushioning. A variety of high- and low-tech systems is essential as we strive to balance his personal privacy and independence with safety concerns.

We remain focused on Matt’s many strengths, as well as the caring and capable community empowering him to live more independently as he enjoys more life experiences and benefits from support specialists, community life, technology, family members and neighbors, all of which play a crucial role in his daily life—and ours!

Next up, Blog #3: Gradually Building on Success: Taking stock of the little stuff, too

(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)

Our 2019 summer blog series chronicles the journey of our son Matt’s transition to life at First Place–Phoenix, thanks in large part to Rob—Matt’s tech-savvy dad, “father of fun” and my husband of 35 years—our supportive family and the talented First Place team. We hope it will assist you or those you love through some valuable lessons learned along the way.

While Matt has been our personal inspiration, we’ve reached out far and wide over the past two decades to inform the design and operations of First Place–Phoenix through the evaluation of 100 properties for special populations across the U.S. We’ve hosted focus groups, national design charrettes and a national family roundtable, acknowledging hopes, dreams and fears.

Much time has also been invested in community life at First Place, with a focus on how residents connect with the broader community where people make friends, find jobs, access healthcare, enjoy lifelong learning—and have fun!

We recognize the huge transition this represents for us as parents seeking to build confidence in the future: Matt’s and ours. Every planning session, every hard hat tour and now every day in real time remind us of Matt’s momentous, complex and profound journey.

We hope you’ll join us on this summer blog series—and benefit from some of the valuable, enduring lessons we’ve learned along the way!

Next: Plugging the Holes: Taking note of what Matt can—and can’t—do (Summer Series Blog #1)

This month marks the two-year anniversary of the First Place–Phoenix groundbreaking. I’m happy to report that our culture of inclusion and learning is alive and well.

We are enjoying the daily comings and goings of residents, including First Place Transition Academy participants, as they head off to work, study, volunteer, shop or simply to recreate. Seasonal highlights include everything from visits to the Desert Botanical Garden, ZooLights and the Musical Instrument Museum to shows like Elf the Musical, Winnie the Pooh and Swan Lake—with sunny hikes, holiday choirs and festivals in between.

Within First Place, shared experiences and collective memories are building our culture and an authentic and active community life. Consider these weekly happenings: Sunday brunch, Taco Tuesday, Thirsty Thursday, bingo night (called in four languages by one of our residents) and barbecues at Joey’s Grill. And consider friendships being created naturally and nurtured daily!

On a very personal note, our 27-year-old son Matt has embarked on his journey of transition and taken us right along with him as he teaches us daily how best to support him. Together with First Place staff, private therapists and SARRC’s parent training, we are helping to shape his new routines and identify where he needs assistance.

Consider how we’re progressing together toward Matt’s more independent life at First Place:

Still a challenge: interpreting Matt’s tricky “yes” and “no” answers. When asked whether he brushed his teeth or took his medicine, he may answer no because he hears the question as a repeated request and doesn’t want to repeat the task if he’s already completed it. First Place support specialists are helping us explore other ways to frame questions. 

Matt is enjoying Bingo night, yoga, bowling and all kinds of community activities, including a recent Suns game with fellow residents. When he hosts dinner parties for neighbors, chicken drumettes, chips, cookies and apples are his go-to menu items, along with UNO, Scrabble, his favorite songs (The Beatles tunes included) and those of his guests.

Together with like-minded parent, grandparents, passionate pioneers and our uniquely supportive community, we are expanding Matt’s sphere of opportunity and independence, and helping him—and us—embark on a major new life chapter. Thank you to each and every supporter of First Place for believing and trusting in us—and giving us all greater peace of mind this holiday season and throughout the coming years.   

Matt’s Mom

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.

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!