I drafted the first strategic plan on housing in 1999—just two years after co-founding the Southwest Autism Research & Resource Center (SARRC)—but our first published research didn’t follow until a decade later through a study titled “Opening Doors: A Discussion of Residential Options For Adults Living with Autism and Other Related Disorders.” This groundbreaking study represents the evaluation of nearly 100 properties and programs for special populations across the U.S. It also presents 10 specific design goals and guidelines, maps out the steps required to build and advance a marketplace of housing options for special populations and includes a collection of resources. The study included focus groups involving more than 100 individuals with autism and their family members, helping shape our bold vision that endures to this day: to ensure that housing and community options are as bountiful for people with autism and other different abilities as they are for everyone else.

We recognized that collaboration among the public, private, philanthropic and nonprofit sectors is essential to achieving that vision. We brought together leaders from throughout Arizona and across the country to further inform our plans through a national family roundtable, two national charrettes and literally hundreds of meetings dissecting problems, probing solutions and anticipating new challenges.

This graphic is the result of our national family roundtable, summarizing the hopes and dreams of families. It’s stored in our ‘peace room’ and helped guide the development of First Place-Phoenix, together with other significant bodies of work.

We’ve learned a lot through the years and are eager to share more with you as we collaborate to empower a new wave of real estate in this important marketplace. Please join us for First Place AZ’s fall Global Leadership Institute Symposium from October 24 to 26. There’s still much to learn from each other—and even more we can do and build by working together!

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

In 1993, we were one of those families.

At age 2, our son had just received a diagnosis of autism. Back then, we didn’t know what to do or where to go. We barely knew what autism was. The landscape was barren and the internet just emerging.

I connected with a small support group of mothers of children with autism who met regularly at a local coffee shop. One table became two, then four—then an entire restaurant was filled with moms and dads.

We were all focused on the many pressing questions of the day. We pursued any and all answers and remedies: intensive early intervention; applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy; vitamins; pork hormones; therapies supported by data and some not—but which might help our children sleep, eat or stop chewing the leather from the living room couch.

Then there were the really big questions: How did this happen? Will he recover? Was I to blame? What happens after school ends? Where will he live as an adult? How can I be the mom he needs and deserves when there’s so much I don’t know and so much I fear?

We found answers in our supportive Phoenix community of friends and families.

In 1997, the Southwest Autism Research & Resource Center, or SARRC, was founded quite humbly—without funding, staff or office space but with big dreams and lots of ideas. We believed that if SARRC focused on what was right for our families and the community at large, then we could create a model for communities everywhere.

Today, SARRC is 150 employees strong, an organization with a $10 million-plus annual operating budget serving as one of the most robust autism research sites in North America, including the enrollment of subjects in pharmaceutical trials.

Thanks to SARRC and our supportive community, the stage was set for the creation of First Place AZ. Established in 2012 as a sister nonprofit to SARRC, First Place is focused on ensuring that housing and community options are as bountiful for people with autism and other neuro-diversities as they are for everyone else.

Answering “What’s Next” for Adults with Autism

Once again, families are gathering in living rooms, coffee shops and agencies throughout the community, planning for what’s next. New residential models are being introduced, informing and empowering a marketplace to offer more choices for the diverse needs of this population. At First Place, we’re adding to the mix with an innovative residential model that is replicable, scalable, financially sustainable, as well as affordable through sources of government funding.

First Place–Phoenix, our first model property, broke ground in December 2016 and is proceeding with vertical construction. It will open next spring in the heart of downtown Phoenix.

The First Place Apartments are being formally introduced to the marketplace this month. Informative meetings are taking place as we launch our leasing program. Families and individuals are gathering for monthly Q&A sessions to explore what’s next—and what’s best—for them and their adult children with autism and other neurodiversities.

First Place continues work that is consistent with SARRC’s early mantra of answering questions and questioning answers. We are focusing on the importance of person-centered planning and community-based solutions that offer security, health care, friends, jobs and lifelong learning—all at a “first home away from home.”

This community is hard at work addressing that looming question: “Who will care for our adult children when our families are no longer able to?” This community is giving our children and adults more chances to succeed, filling hearts with more hope than fear and giving us more much-needed reasons to smile.

Thank you, Phoenix, for your leadership and partnership, which are enabling us all to create what just one year ago PBS NewsHour named “the most autism-friendly city in the world.”

The components of First Place fit together like puzzle pieces, forming a clear vision of a bright future, and the path to get there.

Live. Learn. Lead.

When you drill down to the details of First Place, breaking away the various petals of the concept and design, these are the words that stay with you. And depending on who you are, they mean different things. For some, they are ambitious destinations—goals set out for those that will very soon come to First Place. For others, for parents and siblings and family members, they are wishes—dreams that their children will become adults who are able to live fulfilling lives, able to learn new skills, and able to lead us into a future that is accepting, embracing and empowering.

More than 1.5 million Americans are living with an autism spectrum disorder. One in 68 are being diagnosed with autism and more than 500,000 U.S. children impacted by the disorder are entering adulthood this decade. When you consider these numbers, the need to develop a place that helps these individuals live and learn, a place that leads the way and carves a new approach becomes imperative.

The facts are sobering. Most individuals with autism will need some type of support throughout their lives, and the average incremental cost to support a person with autism over their lifetime is about $2.4 million.

But what if we changed that outlook, flipped it on its head, and saw things for their potential rather than their cost? What would happen then? What if we taught people how to live, gave them opportunity to learn and lead the way?

Consider the components of First Place

Our Mixed-Use Property: First Place is leveraging the benefits of a supportive urban community created and facilitated by SARRC. This urban area offers jobs, volunteers and recreational activities, continuing education, friends, and an appreciation that individuals with special needs can be productive, contributing members of society and bring out the best in all of us. It is a special community and living, learning laboratory for the residents and students at First Place, and the important work of the First Place Leadership Institute.

Live

First Place Apartments – The contemporary, 50-unit First Place Apartments will be community-connected, transit-oriented and sustained by a suite of amenities and supportive services.  Here, residents will find the comforts of home, without the distractions that can make life difficult. Residents may choose to live by themselves, with a roommate or with an aide/mentor.

Learn

First Place Transition Academy – Modeled after the celebrated Taft College Transition to Independent Living (TIL) program, founded in 1995, First Place is translating a successful rural- and community college-based program, into the fabric of the 6th largest metropolitan area in the U.S. More than 350 students have graduated from the California program and are living more independently than they and their families ever imagined. The program is also saving the state $300 million based on career-readiness and greater independence early in adult life, and the significant reduction in state-funded support services. Jeff Ross, founder and creator of the TAFT TIL program, recently retired from Taft and has relocated to Arizona to serve as the program director of First Place. He is working closely with SARRC to help the organization build its new residential services program, so SARRC may serve as the program manager and leverage its research capabilities, professional staff and clinical operations.

Lead

First Place Leadership Institute – Represented by a faculty of luminaries from across the country, the First Place Leadership Institute is set to focus on pressing concerns at both the local and national public policy levels.  Through a National Housing Action Plan, First Place is creating a location and platform for geographically and programmatically diverse organizations united in their mission of creating more housing choices for individuals with autism and related disorders.