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.”

Open. Four letters and a simple meaning. Open embraces and invites. It conjures opportunity and newness. And for many who may have feared closed doors, the fact that new ones are now opening also means hope. A very exciting development for adults with autism, 18 years and older, is now open for enrollment.

PHOENIX (November 20, 2014 -Updated 2016) – Adults with autism, 18 years and older, now have a new post-high school option. It’s called First Place ® and it’s being advanced in collaboration with the Southwest Autism Research & Resource Center (SARRC).  Students are now enrolling in the two-year First Place Transition Academy, which focuses on independent living skills, continuing education opportunities, vocational training and employment.

The First Place Transition Academy is being launched through a beta site at 29 Palms Apartments in Phoenix, which co-locates eight two-bedroom apartments for adults with autism and 13 affordable housing units for seniors. Residents will live at the beta site for two years and then transition into the community to live close to their family or job. They will also have the option to live at the First Place Apartments, expected to break ground in 2016, in Phoenix.

“This program is a comprehensive educational opportunity that focuses on functional life skills, paid work experience and course work to prepare the individual for a successful independent adult life,” said Jeff Ross, First Place program director.

Ross founded the nationally recognized Transition to Independent Living program at Taft College in California. Documented outcomes of the program include that 95 percent of graduates live independently, 89 percent are employed and 88 percent of graduates pay for all of their living expenses.

Orientation for living at 29 Palms begins in December. Classes begin in early January. The program at 29 Palms, overseen by SARRC, has three major components: teaching functional life skills on site, paid work internships throughout the community and independent living courses at GateWay Community College beginning in fall 2015.  Students must be approved for acceptance to the tuition-based program.

“Our focus is to help adults learn the skills they need so they may live where they want and as independently as possible, with access to the people, places, jobs and activities they prefer and that make them happy,” said Daniel Openden, president/CEO of SARRC.

Special features of 29 Palms for adults with autism include:

 

Interested applicants apply online and then undergo a life skills assessment conducted by SARRC and First Place. Annual tuition, which covers rent, classes, individualized services and activities, is $3,500 a month.

Developed by the Foundation for Senior Living and in concert with First Place and SARRC, 29 Palms was designed and renovated to meet the needs of individuals with autism. The renovation was made possible through a grant from the Arizona Department of Housing, a loan from the Arizona Community Foundation and other charitable sources. Del Sol Furniture is providing interior furnishings for the Transition Academy units.

The Arizona Department of Housing recently presented 29 Palms with the Brian Mickelsen Housing Hero Award for Outstanding Affordable Housing Initiative.

Adults with autism will live and learn at the beta site while the First Place mixed-use development is being completed. Envisioned as a replicable model to offer innovative housing, educate adults with autism on life skills and train service providers and other professionals, First Place combines three complementary components: First Place Apartments (for residents), First Place Transition Academy (for students), and First Place Leadership Institute (a facility for service providers, professionals and physicians).

“Backed by 15 years of research, First Place celebrates diversity, independent living and a path toward opening doors to more real estate options for individuals with autism and other special abilities,” said Denise D. Resnik, First Place founder and Southwest Autism Research & Resource Center (SARRC) co-founder.

About First Place

First Place is a nonprofit organization advancing innovative residential options for adults with autism and related disorders. Plans are underway for a mixed-use residential prototype for the individuals who live there, people who work and learn there, and family and friends that come and go. Led by private sector principles, First Place aspires to be a replicable model promoting collaboration among the private, public and nonprofit sectors, and a catalyst for advancing federal public policy focused on housing solutions for special populations.  First Place celebrates neuro-diversity, independent living and a path toward opening doors for more real estate options. For more information or to apply for the First Place Academy beta program at 29 Palms, visit www.firstplaceaz.org.

About SARRC

Established in 1997, the Southwest Autism Research & Resource Center (SARRC) is an internationally recognized nonprofit organization dedicated to autism researcheducation, evidence-based treatment and community outreach. We are one of the only autism organizations in the world that provides a lifetime of services for individuals and their families while conducting cutting-edge research. More information is at www.autismcenter.org.