Autism and Healthcare: Overcoming Challenges with Clouds and Clocks

By Denise D. Resnik & Maureen Casey

Like autism spectrum disorder, the challenge of providing quality housing and community options for adults with autism and other neurodiversities is complex. We can’t solve all problems all at once. But try telling that to the family of a newly diagnosed child without access to early intervention services; or to the adolescent who no longer qualifies for an annual IEP; or an adult who can’t find a job or make a friend; or to the 1.3 million parents over 60 living with their adult child and on an interminable waiting list with thousands before them. The lack of progress is crushing—and the needs are urgent.

To address these enormous challenges, First Place–Phoenix and the First Place Global Leadership Institute have adopted a “cloud and clock” approach. Conceived by Karl Popper—generally regarded as one of the greatest philosophers of 20th-century science—in the 60s, it’s a methodology that particularly resonates today. 

Consider Popper’s clock. It’s precise and straightforward to fix. Simply disassemble, examine, identify the issue, fix or replace what doesn’t work, reassemble and voilà! Problem fixed.

But how do we address challenges as ever-changing and amorphous as a cloud? Where and how do we begin with innovation and systems change? Our answer: Where we can make the biggest difference!

That’s why we built First Place–Phoenix right in the middle of what PBS NewsHour has called “the most autism-friendly city in the world.” We wanted apartment residents and Transition Academy students to experience more independent living 24/7 while positioning the Institute to learn from those experiences daily.

Following a decade of property siting near local healthcare institutions and the development of curricula and programs, we set our sights in 2021 on improved healthcare outcomes—a focus that continues today.

Thanks to a grant from the Make Waves Family Foundation, we launched a three-part pilot program combining 1) the Board of Visitors-funded First Place 360 Health & Wellness® curriculum, 2) First Place–Phoenix’s on-site Virginia G. Piper Health Spot clinic, and 3) an elective developed for Creighton Medical School students in collaboration with Dignity Health.

Big problems we’re applying a cloud approach to solve:

  • Shortage of competent, confident healthcare providers with a whole-person perspective beyond diagnosis.
  • Trouble communicating symptoms or concerns, making it more difficult for providers to treat people with communication challenges.
  • Organizational issues obtaining health insurance and maintaining medical records.

A few examples of how we’re addressing clock-related issues:

  • Operationalizing First Place–Phoenix’s on-site Virginia G. Piper Health Spot clinic enables residents to receive care right where they live and reduce hospital, ER and urgent care visits.
  • Because autistic individuals often rely on visual prompts, many have been integrated in support of their efforts to minimize exposure to COVID-19 and prepare for Health Spot visits.
  • Since 2021, First Place’s 360 Health & Wellness curriculum workshops have attracted nearly 50 neurodiverse individuals, family members and care providers with the goal of improved navigation of a too-complicated healthcare system—individually and together.

First Place is also developing a pilot with Kiip, a company that works with Amazon Web Services to provide a platform for the secure storage and management of personal vital documents—a digital locker—for easier, more efficient sharing of information among individuals, families and providers.

Improving healthcare for the special populations we serve requires disruption of the status quo, ongoing improvements and years, if not decades, of imparting knowledge to improve overall system access and effectiveness. That’s what we aim to do daily at the Global Leadership Institute as we constantly assess what’s working—and what must work better.

We need more pioneers with the tools, courage, will, leadership and tools to focus on fixing problems—and applying both cloud and clock methodologies to ensure that housing, healthcare and community options are as bountiful for individuals with autism and other neurodiversities as they are for everyone else.

Denise D. Resnik is the founder and president/CEO of First Place AZ. Maureen Casey is director of The Daniel Jordan Fiddle Foundation Center for Public Policy and the Colonel Harland Sanders Center for Applied Research at the First Place Global Leadership Institute.

Free Virtual Health Workshop

Join us from 12–1 p.m. on Wednesday, March 30 for the FREE virtual workshop, Health Starts at Home: What You Can Do Today! Learn more about First Place’s unique and innovative 360 Health & Wellness® curriculum and new technologies helping support you and your family member in the successful transition from adolescent to adult healthcare.
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