Lara Stolman, filmmaker, journalist and mom to a son with autism, recently visited First Place–Phoenix and brought her award-winning documentary “Swim Team” with her for special screenings for staff and residents and their family members. Swim Team follows a group of teenage boys on the autism spectrum and their families after the boys join a competitive swim team and learn the meaning of trial and triumph. They discover how their abilities in and out of pool help them overcome limitations and experience what it feels like to reach their potential in life—and to win, too! Stolman has done work for NBC, MTV, and HBO, among other media companies with a national audience. We sat down with her for some personal insights into the amazing journey that led to the making of Swim Team.

Q: Give us a sense of how and when Swim Team came to be. What compelled you to make a movie about this unique group of swimmers? 

A: When you’re a creative person with experience working with media companies, it’s common to ask yourself, “When am I going to tell my story?” I didn’t know what my story was. Then I had a child diagnosed with autism. I spent lots of time during the early-intervention years becoming an autism expert. I also learned that the leading cause of death for kids with autism is drowning, so I began a search for swim lessons for my child. That’s when I found the McQuays [Mike and Maria]. Within minutes of meeting Coach Mike, he made a huge impression on me. He said his Special Olympics swim team was going to “dominate the competition.” I had never heard this kind of positivity before. For so long I had heard so many negative things from so many people. Children with autism were constantly being defined in terms of what they couldn’t do. Coach Mike had a whole different take. He focused on all the things his kid and other kids like him can do. The story unfolding before me needed to be told. My instincts as a producer kicked in. I knew I was at the right place at the right time to make an impact with a film like this and change minds about what people with autism are capable of.

Q: How did your son inspire you in your approach to the creative process for the film?

A: Swim Team is entirely influenced by our story and experiences and everything I’ve learned raising a child on the spectrum.

Q: Describe your own challenges and triumphs making Swim Team. 

A: I was ready creatively. I also had lots of production experience. The challenge was fundraising and figuring out the marketing and distribution of an independent film. No one hired me to do this. I needed to make it happen. Every step of the way I wanted to make sure it got to the next step. Before we finished editing, I sent a 10-minute sample to the New York Times—and they loved it. This led to their commissioning a short film for the NYT website. After that, people started sending money, supplementing private donations, grants and a personal investment. Film festivals, community screenings, broadcast by PBS’s POV, excellent reviews and the availability of the film on Netflix, Amazon and iTunes all contributed to its success, both nationally and internationally. Robert DeNiro [who has a son with autism] introduced it at the Tribeca Film Center. And the McQuays were even chosen as ABC World News Tonight’s Person(s) of the Week. Swim Team has won 14 awards—and every single one was absolutely thrilling!

Q: How do you see your home state of New Jersey—as noted in your film, the state with the highest incidence of autism (1 boy in 26) in the U.S.—as a nexus for more public support for special populations in the future? 

A: That was when the film was released in 2016, but the rate has increased since then. Not all states report figures on autism. New Jersey does a more thorough job of gathering data. Filming Swim Team allowed me access to public schools, where I shot some scenes in special ed classes. I learned a lot about the system by observing, especially how important it is as a parent/teacher/coach to have high expectations. Coach McQuay never saw limitations in these kids. Believing what’s possible can turn into reality.

Q: Can you give us an update on former and current Jersey Hammerheads, including the amazing McQuay coaches in the film?

A: The Jersey Hammerheads are still swimming, as are the four boys who are the focus of the film. I know that Mikey still works at the zoo and Kelvin, who communicates with me via text, is part of a job training program. I stay in very close touch with the McQuays and generally keep up with everyone.

Q: What are your thoughts on the current housing crisis and what you’re learning at First Place and across the country?

A: This film was a huge transformational experience for me. It showed me what the future looks like for my son. It stresses the importance of community, of inclusion. Every community has an opportunity to connect on how best to support people with autism and developmental disabilities. I came to Phoenix because I’ve been hearing how Denise has done wonders with First Place. It’s revolutionizing housing for adults with autism. I want to see it replicated across the country. We’re at a crossroads and we have to change things. Our adults with autism need to be living in a pleasant environment where they can connect with one another and grow, with the support they need and opportunities to learn and work. More than ever, we can’t ignore that we have a huge population coming of age. Old models won’t do. Parents like Denise and me won’t stand for it.

(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)

By Sydnee Schwartz, Contributing Writer

Students at the First Place Transition Academy have been learning a lot since they moved in. They are finding the importance in knowing how to balance jobs, school and free time, as well as adjust to living independently. They have also been focusing on three main areas of independence and adulthood: developing friendships, meal planning and taking care of their space.

Developing strong friendships is an important aspect of adulthood. The students at First Place take a course at GateWay Community College to help them with the fundamental tools of bonding with peers in their everyday lives. “The most important thing I learned was that friendships are a process,” said student Jake, “you want to work slow, see their interests, and find out if they would make a good friend for you.” Many of the students have already applied these tools to their classmates and neighbors, and have created budding friendships. “I enjoy hanging out with my neighbors and friends. It helps create a good community to be around,” Jake added.

Students have also learned things like making a menu, planning and shopping for meals, cooking new foods, and the importance of budgeting. Many of the residents enjoy cooking and enjoy the process and independence that comes along with making your own meal. It’s been an adjustment for them to figure out what meal they want, budget for the ingredients, and prepare it on their own, but they are handling the task well. New resident Max said his cooking is still a work in progress, but he hopes to learn to make foods like enchiladas and pastas.

Another important focus is apartment maintenance. Fridays are cleaning days, and the students are expected to divide cleaning responsibilities with their roommate to keep their space nice and clean. “Learning the importance of cleaning has been a good experience,” said current student Josh. Many of the students find cleaning to be easy and see the benefit in a clean space, but had trouble adjusting to task. “There were a lot of ups and downs, but overall, I like the independence,” Josh’s roommate Jake said.

The students here are really enjoying their adulthood and the community they are involved in. “Living at First Place has been good,” Josh said, “I feel like I will be able to apply what I learn here to my life when I am done with the program.” The students like the environment they are in; they are forming strong friendships, and they are confident that the skills they are learning now will help them succeed.

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!