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.”

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

Something fell on the sidewalk. I saw it from a distance.  I also saw other cars speeding by.

As I approached, what I saw was an elderly woman lying motionless on the side of the street. I pulled over immediately, explaining to Matt that he needed to stay which was in the car, stuffed with 480 eggs and hundreds of pounds of biscotti ingredients as we were on our way to prepare SMILE Biscotti batter.

Two millennials rushed over to check on us, then kindly offered to deliver her home. I followed and observed as she waved goodbye and blew kisses.Fortunately, Catherine is ok. I was relieved to see she was conscious and ruled out 911 at her request.  Then together we dusted her off, found her glasses and applied some tissue to the scratches on her face. She didn’t live far, but there was no way I could wedge her into our car. That’s when I looked up and saw another stopped car.

Oh, the kindness of humanity at its best. We stop for people who are older or people with obvious physical disabilities.  But will someone stop and recognize someone needing help?  What happens when the disability is not so obvious, or in Matt’s case, autism?

I’m banking on awareness and kindness, the most critical ingredients to creating a supportive community. And the need for community support is significant.

Different Brains Ingredients for a Supportive Community
Inside the SMILE kitchen

At least 60 percent of youth with autism have at least two health or mental health conditions in addition to the autism spectrum disorder, according to the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute Life Course Outcomes’ 2015 National Autism Indicators Report. In addition, one in four young adults with autism are socially isolated, according to the same data.

I’ve often wondered who will catch Matt’s fall, recognize his special needs and his oh so beautiful mind, talents and heart. Who will discern Matt from his autism and medication side effects and be the diligent sleuth always searching for answers to the issue of the day, week, month or year?

While I cannot expect others to care as much as I do, I do expect a supportive community to desire similar outcomes, which are in our collective best interest.  Greater independence and higher quality of life will significantly reduce cost to society. Moving the needle on positive outcomes will increase job satisfaction for direct support service providers, educators and medical professionals. For parents and family members, peace of mind is priceless.

Different Brains Ingredients for a Supportive Community
Inside the SMILE kitchen

Matt and I arrived at the commercial kitchen in time to greet 10 of his SMILE Biscotti co-workers and volunteers, who prepared batter for 3,000 pieces.  Matt and his helpers, with dedication, determination and care, cheerfully spent the afternoon baking, learning employment and social skills in the process.

As we conclude another Autism Awareness and Acceptance Month, and reflect on the enormous number of articles about our cause, hopeful and soulful stories of personal triumphs, and scientific advancements, I am mindful that should Matt be struggling and in need of help, that a passerby would stop and kindly help him to his feet again.

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

Matt and I love to go bowling.  Others detect how much when we roll in with our own bowling balls, making us look much better than we are!

Let It Roll- New Options, More Choices for Adults with Autism 3Last year, we connected with a social group for young adults with autism and special needs and now find ourselves bowling most Saturday afternoons. With or without bumpers, bowling is a great equalizer. While some adopt more traditional bowling forms or use the aid of a ramp, others display creative streaks that make the experience even more fun and entertaining. There’s the two-handed, side bowler; the basketball bowler who throws the ball like he’s shooting hoops; the Wii bowler, who attempts to influence the ball through whole-body gestures and; of course, the let-it-roll-from-between-your-legs ‘granny style’ bowler.

Let It Roll- New Options, More Choices for Adults with Autism 2
Matt Resnik gets ready for his turn

Style doesn’t really matter.  There’s plenty of room for individuality.  The fact is each ball arrives to its intended destination knocking down the pins, sometimes quite surprisingly.  Smiles and high fives or frustrating sighs and words of encouragement often follow.  Strikes command a special criss-cross high 10!

Consider other great equalizers like karaoke and karate, or a business like Matt’s SMILE Biscotti, which makes customers smile (the shortest distance between two people)!  Differences and diversity can connect us and add character to a place, culture or Saturday afternoon—and they should be celebrated.

As we proceed with plans for the groundbreaking later this year of First Place-Phoenix, a new residential option for adults with autism and other special abilities, we’ve been focused on celebrating neuro-diversity. To accommodate for differences and support people to live more independently, the property features supportive physical space like smart home technology and sensitive design through sound reducing appliances, soothing color palettes and durable materials.  The property also includes a suite of supportive services, amenities and navigators for life skills, health/wellness and community connections.

Integrated into the fabric of community and located within the heart of the urban area, First Place embraces life’s ‘equalizers’ at every turn. We have big plans for this initiative, based on more than 15 years of research at SARRC and in collaboration with the Urban Land Institute and Arizona State University. To learn more, check out this brief film:

We also celebrate our participation in the Coalition for Community Choice, a national grassroots alliance of individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities, their families and friends, disability rights advocates, professionals, educators, and housing and service providers, which aims to increase options for, and decrease barriers to, housing and employment choices.

Let It Roll- New Options, More Choices for Adults with Autism 4Together we advocate for more options that are person-­centered and based on individually defined preferred settings, support needs and meaningful life goals. We need more options so individuals and their families have more choices for what works best for them.

We hope you’ll join us in this effort and learn more about First Place, its Transition Academy now underway and operated by SARRC, and the First Place Apartments available fall ’17.

With Lucky Strike bowling alley just a few light rail stops away from First Place, I anticipate Matt will be putting his bowling ball to more frequent use in the years ahead. Joined by more friends, who are likely more fun, I hope he’ll will still want me to play on occasion too!

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

Cleaning out closets, drawers and the garage seemed like a good plan for ringing in the New Year. Matt’s closets took the longest. The biggest challenge: parting with the cue cards, flashcards, Velcro-backed picture cards and all kinds of games, systems and tools that have helped Matt learn, communicate and advocate for himself.

Still significantly impacted by his autism, Matt’s perseverance and our own have empowered him to learn, connect and enjoy the benefits of a job well done. In 2013, Matt launched SMILE Biscotti®, his Phoenix-based baking business in 2013, to further his independence.  It has done much more than that already! SMILE reflects daily how the early intervention and many efforts through the years have paid off.  While completing over 100 holiday orders late last year, we saw new evidence of Matt’s supervisory skills, as he modeled for co-workers how to more efficiently package their biscotti, quietly correcting a few of their mistakes along the way.

Community building is something we’ve been demonstrating in Greater Phoenix for nearly two decades through SARRC®, and now First Place AZ®. For us, community speaks broadly to embrace differences and celebrate diversity; involving our neighborhoods and schools, places of work and worship, health and wellness centers, and creation of new home options.I also paused to reflect on our unexpected life’s journey while reading the newly released historical account on autism, “In a Different Key,” written by  journalists John Donvan and Caren Zucker. Powerfully written, informative and captivating, the book evokes the many struggles, triumphs and chapters of our life with Matt, which were shared by the pioneers in the field and those who have joined the fight since his diagnosis.  Caren is a fellow mother on a mission who reinforces, “how good a life can be when your community embraces you!.”

SMILE Biscotti’s success is a beautiful example of how a community has embraced Matt and his coworkers. Also noteworthy is the community they’ve built together, connecting through teamwork, common interests like “Uno” breaks and shared satisfaction of a job well done. These young adults and hope are the most important ingredients in SMILE Biscotti.

I’ve clung tightly to my hope. Hope that the California doctor who confirmed Matt’s diagnosis was wrong when he said, “love, accept and plan to institutionalize him.” Hope that his epileptic seizures could be controlled and not stand in the way of greater independence. Hope that he would find a community where he can live successfully and happily with friends and away from our family home.

What I didn’t find in our closets or in those three-ring, four-inch binders documenting Matt’s history was a roadmap that would predict his future — something I longed for during those early years. I wanted someone, anyone to tell me it was going to be OK, that he was going to be fine, as would our entire family. Instead, we created our own hope and dreams together with other parents, family members and a supportive community who wanted the same outcomes.  And together, we are moving mountains.

Excited to share more in the year ahead about the expansion of SMILE Biscotti, groundbreaking of First Place-Phoenix, a new residential model for adults with autism and other special abilities, and more community building, big dreams and history in the making.  Onward!

By Denise D. Resnik, Matt’s mom; To students at GateWay Community College, who have welcomed differently abled adults on campus through the First Place Transition Academy, allowing our First Place students to benefit from campus life and life skills classes while also benefitting from employment opportunities and a supportive culture.

To employers that are opening doors more easily and broadly, recognizing the skills and abilities of individuals with autism and other special needs, and bringing out goodness and kindness in co-workers.

To customers who learn about SMILE Biscotti and become enthusiastic promoters, helping us spread the word that individuals with autism are productive, contributing members of our community.

To the families who walk through the doors at SARRC, entering as overwhelmed, worried strangers and leaving as friends empowered with resources, support and, most importantly, hope.

To the grocery store shopper in aisle 10, who volunteered to rummage through my purse for Matt’s seizure medication when he fell into my arms during last week’s grand mal seizure, easing the stress of a very stressful situation.

No longer are we strangers. We are moms, dads, neighbors, friends, employers and communities working together to write new history for how adults with autism and other special abilities are paving the way for our society to be more aware, accepting and engaged –giving us all more reasons to smile.

Please join us in spreading holiday cheer this season through your acts of kindness, compassion and sharing.

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!