Our grandson just turned one and with that came his first step. His Uncle Matt turns 31 today and with that comes a collection of his own memorable “firsts:” significant strides, family celebrations and many challenges on his path to a happy, healthy and more independent life.
My list of firsts has also grown over Matt’s lifetime. I’ll never forget his first night alone in his First Place–Phoenix apartment. Or the first time he lost his keycard and knew to go to the concierge to get a replacement. Or the first time he asked his friend Mickey a question about his favorite music—completely unprompted—and acknowledged his answer by playing “Kiss the Girl” from Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” on his Alexa Echo for them both. Or the first time he attempted to console his young crying nephew by handing over his iPad—Uncle Matt’s most prized and calming possession.
Whether a young or adult life, life lessons take time—and lots of practice. There are steps, missteps and, if we’re lucky, people there to cheer us on, catch us before we fall or brush us off when we do so we can try again.
As First Place AZ celebrates its 10-year anniversary this year and SARRC its 25th, I’m reminded of all those who made each first, second and so many dreams possible.
The idea that Matt would be part of “the most autism-friendly city in the world,” joyfully living in a home of his own, working, volunteering and learning on a daily basis away from our family home, is no longer a dream of greater independence for him but a reality. Together with Matt’s First Place neighbors and others beyond his front door, we are raising the bar on the quality of life for people with autism and other neurodiversities. And with that comes greater peace of mind for families like ours. It’s also a daily work in progress as we lead First Place AZ through the power of our example: in the Apartments, the Transition Academy and the Global Leadership Institute.
The powerful intersectionality of the unique and dynamic First Place triumvirate is enabling us to teach, train, innovate, research and advance supportive policies creating more firsts for more individuals and families in Arizona, across North America and around the world.
Greater understanding and acceptance of Matt and others with different needs and wants offers us the opportunity to design and build supportive communities that are more responsive and accessible to everyone. It starts early in life, evidenced by his four-year-old niece retrieving his sound-reducing headphones when things get too loud or giving him a high-five with a “good job, Uncle Matt!” at the end of their UNO game.
Happy birthday, Matt! Thank you for guiding and grounding us with lessons for every generation—and the celebration of another first on this day and every day!