By Denise D. Resnik, Matt’s Mom
Co-Founder of SARRC and Founder/President/CEO of First Place®AZ
Our son Matt just celebrated his 27th birthday. Times like these make us pause and reflect on his progress, can-do spirit, kind heart and the many reasons we are proud of a man who has worked so very hard for what comes so easily and naturally to those not significantly impacted by autism. These times also allow us to reflect on just how far we’ve come as a family and a community.
Twenty-five years ago, we didn’t know where to go or what to do. We barely knew what autism was. The landscape was barren—and the internet, just emerging. I connected with a small mother’s support group that met at a coffee shop near our local regional mall. We were all focused on the pressing questions of the day. One table of moms became two, then four—then we filled an entire restaurant with moms and dads.
We pursued answers and remedies everywhere! Intensive early intervention and ABA therapy. Vitamins. Pork hormones. Some therapies supported by data, others not—like those that gave us hope to help our children sleep, eat or stop chewing the leather from our living room couches.
There were always really big questions: How did this happen? Will he recover? Am I to blame? 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 our answers in the community—specifically our Phoenix community of friends, families, physicians and professionals. With their help, the Southwest Autism Research & Resource Center (SARRC) was founded in 1997 quite humbly. We were without money, staff or dedicated office space. But with our big dreams, ideas, and a bold vision, we are advancing discoveries and supporting individuals impacted by autism and their families throughout their lifetimes.
We believed that if SARRC focused on what was right for our families and community, we could create a model for communities everywhere. Today, SARRC is 160 employees strong, has an $11+ million annual operating budget and serves as one of the most robust sites in North America for the recruitment and enrollment of subjects in pharma trials. Together, we’ve built a city that offers early identification, intervention and education; lifelong learning; training and employment; an aware, supportive community; and now more home options. It’s why PBS NewsHour dubbed Phoenix “the most autism-friendly city in the world!”
Thanks to SARRC and our supportive community, the stage was set in 2012 for the founding of First Place AZ, SARRC’s sister nonprofit, which is set to open its first new innovative property next month. It’s called First Place–Phoenix and it’s filling our hearts with more hope than fear, helping us answer that looming question: “Who will care for my child when I’m no longer able?”
Backed by 18 years of research, support from the Urban Land Institute and more than 100 collaborators, First Place AZ is positioned for a transformational impact on how society approaches housing and community development for individuals with autism and other special abilities. It represents new residential prototypes that offer more choices based on individual needs and interests.
We’re realizing this vision through [our first major project, First Place–Phoenix. Set to open next month in the heart of the urban region, three primary components of our model open doors to those seeking more options: Residents of the First Place Apartments can enjoy a suite of services and amenities, with all the benefits of community-connected living: transportation, health care, employment, continuing education and recreation. Participants enrolled in the First Place Transition Academy learn independent living skills, integrating into the fabric of the community as recognized citizens, neighbors, employees and friends. The First Place Global Leadership Institute is our catalyst for advancing replicable options, a center where families, people with autism and thought leaders collaborate on housing solutions through training, education, research and public policy.
We are today where senior housing was 50 years ago. We have a burgeoning population in need of homes and services that must transcend outdated and limited models. We are focused on matching the interests and needs of individuals with the right property location, design and amenities rooted in communities—everywhere. A new generation of dynamic housing models is only possible by collectively tapping private, public, philanthropic and nonprofit interests.
We have an unprecedented opportunity to pioneer innovative housing and community development across North America. Together, we can build a new market that transcends old ways of thinking and ensures housing options for people with autism and other neuro-diversities are as bountiful as they are for everyone else. Please join us and learn how you can get involved at firstplaceaz.org.