By Valerie Paradiz, PhD, First Place Curriculum Specialist
As a person on the spectrum and as a parent of a 24-year-old son with autism, I like to take time during Autism Awareness Month to reflect on the amazing accomplishments our community has achieved. Like the inevitability of spring, I have grown to trust our resilience in seeking and finding answers to the challenges that we face together. For example, we know so much more about educational methods in 2015 than we did when Elijah first began early intervention more than 20 yeas ago. As his generation has grown into young adulthood, it’s very clear that we are embarking on yet another journey toward solutions. This time, the solutions we find will be in adult services. How will we create enough housing and jobs? How will we develop supports that allow the remarkable diversity of spectrum adults to thrive across the life span?
I keep an eye out for such solutions, just as earnestly as when I looked for the first snowbells in spring. One treasure I have found is First Place Arizona, a new, mixed-use residential community for adults with autism and other special abilities, located in the heart of Phoenix. I recently had the opportunity to spend the month of March at First Place’s beta-site, 29 Palms, where 12 young adults with autism will be living and learning together in a multigenerational apartment community that includes seniors as their neighbors. If it’s possible to find a snowbell in the desert, then First Place is it.
The beta site at 29 Palms is the result of more than a dozen years of research and community development led by First Place founder, Denise Resnik. Like me, Denise is also a parent of a young adult on the spectrum. She has a stunning track record of excellence, having co-founded the Southwest Autism Research & Resource Center (SARRC), serving as its visionary leader for nearly 20 years. SARRC is collaborating closely with First Place and is operating the Transition Academy program.
I felt honored to join Denise’s team at First Place to co-develop a two-year curriculum for young adults on the spectrum who are leaving their parents’ home for the first time. This curriculum is the backbone of the First Place Transition Academy, and as you’ll see in the video, the guys living at the beta site are thrilled to be living in their first place, while learning all the skills they need to do so. First Place is not a group home, congregate care, a licensed facility or an institution! It is wholly different from the models that we have known from the past in housing and adult services and transcends some of the entrenched approaches to support that have become broken or that simply do not work for people with autism.
As the beta site gets underway, plans for constructing First Place are also moving into full swing. First Place has launched a $25 million capital campaign representing a mix of philanthropy, impact investment loans and a New Markets Tax Credit, further demonstrating nonprofit, private and public collaboration. Momentum is building and a year-end campaign completion is expected.
In addition to the Transition Academy for 32 students annually, First Place will house a Leadership Institute empowered by centers for training and education, real estate, research and public policy. Additionally, First Place will co-locate 50, one and two-bedroom apartments on the property for adults with autism and other special abilities, and resident graduate and doctoral student fellows.