Community-based Solutions for Individuals with Autism and Other Different Abilities

Community-based Solutions for Individuals with Autism and Other Different Abilities

By Denise D. Resnik, Founder, CEO & President of First Place® AZ; Co-Founder Southwest Autism Research & Resource Center; and CEO, DRA Collective // 

Taking stock of assets is essential, whether in business or within community development, , and most certainly in the case of people with different abilities. Too often, we look at our special needs population through the lens of “disability,” focusing on what they can’t do versus what they can.

In Greater Phoenix, we’ve been working hard to shift that paradigm by exploring what individuals with special abilities can do and learn, where they can work and live, and how they can contribute a valued dimension to the fabric of society.

First Place–Phoenix Rendering

I’m eager to share more at the October CEO of Cities 2017 National Meeting, on behalf of First Place® AZ and the Southwest Autism Research & Resource Center® (SARRC)—and on behalf of our 26-year-old son Matt, who is significantly impacted by autism.  Together with our great community and families like our own, we have invested nearly two decades in creating a new vision for individuals, families and communities across the country and around the world—a vision of awareness, acceptance and inclusion within a supportive, connected community.

First Place AZ is focused on ensuring that housing options for people with autism and other special abilities are as bountiful as they are for everyone else.

Recognized as the most autism-friendly city in the world by PBS NewsHour in a two-part series last year, Phoenix is opening doors to more options for people with autism and other differences, offering a greater number of life choices and demonstrating how communities of support can be sustained throughout our lifetimes.

First Place residents cooking a community dinner with their neighbors at 29 Palms. Photo Credit: ©2017 Rick D’Elia/D’Elia Photographic

Through private, public, philanthropic and nonprofit contributions—and with involvement of the finest minds in the country—First Place AZ is undertaking the development of a supportive community development by way of a new approach to residential real estate.

Construction is underway on First Place–Phoenix, a $15 million residential property for adults with autism and other neuro-diversities that incorporates a one-of-a-kind combination of apartments, a residential training program and an international leadership institute—all in the heart of the urban area.

First Place is the result of collective and cumulative impact. For 20 years, we’ve been researching, planning and dreaming with collaborators across Arizona and North America. Informing the design of First Place–Phoenix is the 2009 Opening Doors study by the Urban Land Institute (ULI), Arizona State University (ASU) and SARRC.

Together, we are raising the bar on available residential, training and employment opportunities for adult special populations—and we’re doing it in a way that can be replicated in supportive communities everywhere.

We are today with housing for special populations where the real estate industry was 50 years ago with senior housing. We need more locations, price points and supportive options to create homes for adults with many different abilities. Enter First Place.

First Place participants volunteering at SARRC’s Beneficial Beans Garden Photo Credit: Stephen G. Dreiseszun/Viewpoint Photographers

First Place–Phoenix, our first model property, is within walking distance of public transit in the heart of a supportive community and features three main components:

  • First Place Apartments: 55 studio, one-, two- and four-bedroom units for lease by residents, supported by trained staff and a suite of independent living services and amenities
  • First Place Transition Academy: A two-year, tuition-based residential training program focused on independent living skills, career readiness and interpersonal relations
  • First Place Global Leadership Institute: An international training center for professionals, direct service support providers and medical personnel serving as a robust site for research and advancements in public policy

Together with 100 local and collaborating partners, and in close alignment with ULI and ASU, we evaluated more than 100 residential and community options for special populations across the country and around the world.

Matt riding the Light Rail in Downtown Phoenix

We looked for best practices, replicability, scalability, financial sustainability and affordability. We found some viable models, most 100 percent backed by either government or philanthropy and some with 30- to 40-year wait lists. We did not find a replicable or sustainable model, so we set our sights on creating one.

Through the First Place Global Leadership Institute and our international faculty, we have developed a bold agenda and are actively seeking like-minded communities that want to join us on this journey. We are seeking communities — urban, suburban and rural — with their own asset bases, that value providing for their diverse populations and demonstrating what’s possible: giving families greater hope.

Twenty-four years ago, the physician who diagnosed our son counseled us to love, accept and plan to institutionalize him. We committed then and remain committed today to creating a much different life for Matt and advancing new, innovative options for our son and others like him. First Place provides those promising options, and we’re eager to make them available to families in supportive communities around the world.

About the Author

Denise D. Resnik, Founder, CEO & President of First Place® AZ; Matt’s Mom; Co-Founder Southwest Autism Research & Resource Center; and CEO, DRA Collective

An international autism leader, Denise is the Founder and President/CEO of First Place® AZ (established in 2012), Co-Founder of the Southwest Autism Research & Resource Center

(SARRC) (established in 1997), and Founder and CEO of DRA Collective, and marketing/communications firm (established in 1986) that serves clients in a variety of fields including real estate, economic development, health care, education and hospitality.

Denise has raised community awareness and more than $60 million for the cause, primarily from in-state sources. The supportive community, facilitated by SARRC and First Place AZ along with dozens of partnering organizations, resulted in PBS NewsHour producing two nationally broadcasted features citing Phoenix as “the most autism friendly city in the world.”

Other leadership includes having served as a member of the Arizona Community Foundation board of directors and its Affordable Housing Committee, member of the Autism Speaks Family and Housing Committees, Advancing Futures for Adults with Autism (AFAA) Leadership Council, National Association of Residential Providers for Adults with Autism (NARPAA) and the National Autism Transition Research Network Advisory Panel. Denise also served as a federally appointed member of the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee (IACC) of the National Institutes of Health.

DRA Collective leads strategic planning, branding, marketing and story-telling for its local and national clients. Represented by a carefully curated team of journalists, marketers, researchers, artists and thinkers, DRA has donated significant resources to building the SARRC and First Place plans, strategies and brands.

Denise graduated from Arizona State University cum laude and received her bachelor’s degree in business. Her greatest accomplishment is her family—her husband Rob of 33 years, and adult children Matt, Ally and Whitney.

First Place AZ –
Southwest Autism Research & Resource Center (SARRC) –
DRA Collective –



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