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A Mother’s Love Creates First Place

photography courtesy of FIRST PLACE

First Place is a Phoenix autism research and housing community
A devastating diagnosis launched one of the most influential autism nonprofits in the world. And now founder Denise Resnik builds First Place—innovative housing for the autism community.

Imagine hearing a doctor tell you that your son has a medical condition, and then gives the advice “love him, accept him and institutionalize him.” That’s exactly what Phoenician Denise Resnik heard in 1993 when her son Matt was two years old and diagnosed with autism.

While any parent would try and find solutions for their child, Resnik went far beyond research and advocacy, and turned autism into her life’s work.

Denise D. Resnik founder First Place autism community

“I was married, had two children, my own marketing firm and felt like all my dreams were being realized. I had never counted on autism. The only thing I knew about it at the time was from ‘Rain Man,’” said Resnik. “But I knew institutionalizing my son was not an option, so I got to work.”

While any parent would try and find solutions for their child, Resnik went far beyond research and advocacy, and turned autism into her life’s work.

“When I first started to look into autism and housing for this community, I wondered what would happen to Matt when he was an adult and where he could live,” said Resnik. “What I saw, what I smelled, will never leave my memory. Right then I was committed to finding a better way.”

In 1997 Denise Resnik, her pediatrician Raun Melmed and fellow mother to an autistic child, Cindy Schneider founded the Southwest Autism Research & Resource Center (SARRC) in Phoenix, Arizona. SARRC is unique in that it is one of the only autism organizations in the world that provides a lifetime of services for individuals and their families, while also conducting cutting-edge research.

“Research is at the core of everything we do,” said Resnik. “Of course, we also provide services, residential options and lots of handholding, too.”

In 1999, Denise Resnik created the organization’s first strategic plan around housing, and in 2009 SARRC published its groundbreaking work, Opening Doors, which examined living options for adults with autism.

Groundbreaking at First Place autism community

Groundbreaking at First Place

In 1999, Denise Resnik created the organization’s first strategic plan around housing, and in 2009 SARRC published its groundbreaking work, Opening Doors, which examined living options for adults with autism. The research provided design goals and guidelines to create an autism housing model that was scalable.

Housing resonated with Resnik so much because her first job out of college was working with senior housing pioneer, Del Webb. There she learned how to create communities that integrated elements that were important to residents and she created relationships in the real estate industry that would become integral down the road.

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First Place residential austism community in Phoenix

In 2012, Resnik created another nonprofit, First Place Arizona, to realize the vision presented in the Opening Doors plan. First Place AZ, located in midtown Phoenix, is an autism community home to 50 individuals aged 18 to 50 who have autism or other neurological challenges. Residents are either in the organization’s student transition academy or general residents. The transition academy is a two-year program designed to teach adults the skills required for independent living. While Resnik’s son does live at First Place.

“Matt’s progress was tremendous,” Denise Resnik said. “At first he didn’t know how to use a key or answer the door. Now he knows how to do all that, problem solve and run all the tech used in the apartment.”

We can hear hope and promises, but it’s a lot different when you can see it.

Denise-Resnik-and-son-Matt-First-Place-resident

First Place offers one, two and four-bedroom suites. While it is first and foremost a home and a community, it also acts as an R&D site for Resnik and her team to test and pilot improvements.

“Our big vision is to ensure that an autism diagnosis doesn’t stand in the way of that person having a job, home, friends and a community,” said Resnik. “We can hear hope and promises, but it’s a lot different when you can see it.”

In addition to First Place, the organization launched 29 Palms in 2015 in the East Valley and in January 2021 opens Spectrum Courtyard Apartments in the West Valley. These two housing developments are in collaboration with The Foundation for Senior Living and offer housing to both seniors and autistic individuals.

Phoenix residential autism housing First Place

First Place Apartment

“It’s a beautiful expression of community and support,” said Denise Resnik. “It’s also a model to show how communities can start with more intense support and training and then lessen it so allow as much independence as possible, thereby increasing choice and decreasing costs.”

First Place AZ is dedicated to working with more and more developers to help them create better designs that give people with differences more options in housing. In 2020 they released their new study, A Place in The World, which provides the foundational nomenclature for housing and service delivery models with the goal to further define market segments, establish best practices and guiding principles, and help drive crucial partnerships.

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Denise and Matt Resnik at residential autism community

While Denise Resnik has done so much to advance autism research, knowledge and options—and has been recognized with countless awards—she doesn’t count any of that as her biggest success.

“My greatest accomplishment is Matt’s success living as an independent adult at First Place,” she said. “I will continue to work on the many areas of need in the community and continue to bring together remarkable professionals that make change happen. My goal is that First Place is a beacon of what is possible.”

Thank you, Denise Resnik, for your work in creating innovative housing and community for adults with autism. If you’d like to support this work, you can do so here.

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