By Denise D. Resnik
When our son Matt graduated from high school in 2013, his daily routines and patterns, developed for years within the same safe, supportive environment, came to an end. We asked ourselves, how can we fill 168 hours each week with meaningful, purposeful activities and not allow Matt to slide backwards.
At the age of 24, Matt is part of a generation of more than 500,000 U.S. children with autism entering adulthood this decade. As the school bus stops coming, parents and communities are faced with autism’s perfect storm: an increasing population of special needs adults, many whom cannot live independently; dwindling government resources; and few housing options. Families are also faced with medical issues, developmental regression and aging parents.
In response to this challenge and with the support of the Southwest Autism Research & Resource Center (SARRC) and its Rising Entrepreneurs Program, our family created SMILE® Biscotti (an acronym for Supporting Matt’s Independent Living Enterprise) and home bakery business. Matt’s now a proud, hard-working entrepreneur, an employer and is contributing to the community through his food bank donations and so much more.
We are not just in the business of mixing, baking and packaging, but of spreading the word that individuals with different abilities can be valued contributing members of our communities. We are also in the business of making people happy—the happiness that comes with hope. We’re talking about the promise of a future we can embrace, not the one so many of us anticipated when our children were diagnosed and we were told to “love, accept and make plans to institutionalize them.”
We had bigger dreams back then and still do. In 1997, I co-founded SARRC with the bold mission of advancing discoveries and supporting individuals with autism and their families throughout their lifetimes. Just prior to Matt’s graduation in 2012, I also formed a separate nonprofit to develop new and innovative housing options for adults with autism and related disorders, something I’ve been dreaming about from the first day the school bus arrived. First Place AZ continues the important work of SARRC and importantly separates the real estate ownership from the supportive services, creating more opportunities for choice.
Following nearly 15 years of research, travels, ideation and the benefit of thought-leaders from Arizona and across the U.S., First Place is preparing to break ground in early 2016 on its first model property, a residential community development sited in the heart of Phoenix. It will include apartments for residents, a residential academy for students and a national leadership institute for training professionals and support-service providers. The transit-oriented development is leveraging the benefits of a supportive urban area in Central Phoenix that will connect residents to jobs, friends, lifelong education and their community.
I’m thrilled to be part of the Different Brains community, eager to share more about SMILE, First Place and life on this journey, and continue learning many more lessons from Matt and you along the way!
Denise is the founder and president of the marketing and communications firm, DRA Strategic Communications. She also serves as a member of the Arizona Community Foundation Board of Directors and member of the Arizona Advisory Board of BBVA Compass.
The mother of a 24-year-old son with autism, Denise is the founder, president and board chair of First Place AZ (www.firstplaceaz.org), a nonprofit dedicated to developing new, innovative housing options for adults with autism and other ‘special abilities,’ and the co-founder and board member emeritus of the Southwest Autism Research & Resource Center (SARRC, www.autismcenter.org), an internationally recognized nonprofit organization dedicated to autism research, education and community outreach and the support of individuals with autism and their families throughout their lifetimes.
Other nonprofit leadership includes serving as a member of the Autism Speaks Housing Committee, 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.