Adults with autism were the focus of a two-part series this week on PBS News Hour. Part one, which aired on August 9, highlighted the need to teach these adults the skills that will allow them to build independent lives as members of their communities. The second part, which aired on August 10, focused on Matt Resnik, a young man with autism in Phoenix, Ariz. and the efforts of his parents to provide him with a fulfilling future as part of his community.
“Adults don’t get nearly the attention and support that kids do, maybe because they’re not as cute, or because people forget that autism is lifelong,” said John Donvan, narrator of the piece, when discussing the importance of sharing stories of adults on the spectrum.
In their travels to promote their new book In a Different Key: The Story of Autism, Donvan and Caren Zucker discovered First Place Transition Academy, a program in Phoenix that expands options for people living with autism. Nine young men with autism are the pioneers of this program and live in clusters within an apartment complex alongside retirees with no connection to autism. The groups eat together and learn together. Each participant has two years of specialized training to improve their chances of having what Donvan calls “a successful adulthood.”
The support staff imparts lessons on logistics of adult life, like a class on how to navigate the options available for public transportation, a critical piece to community integration. The young man each have jobs or volunteer positions at an animal shelter, a public garden, a baseball stadium and more. The segment features Josh Kluger, a 36-year-old man with autism who until last year, had no apartment, no paying job and had never ridden a bus on his own. Today, Josh is living in an apartment and commuting on his own to his job at the Arizona Diamondbacks ballpark.
First Place Transition Academy is a program of First Place Phoenix, founded by Denise Resnik, who serves as President and CEO. Resnik’s son Matt was diagnosed with autism in the early 1990s and since then, she has poured her heart and soul into making sure Matt and others like him have opportunities for fulfilling lives as adults. Resnik co-founded the Southwest Autism Research and Resource Center (SARRC) in 1997, an internationally recognized nonprofit organization dedicated to autism research, education, evidence-based treatment and community outreach.
“What people like Matt and other needs, and what we need, are communities,” said Resnik during an interview for the PBS piece. “Communities that include friends, people to support us, healthcare, jobs, recreation, places of worship, transportation. To think that a family can go at this alone to build a life with their loved one isn’t good enough.”
To help ensure Matt becomes a part of community like she describes, Resnik is currently working with more than 75 charitable public and private partners to develop First Place Apartments, a set of 50 studio, one- and two-bedroom apartments for lease by residents supported by a suite of independent living services and amenities. First Place was the recipient earlier this year of the Autism Speaks HeroX House to Home Prize, a prize launched in late 2015 to encourage the development of revolutionary solutions that might empower adults with autism to live as independently as possible while remaining connected to a larger community. First Place was awarded $50,000. Groundbreaking is set for later this year. In addition, First Place Transition Academy was a 2016 recipient of the Autism Speaks Brian and Patricia Kelly Postsecondary Scholarship Fund.
The House to Home Prize and the Kelly Scholarship Fund are just two of many efforts by Autism Speaks to expand opportunities for and improve the lives of young adults and adults with autism.