Two residents of a Phoenix apartment building designed for people with autism hang out in the building's pool.
Lindsey Eaton and Matt Resnik hang out in the pool at First Place. Sydnee Schwartz

The 55-unit First Place complex was designed specifically for adults with autism and neurodiversities.

Lindsey Eaton, 24, is from the Phoenix area and works for the Arizona School Boards Association. She has autism, which, she said, she doesn’t see as a diagnosis: “I see it as awesomeness.”

Eaton describes herself as very independent, “but I still need help with some things like laundry, budgeting, and getting to work.” She used to live with her parents despite wanting to live on her own.

In July, Eaton moved into one of the country’s first apartment complexes for adults with autism and neurodiversities. She now has her own one-bedroom unit in the Phoenix complex, which is called First Place. “It’s been a little eye-opening, because for years in a row, I had check-ins every minute—my parents saying, ‘How are you doing? What can I do? Do you need help cleaning?’” she explained. Now, she often has to figure things out for herself. “It’s taught me patience, and to do things and not rely on people.”

The exterior of the building includes design features to prevent sensory overload among residents who are hypersensitive to certain stimuli. (Scott Sandler)

First Place may be among the first of its kind, but the need for places like it is clear. Up to half a million teens with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) will reach adulthood in the next decade, following a rise in diagnoses over the past 30 years. One study found that the vast majority of adults with ASD between the ages of 19 and 30 continue to live with their parents, an arrangement that becomes challenging as parents age. Many autistic adults face long waits for state-sponsored group housing and a lack of other options.

Denise Resnik started thinking about this more than 20 years ago, after her son, Matt, was diagnosed with autism. “We were told to love, accept, and plan to institutionalize him,” she said. She visited a number of facilities and was disheartened by the conditions and quality of care: “I thought there has to be another way.”

Resnik is the founder and executive director of the nonprofit that runs First Place and shares its name. In the 1990s, she co-founded the Southwest Autism Research & Resource Center (SARRC), which began to research housing options for people with autism and partnered with other organizations to come up with guidelines. Years later, First Place is the result.

It’s a three-pronged operation. First, there’s the nonprofit-run, 55-unit apartment building, where people with ASD can live near-independently, but with 24/7 support. It has a fitness center, a pool, and a culinary teaching kitchen. Then there’s the on-site Transition Academy, which runs a two-year program to teach residents life and work skills. (While many residents are expected to go on living at First Place after completing the program, for others, Resnik said, “it might be the first place after leaving their family but [then] they may go elsewhere”). Finally, there’s a leadership institute aimed at producing research, policies, and training related to ASD.

Funding has come from a mix of sources, Resnik said: philanthropy, a private loan, and the federal New Markets Tax Credit program, which incentivizes investment in low-income communities. First Place did not use Department of Housing and Urban Development funds, since HUD limits the disabled population of properties it supports to 25 percent (to avoid an institutionalizing effect), a policy that Resnik says is overly prescriptive and not data-based.

An apartment interior. First Place tries to honor residents’ desire for independence while offering in-house support. (©2017 Rick D’Elia/D’Elia Photographic)

Rent at First Place, which includes a basic suite of care services, is not cheap. It starts at $3,300 per resident in an unfurnished two-bedroom apartment, or $3,600 for a one-bedroom. Resnik hopes a competitive market will evolve over time, and points to what has happened with senior housing. “Today, you recognize how that market has emerged, at different locations, price points, with different kinds of services and amenities for people with mobility and health issues,” she said. “We just want options.”

The design of the complex, by RSP Architects, is tailored to people with ASD and neurodiversities. A main goal was to prevent sensory overload, so the building has no harsh overhead lights such as fluorescents, and gypsum concrete was used between the floors to muffle ambient noise. RSP previously designed the first high school built for autistic students, at the Minnesota Autism Center in Eagan.

Mike Duffy, a senior associate at RSP, said a major difference between First Place and other projects of its size is the amount of space dedicated to common use. He added that one of the biggest challenges was trying to balance sensitive design elements with promoting independent living skills. “We [were] always walking a fine line between creating a place that was catered to those individuals on the spectrum, while at the same time, wanting to create a place that will reflect some of what they are likely to encounter in a typical apartment,” he said.

First Place is in a central location in Phoenix, within walking distance of public transit and close to jobs, cultural facilities, stores and restaurants, and healthcare. That access to support networks and services was considered crucial. So far, more than 30 people have moved in, including 37-year-old Michael Goodrich. He arrived at First Place in July after other living situations didn’t work out.

“Right away, [the staff] had this meeting, where they imagined a day in the life of Michael,” said his sister Lynn Balter, who helped him find First Place. “They value his opinions and made him feel like he matters.”

CORRECTION: The article originally stated that rents begin at $3,300 per person in a furnished apartment. The apartments are rented unfurnished.

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