How Phoenix became the most autism-friendly city in the world

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GWEN IFILL: But, first, we continue our series A Place in the World.

Last night, we reported on a group of young men with autism who have moved out of their childhood homes, in a first step toward living independently, all except the man on the lower right, whose level of disability makes the prospect of a rewarding adulthood much too complicated to achieve.

John Donvan has part two of our report.

JOHN DONVAN, Co-Author, “In a Different Key: The Story of Autism”: His name is Matt Resnik and, without knowing it, he has helped changed the face of autism in his hometown Phoenix, Arizona, and not just because he produces of a line of baked goods, SMILE Biscotti, which are for sale all over the city, even here at Peet’s Coffee at Phoenix International Airport.

Matt is literally the face of SMILE Biscotti, where the ads quite deliberately mention that he has autism.

MAN: Let’s go, Matt. Let’s go deliver.

JOHN DONVAN: Indeed, he does.

Go back a few minutes earlier to when we first started taping his delivery of biscotti, and his autistic nature is more than evident.

ROB RESNIK, Father of Matt Resnik: All right, Matt, stop. We’re not going to look at the camera. Look straight ahead. Matt, look where we’re going. Come on. Look at me. Look at dad. All right, no more pictures. Come. on.

JOHN DONVAN: That’s his dad with him, Rob Resnik. And the reason we didn’t formally interview Matt himself is that he cannot do a television interview.

How are you today?

ROB RESNIK: How you are?

MATT RESNIK, SMILE Biscotti: I am magnificent.

MATT RESNIK: Good. Good.

JOHN DONVAN: He lacks the language skills for that, which is a key reason you don’t see many stories about people like him in the media. Moreover, without his dad guiding him, Matt would get lost here in hurry.

It’s why he’s still lives at home, a grown man, with parents who are no longer young, and a mother who represents his closest connection to anyone. You can see that so easily, what’s between them.

But there’s another side to this connection. It’s knowing that it may never be duplicated, and that no one else may have Matt’s back like this.

DENISE RESNIK, Mother of Matt Resnik: I do worry about Matt. I worry because he is so trusting and so vulnerable. I worry about, who is going to be in his home or help him and who is going to understand him and all his idiosyncrasies? And will I be there?

Let’s sit over here.

JOHN DONVAN: And how Denise has responded to that worry, one that is shared by all parents of all children facing such challenges, it’s left its mark, and not just in her house, but in a much bigger way.

Although changing the world was the farthest thing from her mind back when Matt was first diagnosed with autism in the early 1990s. Then, the mission looked like this.

DENISE RESNIK: He was going to be one of those kids who recovered from his autism. I was sure of it. I was going to make sure that that happened.

JOHN DONVAN: And here’s what that meant.

DENISE RESNIK: Immediately after Matt’s diagnosis, I poured my heart and soul and every waking hour into making sure that we were going to provide Matt 40 hours of one-on-one therapy every week, then artfully integrate speech therapy and art therapy and riding therapy.

JOHN DONVAN: Denise also followed the path taken by many other parents before her, in other times and places, helping to launch an organization, the Southwest Autism Research and Resource Center, SARRC for short.

DENISE RESNIK: This is our classroom play area, and this is where a lot of learning takes place.

JOHN DONVAN: Which would bring about, she hoped, the rescue she was praying for. That essentially was the mission back then.

DENISE RESNIK: We do our research right here.

JOHN DONVAN: SARRC even launched its own scientific research center and studied and developed autism-specific curricula. It was an all-out campaign that lasted years. The only thing was, Matt did not recover from autism. The available therapies can lead to dramatically different results in different people.

And in Matt’s case, he did make strides. He learned to bike and to hike and to read some words and multiply numbers in his head, which came in handy when he helped his mom bake. But some things got worse, like his eating habits, chewing on things that were not food.

DENISE RESNIK: He would eat things that were not edible. In a year, he chewed through 132 shirts.

JOHN DONVAN: Nor did Matt ever learn to recognize danger in the usual sense. Even now, he wouldn’t know what to do if, say, something in the oven caught fire.

And his language still has serious limits. He has never in his life asked a question or put together a spoken sentence of his own making.

He never could talk the way he could sing, even back then, when Denise was still counting on this little kid outgrowing the challenges to his having a place of his own in the world out there.

And over time, Denise came to the realization that it was the world out there that would have to change if Matt was to be safe and supported when his mom and dad were gone. Accepting that reality, in time, Denise shifted SARRC’s mission in a new direction.

DENISE RESNIK: For the last two decades, I have poured my heart and soul into trying to build a community with a lot of other people, in trying to achieve a vision.

JOHN DONVAN: And when you say community, you don’t just mean a community of the people directly affected by autism.

DENISE RESNIK: Oh, I mean a broader community.

JOHN DONVAN: Everybody.

DENISE RESNIK: Right.

JOHN DONVAN: And it’s why Phoenix, Arizona, SARRC’s hometown, may be the most autism-aware, autism-friendly metropolis in the world, one in which everywhere Denise pointed when we rode the light rail through downtown together, there was a business employing autistic people.

DENISE RESNIK: And this is CVS pharmacy.

JOHN DONVAN: Or a school with classes designed with autism in mind.

DENISE RESNIK: You can see ASU.

JOHN DONVAN: Or research centers investigating treatments.

DENISE RESNIK: St. Joseph Hospital and Medical Center.

JOHN DONVAN: SARRC now has literally dozens and dozens of private and public partners energized about supporting autism in real ways, and not just with money, but with jobs, access and housing, some of it captured in the story we told last night about that pilot program preparing autistic adults to live on their own and hold jobs, and also this preschool, which mixes classes of autistic with non-autistic children, because — and it’s with that mission in mind again — consider what happens when all these kids grow up.

DANIEL OPENDEN, President, SARRC: They are inclusive of kids that are different or that have autism or that have disabilities out on the playground. They’re future employers. They’re future co-workers. So, we’re not having to teach these kids directly. They’re just consumed around people who are different from them.

JOHN DONVAN: And that is the big picture that Denise has long had in mind, a world where support doesn’t merely mean paid staff providing services. It means, well, having neighbors who care, having friends.

DENISE RESNIK: What people like Matt and others need, and what we need, are communities, communities that include friends, people to support us, health care, jobs, recreation, places of worship, transportation. And to think that a family can go at this alone to build a life for their loved one isn’t good enough.

JOHN DONVAN: So, even if a family had all the money in the world, that — having those resources would not be enough to take care of their kid through adulthood and through life?

DENISE RESNIK: It would be enough to take care of their kid, but what they may be lacking are friends, because you don’t pay your friends.

JOHN DONVAN: The next major step, well, it’s an empty lot right now, but it won’t always be.

So, when you come out here, do you — it is an empty field now, but do — can you see it?

DENISE RESNIK: I can see it.

JOHN DONVAN: Yes?

DENISE RESNIK: I can see it. I can feel it. And it is going to happen. And it’s something I have been dreaming about almost since the first day the school bus arrived for Matt.

JOHN DONVAN: This is the future site of an apartment complex to be called First Place, which will look like this, and will be supported by a collaboration among than 75 charitable, private and public groups, creating a neighborhood of people of varying levels of ability and disability with more or less support as needed. It is where Matt will live too.

DENISE RESNIK: This is going to be his home. It may not be his home forever, but aptly named, it’s going to be his home when he leaves our family home.

JOHN DONVAN: His first place away from home.

DENISE RESNIK: It is.

JOHN DONVAN: Ground-breaking is set for later this year. For now, though, Matt still has the two best support people anyone could ask for, his mom and dad, who are helping keep the biscotti business on track, one that employs several people on the autism spectrum.

But when it’s just the three of them together, that’s when the question of Matt’s future comes back into focus, with the hope that 10, 20, 30, 40 years from now, he will have a whole community by his side and at his back, taking in the song, and caring what he has to say.

MATT RESNIK (singing): And I’m free, free-falling.

JOHN DONVAN: For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m John Donvan in Phoenix.

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