“Everyone Has a Basic Right to Good Design” – Next City

Among the programming offered to residents of First Place–Phoenix are cooking classes. 

Photo by Stephen G. Dreiseszun/Viewpoint Photographers

Our feature stories are made possible by our members. Donate today.

“Everyone Has a Basic Right to Good Design”

A look at full-spectrum housing, designed to meet the needs of the non-neurotypical.

Story by Emily Anthes

Published on Aug 31, 2020

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is an excerpt from “The Great Indoors: The Surprising Science of How Buildings Shape Our Behavior, Health, and Happiness,” by Emily Anthes, published in June 2020 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

On May 22, 2014, Lindsey Eaton took the stage at the Wells Fargo Arena in Tempe, Arizona. The petite blond high school senior loved writing and public speaking, and she had long dreamed of giving an address at her graduation. The moment had finally arrived. She stepped up to the microphone and delivered the speech she’d been practicing for months. “I have autism, which means I have a diagnosis of awesomeness,” she told the crowd, to cheers and applause. “I want to thank each and every member of the faculty and every graduating student for seeing in me possibilities, not disabilities.”

It was a triumphant moment, but the high faded fast. On the ride home from the ceremony, Eaton broke down in tears. Her classmates were all on their way to celebratory after-parties and then, in a few months, to college. She was headed home with her parents, with no clear plan for the future. All sorts of worries ran through her mind: How was she going to find a job? An apartment? Would she be able to live on her own?

In the months and years that followed, Eaton struggled. She watched her high school classmates and two younger sisters begin their lives as independent adults; meanwhile, she was stuck in her parents’ home, worrying that her best days were behind her. This wasn’t the life she had imagined for herself. “I had bigger dreams, I had bigger hopes, I had bigger expectations,” she recalled when we spoke in the spring of 2018.

She wanted to find a job that she loved — at the time, she was hoping to become a preschool teacher — and to live on her own. But she didn’t know how to make that happen. Eaton couldn’t pay the rent on an apartment by herself, and she was nervous about the prospect of sharing space with a roommate. And there wasn’t a place that would really meet her needs. She didn’t drive, so she’d need to live close to public transit, but she couldn’t tolerate loud noise, so a bustling downtown location wouldn’t be ideal either. And because she was still trying to master some of the tasks of daily living, like cleaning and staying organized, she’d probably do best in a place with a robust support system or, at least, an understanding landlord.

Her parents reconciled themselves to never being empty nesters. “Our vision for Lindsey and her life was to have her live in a guest home behind our house,” Doug Eaton, Lindsey’s father, told me. “That was as expansive as our vision.”

But in the summer of 2018 — four years after graduating from high school and a few months after we first spoke — Lindsey Eaton would finally move into a place of her own.

What “Accessible” Really Means

In the United States, the disability rights movement took root in the mid-twentieth century, years before autism became a widely recognized condition. In the early years, discussions of accessibility focused primarily on people with physical disabilities. In 1961, the American Standards Association published a set of guidelines for “making buildings and facilities accessible to, and usable by, the physically handicapped,” recommending design features like wheelchair ramps, wide doorways, and bathroom handrails. Many of these ideas were later formalized in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), enacted in 1990, and the accompanying design standards. The ADA was a landmark piece of civil rights legislation, prohibiting disability-based discrimination and mandating that buildings be accessible. (According to the act, a “failure to remove architectural barriers” in existing buildings was itself a form of discrimination.) It catalyzed major accessibility improvements, particularly for people who use wheelchairs: curb cuts, ramps, automatic doors, and accessible restrooms all became much more common.

But many barriers remain. Enforcement of the ADA is inconsistent, the law itself has loopholes, and many buildings and public spaces are still essentially unnavigable for people with disabilities. What’s more, designers, developers, and property owners have traditionally focused more on accommodating wheelchair users than people with less visible differences, especially those that primarily manifest themselves in the brain. Many features of the built environment can pose challenges for people with certain cognitive disabilities, mental illnesses, and neurological conditions. For instance, people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can become anxious when they’re forced to navigate narrow passageways or blind corners, while autism, epilepsy, migraines, and traumatic brain injuries can all make people exquisitely sensitive to certain sensory stimuli like light and sound.

Beyond unwelcoming public spaces, people with some kinds of cognitive and developmental disabilities may have trouble finding homes that meet their needs, just like Lindsey Eaton did.

“People end up in housing that doesn’t really work well for them,” said Sam Crane, the director of public policy at the Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN). Flickering lights, overheard conversations, the buzz of home appliances, and the smell of a neighbor cooking dinner can all bother people with autism, who may struggle if they live in an apartment that’s not soundproofed, for example, or that shares an HVAC system with other units, allowing external scents to seep in.

A common room called The Lego Lounge provides tactile stimulation. (Photo courtesy First Place Phoenix)

Moreover, some autistic adults may need living spaces that can accommodate their repetitive, self-soothing movements. Crane told me about a friend of hers: “She, like a lot of autistic people, has a need to jump up and down,” Crane said. “So this is someone who really shouldn’t be in an apartment that’s above someone else.” Her friend did manage to find an apartment that fit the bill but ended up with a landlord who hassled her for not keeping it clean enough. The friend ultimately moved out — and into Crane’s basement. “Management practices can be really significant in terms of whether people can stay in an apartment or not,” Crane said. Cost is a major obstacle, too, especially because many adults with developmental disabilities are underemployed and live on limited incomes.

In part, the lack of housing for autistic adults has been a chicken- and-egg problem. Relatively few autistic adults have lived independently because there hasn’t been enough suitable housing or support, and designers have not traditionally prioritized their needs because there weren’t more of them living independently. “There’s quite a lot of people with physical disabilities who are living in the community and that created a pretty strong pressure to make housing physically accessible,” Crane said. “It’s been a little bit slower for people with really significant intellectual and developmental disabilities.”

But thanks to several converging trends, ideas about accessibility are evolving. Over the last several decades, many countries have embarked on a process of deinstitutionalization, closing the large hospitals and institutions that were once filled with adults with mental illnesses and developmental disabilities. In 1999, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that sequestering disabled people in large group facilities was a form of discrimination and that government services should be provided “in the most integrated setting appropriate.” As a result, far more adults with disabilities are living and receiving supportive services in their own homes, neighborhoods, and communities; many are advocating for themselves and fighting for their right to live, work, and attend school alongside people without disabilities.

Additionally, disability rights activists have been advancing the neurodiversity paradigm, which holds that neurological conditions— including autism, dyslexia, Tourette’s syndrome, and ADHD — are not defects or dysfunctions but simply different ways of experiencing the world, natural cognitive variations that come with some unique strengths. It’s part of a broader cultural shift (albeit an incomplete one) in how we view disability. The traditional medical model of disability, which characterizes physical and cognitive impairments as problems to be fixed, has given way to the social model, which posits that it’s not using a wheelchair or having autism that’s disabling — it’s living in an environment (and a society) that doesn’t accommodate these kinds of differences.

And “accessible design” has given way to “universal design,” in which the goal is to create spaces, products, and experiences that serve the widest possible range of people, at every age and along the entire spectrum of ability. The goal is to do more than simply grant people “access.” Rather, it’s to empower people to participate fully in all aspects of society.

“Everyone has a basic right to good design,” said Magda Mostafa, an architect and associate professor at the American University in Cairo who specializes in designing for people with autism. “Design standards only cater to that perfect six-foot-tall male individual that has good visual capacity, has good hearing capacity, has a statistically typical sensory profile, and I think it’s very, very limiting. We’re excluding so many people.”

Medical advances and our ever-increasing life spans mean that far more of us are living with disabilities than ever before. One in ten American adults reports having some kind of cognitive disability, and a number of cognitive and developmental conditions, especially autism and ADHD, are being diagnosed much more frequently than they were in decades past. And disability is dynamic; over the course of our lifetimes, we will all experience fluctuations in our physical and mental abilities.

Designers are increasingly taking these cognitive and sensory differences into account.

“There’s been increasing interest in understanding what adults on the spectrum need to live more independently in the community,” said Sherry Ahrentzen, a professor at the Shimberg Center for Housing Studies at the University of Florida. A little more than a decade ago, Ahrentzen began looking into this subject herself, in collaboration with a nonprofit organization that wanted to start building housing for autistic adults. Fortunately for Lindsey Eaton, that organization happened to be based in Phoenix, Arizona, just miles from where she grew up.

Designing for People With Autism

In 1991, Denise Resnik — a preternaturally cheerful marketing executive — gave birth to her second child, a boy she named Matt. In the months following Matt’s first birthday, some of the skills that he’d mastered started to fall away. His language regressed, and he stopped making eye contact with his parents. By the time Matt turned two, doctors had diagnosed him with autism. “And we were told to love, accept, and plan to institutionalize him,” Resnik told me.

Resnik, a Phoenix native who is the CEO and founder of her own communications firm, doesn’t much like being told what to do, and in 1997, she cofounded what is now known as the Southwest Autism Research and Resource Center (SARRC). Over the years that followed, she helped SARRC grow into a 190-employee, $15 million organization that offers almost every imaginable service to autistic people and their families, including diagnostic testing, early intervention programs, educational workshops, support groups, a peer mentorship program, community outreach in English and Spanish, employment coaching, an inclusive preschool, and a research center.

Denise Resnik, founder, president and board chair of First Place. (Stephen G. Dreiseszun/Viewpoint Photographers)

As SARRC grew, Resnik kept thinking about housing, which was becoming an urgent issue: every year, roughly fifty thousand autistic kids come of age in the United States, and they all need places to live. The issue was personally pressing, too. Matt was growing up, and Resnik knew that she and her husband wouldn’t be around forever. Though Matt loved to sing, he struggled with spoken language and experienced frequent seizures, which are not uncommon in people with autism. These challenges would make it difficult for Matt to live entirely on his own, Resnik thought, but she didn’t think he belonged in an institution or a group home either. “I went to some of those built environments, and I ran away as fast as I possibly could,” she recalled.

Resnik began to consider creating a different kind of housing development specifically for adults on the spectrum, and in 2007, she partnered with Ahrentzen, then at Arizona State University, and her colleague Kim Steele. Together, they began to explore the options and lay out the possibilities, developing a set of design goals and guidelines for creating homes for autistic adults. (Ahrentzen and Steele published their work in a 2009 report, Advancing Full Spectrum Housing: Designing for Adults with Autism Spectrum Disorders.)

The guidelines are not hard-and-fast rules — there is no one-size-fits-all solution when designing for people with autism (or, for that matter, people without autism). For instance, while many autistic people are overwhelmed by sensory stimuli, others actually crave this kind of stimulation.

Architects can easily tailor private homes to these individual preferences; building shared residences is trickier, but in most cases, designers should default to creating calming environments, Ahrentzen and Steele say. (They can add dedicated sensory rooms, kitted out with colorful lights and tactile toys, for sensory-seeking residents, who can also embellish their own private spaces with the stimuli they need.)

Ahrentzen and Steele’s guidelines also urge architects to think carefully about residents’ social lives. Because social interaction can be a challenge for some autistic people, there’s often an assumption that people on the spectrum aren’t interested in forming close relationships with others. In fact, Ahrentzen and Steele spoke to developers who didn’t think they’d need to design any spaces for couples. But that’s simply not true. “People on the spectrum have life experiences and want life experiences like a lot of other people not on the spectrum,” Ahrentzen said.

To that end, the guidelines suggest that architects designing shared residences create common spaces — courtyards and kitchens, gardens and mailrooms — where residents can encounter one another. At the same time, they should find ways to make sure that people can control how much and what kind of interaction they have. For instance, designers could create common spaces with alcoves, nooks, and window seats, which make it possible for residents to spend time in the company of others without having to sit in the center of a crowd. They can strategically deploy half walls, wall cutouts, and interior windows that enable people to preview shared spaces before entering them.

Moreover, ensuring that residents have private spaces that they can call their own can make them feel more comfortable taking social risks. It also honors their dignity, something that group homes and institutions don’t always do. “We saw places where they wouldn’t put doors on bedrooms because they thought people could hurt themselves and always needed to be under surveillance,” Ahrentzen said.

In addition, the guidelines suggest that housing for autistic adults should promote independence, keep occupants healthy and safe, and be both affordable and well integrated into the broader community.

The design guidelines were just a starting point for Resnik. In the years that followed, she and her colleagues at SARRC held a series of focus groups and discussions with autistic adults and their family members, autism service providers, local developers, and housing officials. In 2012, Resnik launched First Place, a sister nonprofit to SARRC; two years later, she closed the deal on a vacant 1.4-acre plot of land in the heart of midtown Phoenix. The organization set out to create an apartment building, which they called First Place–Phoenix, for adults with autism, and hired RSP Architects to lead the design process. The architects drew on Ahrentzen and Steele’s report and the information SARRC gathered at its community meetings and focus groups; to solicit more feedback on their design ideas, they also hosted two national design charettes, both of which included autistic adults.

A Residence That Allows for Privacy, With Space for Community

In late April 2018, with construction on First Place–Phoenix nearing completion, I fly to Arizona to join a “hard hat tour” of the building. Resnik arrives at the construction site in a sleeveless blue dress; she slips off her nude pumps and ties on a pair of black sneakers. There are more than a dozen of us there for the tour, and we follow Resnik’s lead, donning neon-yellow construction vests and protective headwear. She leads us into the lobby, which is still under construction. It smells like paint and plaster, and wires hang from the ceiling.

“You are now standing inside the dream,” she announces.

The dream is a four-story, 81,000-square-foot property with 55 apartments of various sizes. Prices start at $3,800 a month for a roughly 750-square-foot one-bedroom. The rent is steep, Resnik acknowledges, but includes all utilities and various supportive services: First Place support specialists are available 24/7 to help residents with whatever they happen to need, whether that’s learning how to manage their medications or career and wellness coaching. (Some residents may qualify for additional government-funded services, like occupational therapy, meal delivery, transportation, or in-home aides who assist with bathing and dressing.)

We take a quick spin through the first floor, which is chock-full of the kinds of amenities that nearly any apartment dweller would covet. “You’re not going to feel or hear anything that’s institutional about this property,” Resnik tells us. “This lives and breathes like any other property.” There’s an outdoor courtyard with a pool, a barbecue area, a community garden, and a large teaching kitchen, which will host regular cooking classes. Just beyond the lobby is a multipurpose community room that will host parties and events; a resident advisory council will take the lead. “Think about this space at night and on weekends,” Resnik says, “and how that resident advisory council has now programmed the space for karaoke night, or maybe it’s a talent show or maybe there’s bingo or maybe there’s a dance.”

Then we head upstairs to see some apartments. As we clamber up the half-finished staircase, Resnik urges us to peer out the windows, which frame a view of the city. “Take a look out — but watch where you’re walking — and recognize that these people who live here are part of a community,” she said. “We are integrated very much into the fabric of this community.” The building is just steps from a light rail line and a bus stop, and grocery stores, drugstores, museums, a theater, a library, a YMCA, and a bowling alley are all nearby. That’s part of what appealed to her about this site; Resnik wanted residents to be surrounded by places where they could work, volunteer, and socialize, and she hopes they’ll spend their days out in the community. In a few months, she tells us, First Place–Phoenix will have an open house, inviting local residents to stop in and get to know their new neighbors.

We gather at the top of the stairs on a large open landing. A darkened room sits to our right, behind a glass door. Each floor has a special activity room in the same spot, Resnik explains. This one will become a fitness room. The one just above us, on the third floor, will be a game room, stocked with both electronic and traditional games; the fourth floor will house a Zen meditation room.

Mike Duffy, the project’s bowtie-and-work-boot-wearing lead architect, chimes in. “One of the things that sets First Place apart is the dedication to common space,” he tells us. In addition to the fitness, game, and meditation rooms, there are four lounge spaces on each floor, in an assortment of shapes and sizes; residents who don’t feel comfortable in a crowd can play Scrabble with a friend in one of the smaller “pocket” lounges.

A living room in one of the units at First Place (Photo by Scott Sandler)

Resnik leads us down the hall and into one of the one-bedroom apartments. It has an open kitchen, with wood cabinets, a spacious pantry, and large white countertops. (The countertops are intentionally oversized so that residents can cook with friends.) The living room, which has enormous windows, is illuminated by the blazing Arizona sun. The bathroom is big and bright, with a fiberglass tub and sliding glass shower doors.

A lot of the most consequential design decisions are invisible. There’s a 1.5-inch layer of gypsum concrete in between each floor, which will help dampen the sound of footfalls. The walls contain acoustic channels to further muffle sound. All the lightbulbs are LEDs. There are some less conventional touches. In the shower, for instance, the plumber has installed the water and temperature control knobs on the wall opposite the showerhead, rather than directly underneath it. “It gives someone the opportunity to turn on the water without having to duck or reach through the stream,” Duffy explains. “If they turn it on too hot, there is a little bit more of a buffer.”

The entrance to each apartment is slightly recessed, set back a few feet from the hall, to allow residents to transition more gently between their private spaces and the building’s more public ones. “So you’re never going out the front door and into a major path of circulation,” Duffy says.

The appeal of First Place–Phoenix is obvious. It’s an attractive building, with top-of-the-line amenities, in the middle of a busy metropolitan area. It’s the kind of place I’d love to live, and that’s precisely the point. “One of my big takeaways is that design for someone on the autism spectrum is not that different from design for anyone else,” Duffy says. “Good design for autism is very similar to just good design.” Autistic people may be particularly sensitive to their environments, but dampening sound and avoiding flickering lights, balancing privacy and openness, and providing a medley of different kinds of spaces that occupants can choose from, depending on their specific needs — these are all design decisions that anyone can appreciate.

“One of the tenets of universal design is that if we can accommodate people with what we might consider ‘extreme’ differences, we can benefit the people who are considered ‘typical’ as well,” said Madlen Simon, an architect and professor at the University of Maryland’s School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation. “Autistic individuals highlight that for us because they can’t tolerate some of the bad design that neurotypical people can.”

Learning more about how people with disabilities perceive and respond to their environments — and how to create buildings that enable and empower them — will ultimately help us create spaces that are better for us all. The classic example is curb cuts, which were initially intended to help people using wheelchairs get onto and off of the sidewalk. But they’ve ended up making life easier for those pushing strollers or carts and riding bikes or scooters as well. The design goals and principles that First Place has deployed are similar, Resnik told me. “What we’re looking at is neurological curb cuts,” she said.

First Place–Phoenix does have some limitations. The most obvious is cost; a $3,800-a-month apartment is simply out of reach for a lot of people.

Residents must also be capable of following basic rules, feeding and dressing themselves, and communicating in some form, and the development is unlikely to be a good fit for those who require extensive medical support or engage in violent or self-injurious behavior, Resnik said. Those criteria will invariably exclude some autistic adults, she acknowledged. But Resnik told me she spent years trying to figure out how to create a building that would serve everyone. Eventually, she realized that it wasn’t possible. “That’s how we landed on First Place,” she said. “After spiraling for a while and trying to create something for everyone, we looked up and out, and made tough decisions on where we felt we could make our mark.” And she’s proud of what they’ve managed to accomplish. “We tried to create the biggest tent possible,” she said.

In fact, there is no requirement that residents be on the spectrum. During the tour, Resnik tells us that she’s hoping to attract people with a wide array of disabilities and that one of the building’s first tenants will be a man with a traumatic brain injury. Several adults with Down syndrome have expressed interest, though none have signed up yet. “We are promoting and celebrating neurodiversity,” Resnik says.

Shouldn’t All Design Be This Responsive?

First Place–Phoenix is part of a wave of new housing options for autistic adults. There’s Sweetwater Spectrum, in Sonoma, California, which welcomed its first residents in 2013. Its 2.8-acre campus includes several shared homes and numerous amenities, including hot tubs and an organic farm. In 2016, the Dave Wright Apartments, an affordable housing development, opened in Heidelberg, Pennsylvania. Half of the building’s forty-two units are occupied by adults with autism; the other half house low- and moderate-income adults who are not on the spectrum. In Florida, the Arc Jacksonville Village, a thirty-two-acre gated community for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities, held its ribbon cutting that same year.

Although these projects have had no trouble attracting tenants, these kinds of planned communities have also sparked controversy. The Autistic Self Advocacy Network, for one, opposes developments that primarily house people with disabilities. These projects, ASAN says, are a form of segregation, separating disabled people from the community rather than integrating them into it. Moreover, Crane told me, they’re simply not a good use of resources. “Instead of using affordable housing dollars to build housing across the city that autistic adults can use, you’ve got this one place,” she explained. If you’d prefer to live on the other side of town, you’re out of luck.

In addition, Crane noted that many of the developments designed exclusively for people with disabilities impose undue restrictions on their residents and may outright exclude those who don’t meet a set of narrow criteria. “A lot of planned communities will say that they’re only open to people who are relatively independent,” Crane told me. “And that’s really concerning to us. You end up in situations where if you are autistic and you have significant support needs or if you have other disabilities like you use a wheelchair or you can’t independently dress yourself and bathe yourself, that will then be used as an excuse to keep you out of the housing.”

In light of these concerns, ASAN advocates for what is known as “scattered-site housing,” in which autistic adults can choose from properties distributed across a city, living in the same buildings and neighborhoods that are home to people without disabilities. Increasing the overall supply of affordable housing and expanding access to housing vouchers for low-income people with disabilities would also be helpful, Crane said. “What a lot of people face as the main barrier ends up being just the stock of affordable housing,” she told me. (As an added bonus, expanding affordable housing is good for everyone, whether or not they’re on the spectrum.)

“Design standards only cater to that perfect six-foot-tall male individual that has good visual capacity, has good hearing capacity, has a statistically typical sensory profile, and I think it’s very, very limiting. We’re excluding so many people.”

Photo by Stephen G. Dreiseszun/Viewpoint Photographers

Crane also suggests that disability rights advocates engage with real estate brokers, landlords, public officials, and planners to ensure that more buildings meet the needs of autistic adults. “Urban planners are already thinking about the importance of affordable housing, but they’re not necessarily making sure that the affordable housing has accessibility features,” she said.

Finally, as the field of autism-friendly design grows, it is absolutely vital that designers include autistic people in the planning process. It sounds like a no-brainer, but far too often design teams will consult parents, caregivers, teachers, nurses, and therapists, but not autistic people themselves. “That means that a lot of the design features that they’ll engineer in are more for the service providers than for us,” Crane said. “You know, big open spaces that are easy to monitor, surfaces that are easy to clean.” Consulting autistic people should be “priority number one,” she added. “Get autistic people involved and all of these other things will sort of fall into place.”

A development like First Place–Phoenix is not the be-all and end-all. Nor does Denise Resnik want it to be. Instead, she sees it as one step in expanding the portfolio of choices for autistic adults, one new option for a population that has far too few.

Moving In and Taking Part

Lindsey Eaton had been so excited to move into First Place–Phoenix that her dad joked about camping out there overnight so that she could be the very first tenant. In the end, they just showed up on July 2, 2018, the day the building opened. She was one of about thirty residents who hauled their mattresses and stuffed animals and big plastic bins of belongings into the building that first week, joining their new neighbors in welcome barbecues and brunches and pool parties. Eaton selected a one-bedroom apartment on the second floor, with a 270-degree view of the city and easy access to a large lounge area. She put a photo of her colleagues at the School Boards Association on prominent display in her bedroom.

At first, Eaton and her parents weren’t quite prepared for how self-sufficient she’d need to be at First Place. Support staff were readily available if she needed them — all she had to do was call or walk downstairs — but they weren’t be checking in on her every day, making sure that her apartment was clean or that she was getting to work on time.

That was the whole point, of course, but the transition had been jarring. “It’s what I dreamed of,” she told me when we spoke that fall, several months after she’d moved in. “But it’s got its kinks.” She’d never lived alone before, and she wasn’t sure that she liked it. “All of a sudden it’s me in my one-bedroom apartment just talking to myself,” she joked.

But she was adjusting to her newfound independence and starting to build a social life. She had joined the resident advisory council, which had been renamed the Council of Resident Engagement, and helped plan a Halloween party and a potluck Thanksgiving dinner. She had started using an app to track her expenses and was proud of how well she’d been able to stick to her budget; when she had a little extra spending money, she’d treat herself to a new wristband for her Apple Watch. “I feel optimistic,” Eaton told me. Her parents agreed. “We feel like she could not be in a better place,” Doug Eaton said. “We’re so thankful every day that this exists.”

Other residents were also finding their way. Before she moved into First Place–Phoenix, Lauren Heimerdinger, who has autism and is visually impaired, had been worried about striking out on her own. “I’m mostly nervous and scared to death about this,” she told me a few months before the move. “I’ve lived with my parents for thirty-two years — that’s all I know.”

In the end, the transition had gone more smoothly than she imagined. She’d had to make a few modifications to her apartment, including adding braille stickers to the buttons on her microwave, but she was enjoying her independence, and the community that was forming in the building. “I’m a social butterfly, so I like to be around people,” she told me. She’d started dating another resident and was leading Sunday-night meditation sessions in the building’s Zen room. “I am proud that I’ve gotten this far,” she said.

Still, Heimerdinger didn’t want to stay at First Place–Phoenix forever; she hoped to spend a year or two there and then look for a more affordable place out in the wider community. “It’s nice to have the staff here that will help you, but I don’t want to have to check in with them,” she said. (A few months after I first spoke with Heimerdinger, her father became the interim chief financial officer of First Place. It’s not uncommon for parents and family members to join the organization. In the spring of 2018, as Lindsey Eaton was preparing to graduate from First Place Transition Academy, her father became a First Place board member. “I joined because I needed to see First Place succeed,” he told me.)

When I called Resnik a few months after the apartments opened, she was pleased with how things were going. Her son, Matt, now in his twenties, was beginning to make his own transition to First Place– Phoenix. They were taking it slow. Matt, who had started a biscotti company to help raise money for his living expenses, was still working on some of the life skills he’d need to live on his own. He’d started by spending two nights a week in his new apartment, a number that Resnik hoped would gradually increase. He was getting to know the property and learning the routine, doing yoga and playing Uno with his new neighbors. “It’s exhilarating, it’s joyful, and at the same time it’s anxiety-producing,” Resnik told me. But she and Matt were both beginning to conquer their fears, she said.

Resnik is working with researchers at Arizona State University to track how residents are faring: How do they rate their quality of life? Are they gaining life skills? How many of them work or volunteer in the community? Resnik hopes that if she can provide solid evidence that First Place–Phoenix is better for young adults than some of the alternatives, the government might provide public funding that will bring the rent down for residents. In the long run, she wants to create a portfolio of First Place properties; organizations and developers in several dozen cities across the United States and Canada have already expressed interest. “There’s greater demand than ever before,” Resnik said. “It would help us all to create more places and spaces where neurodiversity can thrive.”

Excerpted from “The Great Indoors: The Surprising Science of How Buildings Shape Our Behavior, Health, and Happiness,” by Emily Anthes, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 2020 by Emily Anthes. All rights reserved.

Emily Anthes is an award-winning science journalist and author. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Wired, Nature, Slate, Businessweek, Scientific American, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, and elsewhere. Her previous book, “Frankenstein’s Cat,” was long-listed for the PEN/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award.

×