Arizona and First Place® AZ are prominently featured in an award-winning documentary about autism, “In A Different Key,” showing at the Phoenix Film Festival August 14, 15 and 17 after recently winning an Audience Choice Award at the Sedona International Film Festival.
“In A Different Key,” a true story about love, difference and the struggle to belong, follows a mother, Caren Zucker, as she tracks down the first person in the U.S. diagnosed with autism to learn what promise his story—and that of others on the spectrum—holds for her own autistic son, Mickey. Her journey exposes both cruelty and kindness but ultimately leads to hope.
In the film, Zucker travels to Phoenix multiple times to visit Mickey, who lives at First Place–Phoenix, an innovative residential community with a suite of supports and amenities for individuals with autism and other neurodiversities. The film captures Mickey as he hikes Phoenix’s Trail 100, rides the light rail, visits the Arizona Humane Society and Huger Senior Center.
In the beginning of the film, Mickey is living at 29 Palms in Phoenix with other participants of the First Place Transition Academy, a two-year, residential independent-living and career-readiness program. The affordable housing property was jointly developed by the Foundation for Senior Living and First Place AZ and predated the development of First Place–Phoenix.
The film shows Maricopa County Sheriff Paul Penzone visiting First Place–Phoenix with deputies and officers during an autism training session designed for first responders to help them learn how to positively interact with neurodiverse individuals.
Dr. Daniel Openden, president and CEO of the Southwest Autism Research & Resource Center (SARRC) in Phoenix, also shares a story of a child with autism who becomes best friends with a neurotypical boy he met through SARRC’s Community School.
“‘In a Different Key’ depicts pioneering parents and leaders who set the stage for this moment and our chance to fuel a new wave of housing and community options, so more people have more options in their home communities close to where their families live,” says Denise D. Resnik, founder, president & CEO of First Place AZ, co-founder of SARRC and mother of a 30-year-old man with autism who lives at First Place–Phoenix. “Through the power of our example, we are helping more people realize that an autism diagnosis need not stand in the way of friends, jobs, healthcare, post-secondary and lifelong education—and homes of their choice,” says Resnik.
The film is based on the 2017 Pulitzer Prize finalist book by Zucker and fellow journalist and co-author John Donvan titled “In a Different Key: The Story of Autism,” which explores autism’s turbulent past in the framework of a civil rights movement. Zucker, co-director and co-producer, is a journalist and Emmy Award-winning network producer. Donvan, also co-director and co-producer of the film, is a veteran network correspondent and producer for ABC, CNN and PBS.
“Because our film aims to show that community is all important for people on the spectrum, it’s wonderful that Phoenix has proven to be what John Donvan and I note is ‘the most autism-friendly city anywhere,’” Zucker says.
“The stories we tell add up to a commonsense realization that autism is just one more wrinkle in the fabric of humanity—and that none of us gets through life unwrinkled,” says Donvan.
The film earned an Audience Choice Award for Best Documentary at the 2021 Sedona International Film Festival in June; the Jury Award for Best Documentary at the 2021 Oxford Film Festival in March; and the Audience Prize for Best Documentary at the 2021 Sonoma International Film Festival in March.
First Place–Phoenix, First Place AZ’s 81,000-square-foot, $15.4 million property, is a residential community with a suite of supports and amenities for individuals with autism, Down syndrome, traumatic brain injury and other neurodiversities. Ushering in a new era of housing and community options for special populations, First Place combines apartments, the Transition Academy residential life skills program and the Global Leadership Institute to advance more independent and community-integrated living options. In addition to 55 apartments, First Place–Phoenix has a sports pool, culinary teaching kitchen, fitness and game rooms and other common areas for various activities.