Eli, a resident of Phoenix, is living life to the fullest. He is an avid photographer, self-proclaimed grill master, volunteer, and file clerk at a law firm. He is also an adult with neurodiversity.
Eli is a recent resident of First Place-Phoenix, a supportive housing community for adults who are neurodiverse. About 75 million people worldwide are on the autism spectrum, and 1 in 36 children have been identified with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), according to estimates from CDC’s Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring (ADDM) Network.
“I’m still living by myself, but I have support,” says Eli who has recently transitioned out of First Place but notes, “If I have any questions about anything, I have someone to go to.”
As part of its model, First Place operates a two-year Transition Academy and independent rental apartments. Adults with neurodiversity can attend the Transition Academy to learn independent living and career readiness skills or lease an apartment for any amount of time with support and amenities designed specifically for people who are neurodivergent.
“Everyone knows everyone, and everyone gets along with everyone. It's like a well-oiled machine,” Eli says.
Natasha is the Director of Workplace & Community Inclusion at First Place AZ.
“First Place is home and a community,” Natasha explains. “It's a place where people can be exactly who they are.”
In her role, Natasha connects residents with volunteer and job opportunities that align with their personal and professional goals.
“I like to talk to the resident and ask them, ‘What do you want to do? What is your dream? What's going to make you happy?’ And let's see if we can make that happen,” Natasha explains. “I explore opportunities with our community employers and show them that hiring a neurodiverse candidate is the best thing that they can do.”
Natasha says sometimes transportation can be a challenge to residents’ independence and limit their ability to get where they’re going and on time. Adults with neurodiversity have a wide range of abilities and while some can drive, others cannot or prefer not to.
“When you have a disability, sometimes you're very dependent on everyone else's schedule to get to do what you want,” Natasha explains. “You need someone to drive you and someone to pick you up.”
Not all public transportation is available or accessible around the clock and may require hours-long commutes across town or multiple transfers. Rideshare services driven by humans may also present challenges, as people with neurodiversity may face bias from drivers who don’t understand their behavioral nuances.
For example, when Eli moved into First Place, he told Natasha he was very interested in working in an office, so Natasha helped him find a job as a file clerk at a law firm. Because Eli does not drive, he relies on ride-hailing services, carpooling and the light rail to get to his job and volunteering.
First Place is collaborating with Waymo, an autonomous driving company that operates an autonomous ride-hailing service called Waymo One, to explore how the technology could expand mobility for people who are neurodivergent.
“I think that Waymo and autonomous vehicles and inclusion and independence all connect together because we're able to allow individuals who may otherwise not be able to go certain places to go where they want to go,” Natasha emphasizes.
I think that Waymo and autonomous vehicles and inclusion and independence all connect together because we're able to allow individuals who may otherwise not be able to go certain places to go where they want to go.
One bright sunny day, Natasha and Eli hailed a ride with Waymo One to take a trip to the Arizona Animal Welfare League (AAWL), an animal shelter where Eli volunteers.
First Place helps connect many residents with volunteering roles at AAWL to help prepare them for work responsibilities.
“They go every single week,” Natasha says. “Everyone has gone through training. They're really responsible for those dogs while they're there, making sure they get the best treatment, the best cuddles, the most treats, whatever it may be.”
During the Waymo One ride, Natasha says she and Eil were impressed with the vehicle’s driving and how it kept them informed on the trip progress through on-screen cues.
“We passed construction and all of the cones populated on the screen of the car,” Natasha recalls. “They really are seeing everything.”
Eli says he believes technology like Waymo’s could help him stay connected to his community, wherever he lives in the future.
“Waymo will help me to become more independent; I felt like I could do this all the time,” Eli says. “You don't have to worry about what's going to happen along the ride. It just goes and gets you to your destination.”
Waymo will help me to become more independent; I felt like I could do this all the time. You don't have to worry about what's going to happen along the ride. It just goes and gets you to your destination.
For Eli and people who identify as neurodiverse, freedom of mobility remains an important part of inclusion, giving them the opportunity to volunteer, work, and be an active part of society. Waymo is working with advocates for and people with disabilities to influence its Waymo One development and ensure the technology and service benefits riders with diverse needs.
“I think that's truly what inclusion means and community means is that when someone walks in a room, you're not focused on their disability, you're just focused on them as a person,” Natasha says. “I want people to see the ability, not the disability.”