By Damian Dominguez
World Autism Awareness Day is April 2, and the Columbia-based Autism Academy of South Carolina made certain that people knew about it.
Donning blue T-shirts and shiny blue capes, academy staff and supporters walked from their Columbia headquarters to the State House on Wednesday, where they visited every Senate office to hand out pens bearing their organization’s name. In the afternoon they went to Five Points, a retail and entertainment hub, and colored its iconic fountain blue.
It’s all part of a worldwide annual campaign called “Light it Blue,” which has over 15,000 buildings worldwide lighting themselves blue on April 2, from the Empire State Building to the great pyramids of Giza, and even the International Space Station.
“We aren’t just creating awareness,” said Lorrie Unumb, founder of the Autism Academy of South Carolina and vice president of state government affairs for the national organization Autism Speaks. “We’re educating people on how to interact with people with autism.”
She said that the Schoolhouse Rock song “I’m Just a Bill” inspired her to begin writing legislation.
“It felt like a pure form of government, just people talking directly to their representatives,” she said.
She wrote and helped pass Ryan’s Law, named after her son, in South Carolina in 2008. The law provided children with autism spectrum disorder access to the insurance they need, and she said that was the start of a wave of states adopting similar laws.
“South Carolina was a leader because of Ryan’s Law,” Unumb said.
Now, Unumb says, she is pushing for more progress in the legislature to expand insurance access, while at the same time working to broaden her own organization’s work.
“I didn’t call it the Autism Academy of Columbia or the Midlands for a good reason,” she said.
She said she wants the Autism Academy’s current location to provide a centralized location for caregivers and students in the Midlands. This summer, she said, the academy will provide a free, statewide training program for anyone interested in learning how to better interact with people with autism spectrum disorder.
She also hopes that the Autism Academy can become a group that focuses on preparing young adults for jobs.
“I believe that every child at the Autism Academy can work a job,” she said.