FLORENCE, S.C. – Jessica Brown says families of people with autism need support, too, and the organization she guides works to provide that.
Brown is executive director of All for Autism, which operates the Autism Resource Center of the Pee Dee in Florence.
All 4 Autism was founded in 2005. Brown and Amy Pennington, both mothers of children on the autism disorder spectrum (ASD), joined the organization in 2016 as the first hired staff. They shared the vision of opening a center where mothers of children with autism could come to find support and resources. Brown had experience in the nonprofit sector, and Pennington was a runner. She helped Pacing 4 Pieces raise money for the resource center.
Pacing 4 Pieces is a fundraising effort held each year to support All 4 Autism. This year's event will be on Saturday in downtown Florence.
One of the things Brown said the organization emphasizes is that you are not alone in this journey. They have a saying: “Join hands to connect the pieces."
“The reason I opened the center is because I have a 15-year-old son who was diagnosed with autism at the age of 3,” she said. At that time, there were no resource centers in the area, she said.
“I knew nothing about it (when her son was diagnosed),” she said. She said a person can have varying degrees of autism on the spectrum. She said the deficits can be very different. There are no distinguishing physical characteristics, she said.
She said that when her son was diagnosed, one in 163 children were diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder; today that number is one in 59.
“I have been astounded in the difference in awareness, support and services in the last couple of years,” she said.
She said schools are more inclusive; televisions programs talk about it, and people share their stories.
One of the main things the organization does is provide family consultations, Brown said.
She said most everyone concentrates on services for children, and adults are sometimes left without a support system.
The seventh annual Pacing 4 Pieces and Armstrong Wealth Piece Jam Festival on Saturday will start with a half marathon race and include a 5k Run/Walk. All proceeds benefit All 4 Autism and the Autism Resource Center of the Pee Dee.
The half marathon starts at 9 a.m. and the 5KRun/Walk at 10:30 a.m. The starting location is the corner of Coit and Cheves streets for the 5K and Coit and Evans for the half marathon. The finish line will be at the corner of Evans and Dargan streets. The races will be followed by the jam festival from noon to 5 p.m. on the 100 block of Dargan Street. The jam festival is free and open to the public.
About 500 participated last year, and more are expected this year.
Rather than focus on just those who run, Brown said, the organizers wanted to make the event all-inclusive with something for everyone. Pennington is the race director.
“We have a kids' zone with inflatables, games and activities,” Brown said. “I am really excited that this is the first year to have a sensory tent, a calming place, a quiet place to go. Palmetto Animal Hospital will bring their therapy dogs.”
The sensory tent is a safe, quite, comfy place away from the noise of the festival and the crowd.
Brown said families with autism aren’t always able to participate in community activities. This is one way they can.
“Pacing 4 Pieces was created to bring awareness of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and increase local support and resources for our ASD community,” Brown said.
“Our mission is to offer all our services free to all. And the race helps us do that.”
She said all of the money raised from Saturday’s race goes back to the community to help people with ASD.
The resource center will celebrate its second anniversary on April 25.
It is now operated by Brown and a part-time office manager with a board of directors. She said they are hoping to add two new staff members this year.
“The response has been overwhelming,” she said.
Last year the center provided services to 600 families, providing everything from camp experiences, workshops, a monthly Coffee & Friends event, social groups, educational opportunities and a support group for siblings.
Brown said she has two sons and it is important to her to include programs and events for siblings. She said they need to know others face the same family battles as they are going through. Once a month they have a Siblings United support group, which is an outlet for sharing experiences and challenges of growing up with a sibling on the spectrum, she said.
“At least 50 percent of what we do benefits anyone with a disability and their families,” she said.
“Our mission is to increase awareness, resources and support to those of all ages with autism spectrum disorder and their families throughout the Pee Dee,” Brown said. “We are a true grassroots organization. All the money we raise stays here.”
Coffee & Friends is another event held monthly at the center so that parents and caregivers can share information and gain support.
Camp Saint John is an inclusive summer camp with recreational and social programs for ASD children 4-18.
There are workshops/training, all free, that cover a variety of topics on autism, special needs, inclusion and parenting.
The Autism Resource Center provides free resources, support programs and referral services. There are other social, educational and informative activities sponsored by the resource center.
“It is the first and only one in the region,” she said. “It is all free.”
The Autism Resource Center of the Pee Dee is at 183 S. Coit St., Suite B, in Florence. The center hours are from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday.