Anna Curtis, of Hampstead, will graduate from Towson University with a post baccalaureate certificate in autism studies in December and an individualized master's degree in autism in May. But when her studies led her to discover a need within Carroll County, she didn't want to wait until graduation to do something to make a difference.
"The national statistic is that one in 68 kids has autism," Curtis said. "In Maryland it is one in 60, so in Maryland alone we have more than the national average. [Children with disabilities] age out when they graduate and get their high school diploma or certificate. All the services they were getting from the state drop off across the board. We didn't really have much out there for [this transitioning group]."
Curtis, who is in her third year of graduate school at Towson University, started the nonprofit Independent of Autism to help people with autism who are in that transitioning age group. She said she has been working on the project for almost a year but received 501(c)3 status in January. Since its inception, the organization has served 66 families, and currently provides social groups and social skills training, one-on-one social assistance, life skills and transitioning age assistance. Future plans are to include support groups for siblings and grandparents, therapy scholarships, free workshops, and additional transition age programming.
"I really wanted the individuals we serve to one day be independent of autism," Curtis said. "They will always carry the autism diagnosis, but we want to see them able to live on their own, have a job, and have plenty of supports in place. It is to help them get into a home on their own and to help them get jobs if they can."
Curtis said she has been providing social skills to groups in Howard County through the Howard County Autism Society for a year, with clients ranging in ages from 11 to 23.
Even before Curtis started Independent of Autism, she volunteered in the field.
"I volunteer with the Special Olympics of Carroll County and I started the Young Athletes program in Carroll County," Curtis said. "Except for two, all of my athletes [last year] were on the autism spectrum somewhere. I do this for the love of families and the individuals I meet."
The Young Athletes Program within the Special Olympic program is for children age 2 to 7 with intellectual, developmental, and closely related disabilities.
Deborah Mills, of Columbia, said she is pleased with the work Curtis is doing with her 18-year-old daughter, Racquel. She found out about Curtis through the Howard County Autism Society.
"She is so good with them," Mills said of Curtis. "Some kids don't want to be social at all but she really tries to involve them. She asks them questions and listens to them. She talks to these kids like she would to anyone else and you can tell she is interested in everything they have to say."
Mills said the work Curtis is doing is making a difference for her daughter.
"Last week they went bowling. They go to movies. They had a post office outing and they go to stores and do training on making purchases. They do all kinds of life skills training," Mills said. "There are usually about eight [clients] in her group and she has about four or five volunteers as well. I never worry."
One of the things Mills said makes her happy is seeing her daughter form friendships within the group. She said some children on the autism spectrum have no desire to be social, but Curtis brings them out of their shell.
"Oh my goodness, my daughter really looks forward to this," Mills said of the outings. "Now Racquel has something to do on the weekend like any other teenager. She's made real friends and one [close friend] she even calls on the phone and she went to her birthday party. It is a beautiful thing to see."
Michael Thomas, of Hampstead, is a board member for Independent of Autism.
"I worked with her with Special Olympics," Thomas said of their connection. "She was running the Young Athlete's program and I was a coach in the soccer skills program and the basketball skills program for Special Olympics. We hope to see an increase in the amount of children and teenagers that we are helping, especially in the social skills group."
When asked why he agreed to become a board member, Thomas said he closely understands what their clients are going through.
"I am on the autism spectrum, too," he said. "I didn't have social skills when I was in school. I picked up on them over the years by watching others. They didn't teach those skills in school that you need to get around and for a job. I left Baltimore County schools when I was young because I couldn't advocate for myself. It is important, [for those with autism] to be able to advocate for their selves. They get that from [the programs at Independent of Autism]."
Thomas said that after his move to the Howard school system he adjusted and he now works in transportation in Howard. The work Curtis is doing through Independent of Autism is important, he said.
"A lot of the schools still don't teach social skills. If they are not getting these skills they don't know how to go in the world or relate to their peers," he said.
"Even if it is just a listening ear, we want to help. Working on social skills seems to be my calling. My undergraduate degree is in early childhood education and I've always been child-oriented. I've always wanted to help kids and now it has rolled around to help parents, grandparents and siblings, too. Sometimes it is the parents who need a listening ear, someone to offer support, encouragement or help finding a speech pathologist or extra services. I have also had calls to, 'Come speak with my child.' I think they know their child knows me and respects me and trusts me," she said.
Independent of Autism also recently worked with the corollary soccer program in Carroll County, providing shin guards and soccer socks to the North Carroll Soccer Club for two teams — a total of 22 to 24 kids. Because several participants in the program have learning disabilities, the initiative fit with the organization's mission. In addition, the nonprofit has also partnered with Carroll Community College to help college students get service learning hours when it is required by specific classes.
Curtis said she started a GoFundMe account last year to raise funds for Independent of Autism.
"Those funds helped me go to the Kennedy Krieger Institute last year for a conference and helped fund some office supplies and to apply for the 501(c)3 [status], which was $400. That about wiped us out. But I have sponsors in the community now and family sponsors. We are working our way up so we can do more," she said.
Curtis said raising funds for the organization has been a family affair. Her mother, Ruth Colson, sews, and Curtis' husband, Joe, makes dog collars out of fabric that they sell to raise funds.
"She's made tote bags, pillows, aprons, headbands and tea towels," Curtis said of her mother. "They have been purchased by families we serve and professionals in special education and we have some for sale on our website."
Mills said Curtis is a "wonderful person and is great with the kids." She said the organization is "something to see."
But for Curtis, her main focus is just making a difference, however she can.
"I just want to help," Curtis said. "Families need support. Grandparents need support and siblings need support. Everyone needs support. I feel lucky that I am able to help."