by Melissa LaScaleia
Champion Autism Network (CAN) is a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization that strives to educate and empower communities, businesses, and organizations to create supportive and judgment-free experiences that enhance the quality of life for people living with autism. It was founded in Surfside Beach in 2013, by local resident Becky Large.
“At the time that I started CAN, there were a lot of organizations that supported the person with autism, but there didn’t seem to be any that supported the family,” Becky says. “But autism impacts the entire family. When leaving the house, the autistic person might experience stress and have a meltdown. It can lead to a lot of judgement amongst friends, family and strangers. Your social circle gets smaller, and a lot of times you choose not to go out.”
Lights, crowds, smells, and loud noises or music can cause stress and overload people with autism. They are highly sensitive to what’s going on in their environment. Many cannot follow or understand social cues, some are even non-verbal.
With CAN, Becky and her team curate and promote a variety of sensory-friendly events monthly— activities that the entire family can enjoy.
“People are so grateful for the outings we do, because we make it possible for parents and families to socialize and make memories,” she says.
Families with autism can join the CAN Card program, and access a list of businesses that participate in the CAN network. Every business in the network offers either a service or a discount to autistic families as a way to show support.
“We’ve been training and certifying businesses, venues, resorts and restaurants as autism-friendly in the area locally, since 2015,” Becky says. “Every business offers something different. For some, if there’s a wait and you show your card, you can move to the front of the line. That’s a wonderful thing for families with an autistic child.
“The whole impetus behind CAN was to offer support to people living with autism and give them a dignified way to acknowledge that they are autistic. When the business participates, the staff knows what to do if there’s an episode, where to seat you, and how to treat you, and the business gets patronized from a loyal and growing population.”
In 2020, CAN partnered with Bluegreen Vacations— a national organization that has resorts all over the country. In 2021, CAN trained and certified all 46 resort locations to be able to serve autistic families. And the training continues, with annual recertification and expansion as better methods and practices develop over time.
CAN also partnered with the Lead With Love Training Company to produce and manage their training program nationally.
And, in 2021, Richard Sexton, a family friend of the Large’s, ran a full marathon every day for 30 days carrying a 25lb slamball he nicknamed Slappy, on his back, to raise awareness for autism.
He ran a total of 750 miles, and raised over $43,000 for CAN. Becky and her team collected footage of his journey, and created a documentary webisode series on their YouTube channel to chronicle and celebrate the story.
Another exciting development: CAN is being highlighted in an upcoming Fox Broadcasting and Weather documentary about the affects of nature on people with disabilities. The 1-hour long show is currently set to air on August 3, and will be on Fox Weather and the Fox Network throughout the year.
“My son was the inspiration for starting CAN,” she says. “If it wasn’t for him, we wouldn’t be doing this, but now it’s so much bigger than him.”