Autism community finding ways to do more with less during pandemic

Posted at 11:27 AM, May 13, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-13 18:24:14-04

HAMPTON ROADS, Va. - At Plan Bee Academy in Chesapeake, students thrive with hands-on experiences. The private day school teaches kids with autism and related disabilities, but it all came to a screeching halt when COVID-19 hit.

Filling the need virtually in those first few months wasn't easy for Plan Bee's executive director, Wendy Fitch. Not just the move online, but figuring out how to pay staff as some school districts withheld funding.

"We had some that were looking at cutting our funding altogether because we weren’t providing in-person instruction, even though we weren’t allowed to," Fitch said.

Kelskids, a nonprofit focused on swimming and aquatics programs for children with autism, has had its own funding challenges as donations dried up.

"Just wasn't really there," said founder Kellie Lee.

Pandemic restrictions set back other nonprofits that provide support for children and families with autism as well, including limits on outings and camps, and it started to show.

"We’ve had a lot of regression," Fitch said.

Because of that, many in the autism community have had to find ways to adapt. Nicole Miller with the Tidewater Autism Society of America says they started offering more.

"Yeah, not less. More. More, more," Miller said.

The Tidewater Autism Society of America started arranging extra support groups online and making sure parents have all the resources they need, especially for those facing a new diagnosis in the middle of a pandemic.

"We’re like the village guide," Miller explained.

In Hampton Roads, it's a thriving village, and that's what many in the community want other parents to know: Despite the pandemic's challenges, there is still help.

"We’re not going to let any need go unserviced," said Mark Llobell, founder of the Virginia Autism Foundation.

When he learned about Plan Bee's funding issues, they got to work on new legislation.

"We did get some bills passed this year," Llobell said.

One of those now ensures funding for schools like Plan Bee.

At the Eliza Hope Foundation, Aimee Darby just received a grant to start a new swim program.

"I just felt pretty strongly about water safety," Darby said. "I know with Eliza it was difficult to find swim lessons that were even affordable."

Kellie Lee is also ready to get back on the water with kids like Joe, who she's seen transform over the years with her program.

"[It's] life-changing. For us, for them and his whole family," said Lee.

Tyler Williamson with Families of Autistic Children in Tidewater (FACT) has seen those life-changing moments too, like at the summer camp which they're gearing up for right now.

"We’ve seen kids hug their very first friend at camp," Williamson said.

While it hasn't been easy, they're all finding ways to keep growing and making sure that families in Hampton Roads get the support they need.

"We’re very fortunate that we’ve got so many people in this community that give so much," Llobell said.