Surfside Beach

Becky Large says families affected by autism usually don’t want to bother with going on vacations.

Their autistic children have a tough time dealing with strange surroundings, noise and lights and that can lead to tantrums or crying.

And when that happens, public scrutiny often occurs with scowls and even rude or harsh comments about being able to “control your kids.”

But that may soon change—at least in Surfside Beach.

Surfside Beach has become the first Autism Friendly Destination town in the country.

The Surfside Beach town council passed a resolution pledging its support to put out a special welcome mat to families with autistic children.

Large, who has a son with autism, said the resolution is an incredible step forward for parents who have children on all ends of the autism spectrum.

A member of the Surfside Beach business committee, she said the resolution gives a brighter ray of hope to parents who usually consider going on a vacation too much trouble.

“Children with autism get a sensory overload and new places can lead to emotional meltdowns,” Large said. “And with all that, most parents just don’t bother with trying to take a vacation.”

Large said she brought the idea of turning Surfside Beach into an autism friendly town up to the business committee and her fellow members loved the idea.

And the town council was just as enthusiastic about the prospect, putting its official stamp on the concept, she added.

So what exactly is an Autism Friendly Destination?

“The businesses who buy into this idea will make special efforts to accommodate children with autism by reducing the things that can be a distraction or cause a sensory overload,” Large explained. “This can be actions like cutting down or lessening bright lights, loud noises and such.”

She added that one of the biggest roadblocks for autism families on vacations is the most basic—finding somewhere to stay. And already, that’s becoming less of a problem in Surfside Beach.

“We have the Surfside Beach Resort, Holiday Inn and Surfside Realty already on board and willing to do whatever they can,” Large said. “This can be things such as not putting families near loud elevators or keeping them separated from large or loud groups.”

Another worry that many families have is that if a meltdown occurs, their child may break something where they are staying.

“The folks at Surfside Realty said they get frat groups, spring breakers and vacationers like that all the time and things are always getting broken. So that’s not a big deal at all,” she said.

Putting together events and helping autism families is not new to Large. She received a grant with SOS Healthcare to start a program called ACE-Autism Community Awareness.

Through this she has lined up support from some area restaurants and Ripley’s Aquarium to work with families affected by autism.

She also has worked with a local movie theater to provide sensory-friendly movies where the lights are turned up and the kids are allowed to roam around.

Though time is moving fast, Large said she and the committee are working on setting up three long weekends in April for autism families. April is Autism Awareness Month.

There will be special fun activities including a cookout at the fire department, sandcastle building and even surfing lessons.

She hopes to come up with a special afternoon just for the parents.

“We’ll have some specially trained volunteers take care of the kids for an afternoon just to give the parents a break for a few hours to maybe shop, play golf or just relax.

“It’s a win-win situation for everybody—the families and the town. The families get a much needed vacation and the town will get visitors during a time when they don’t usually get many tourists.”

Town councilmember Mary Beth Mabry said passing the resolution was one of the most rewarding things she’s done since being on council.

“I’m so proud the business committee brought this to us and we are able to provide a special welcome to these families,” she said. “I hope all of our businesses in town jump on this and we truly provide a special vacation destination. We’re called a family friendly town and this really shows it.”

For more information about the autism friendly weekends or to be a participating business, you can email Becky Large at beckylarge66@gmail.com.

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I'm the editor of the Myrtle Beach Herald, a weekly newspaper serving South Carolina's Grand Strand. I cover municipal government in Myrtle Beach and Surfside Beach. Know of a good story? Call me at 843-488-7258.

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