SURFSIDE BEACH, MYRTLE BEACH (WMBF) – The first certified autism-friendly destination in the world is right here along the Grand Strand.
Surfside Beach made Family Vacation Critic's list of the 10 best beaches for families in 2018. Becky Large, the founder of the Champion Autism Network (CAN), has a child on the spectrum and had a vision to raise awareness for autism. She began by bringing families together through sensory-friendly movies and business education events, and it took off from there.
Large presented the idea of Surfside Beach becoming an autism-friendly beach back in 2016 and sure enough, the town became the world's first certified autism-friendly destination.
Through the CAN card program, participating businesses offer a service or discount for those enrolled. Large said they have a great partnership with Vacation Myrtle Beach and have 14 properties currently involved, and that every year their services and support grows.
"It kind of just struck me; we are living in a tourist destination so why not just invite everyone to come play with us at the beach?" Large said. "So since then, over the last couple years, we started slow. We had about 25 families. Last year it was about 100, and this year we are expecting triple, even quadruple of that."
According to the Centers for Disease Control, about one in 68 children in the U.S. is diagnosed with autism. With the growing population, Large said it's important for businesses to be educated.
"A lot of our families will stay home, so it can be isolating and that's not good for anyone - the siblings, the person with autism, parents," Large said. "So come out and play in a sensory-friendly supported environment. We try to offer traditional family experiences that are modified for people with autism, whether that be a movie, bowling or a vacation."
Maureen McGrath, the owner of Ocean Edge Salon and Spa, said she feels the business community should come together to do good things.
"We wanted to be a part of it of course, because we love Surfside and we feel like we are a very inclusive community and we want people who have different challenges to feel like, 'Hey come on in you're welcome here," McGrath said.
Large hopes to continue to lead with love and Surfside Beach Mayor Bob Childs hopes to continue welcoming families to the area.
"The town is very careful about the businesses that come into town because we want to keep it family friendly. So, in the future, I hope it goes along the same lines as it's going now. We keep things under control and we have all these families with autistic children on our beautiful, clean, clean beaches," Childs said.
If you are interested in the CAN program and future events, follow this link.