Anna Curtis had a small blue puzzle piece with a tiny heart cut out tattooed on the top of her right foot three years ago to serve as a both a reminder and a conversation starter about her life’s passion.

She inked her commitment to autism awareness during her second year of graduate studies in autism at Towson University, with a plan to add a second puzzle piece in red when she graduated in 2016.

“I changed my mind,” Anna said. “This is perfect just as it is.”

woman and child in field with sign that says independent of autism

Anna did more than get the degree and tattoo while at Towson.

She started a small nonprofit called Independent of Autism, small enough that it’s run primarily by her out of her home in Hampstead in Carroll County. But she sees her work as filling a big void in an area that has a growing need for autism services.

What Anna focuses on is where families and young people on the autism spectrum felt like they needed more support — how to navigate their way in the world through social circumstances that most others do with ease, or at least without practice.

Beginning and ending a conversation.

Taking turns in a board game.

Riding bikes with friends.

Calculating a bill and tip at a restaurant.

Simple tasks that become less daunting and more familiar when they’re practiced with new friends and a teacher like Anna.

*      *      *

Anna started Independent of Autism, filing the necessary paperwork to establish the organization as a 501 (c) 3 nonprofit, while she was still pursuing an Autism Studies Post-Baccalaureate Certificate and master’s degree in autism at Towson.

Anna, who had worked as a preschool teacher, had developed an interest in learning more about autism during her years of volunteer work with Special Olympics and the Young Athletes Program in Carroll County. She noticed that many of the athletes that she coached were on the autism spectrum, and she decided to return to graduate school to study autism so she could be better educated and learn more about what she could do to work with individuals on the spectrum.

“I love school, and I love learning and finding out about new things. I also love helping others,” Anna said. “I had already been collecting books on autism, reading everything I could, but it had never clicked that I had already done so much of the work that I needed to do.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 1 in 68 children in the U.S. has been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. In Maryland, the numbers are even higher, with 1 in 55 children being identified with autism spectrum disorder, according to the Maryland Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring (MD-ADDM) Project, a program funded by the CDC.

Anna knew that if she started a group on her own to address the needs of the autism community in Carroll County, she would need to keep her offerings streamlined because of the ever-present, persistent problem of small nonprofits—the need to raise money and keep it coming in.

“I want to do it all—support groups, play groups, social skills groups, job skills help, guidance for secondary and higher education. I want to be an advocate,” Anna said. “But look, I don’t have a spokesperson, no celebrity endorsements, no big funding, nor will I ever. But it’s not stopping me, nor will it ever.”

Her marketing team for now consists of her 10-year-old son Jimmy, an outgoing 5th-grader who is happy to help his mom pass out flyers and talk to people at events, as well as help at social groups and anywhere else her work takes her.

Some of Anna’s word-of-mouth advertising led to Simone Hovermale finding a social group for her 12-year-old daughter, Mya. Simone had been looking unsuccessfully throughout Carroll County for a non-sports activity for Mya, who is nonverbal, that could help her overcome some of her social anxiety and reluctance to try new situations.

Mya, who cried and didn’t want to leave her mom’s side at first to join the other children, is now taking her third session with Independent of Autism, and both mom and daughter feel like they have found a safe, comfortable space.

“It’s easy here. I’ve tried other things, and both of us would get anxious not knowing how the other kids would react,” Simone said. “These kids understand. They’re not going to judge her.”

*      *      *

Mya has found her place in one of the two social skills groups that Independent of Autism has meeting regularly in Carroll County, one for children ages 6 to 11, and the other for teens and young adults. Anna leads both groups with the help of volunteers, and of course, Jimmy.

“It’s a great way for parents and kids to have somewhere to go that’s just for them, for their self-esteem,” Simone said.

Each group meets once a week for six-week sessions, with the groups kept small so the children and teens aren’t overwhelmed and each can receive individualized attention. The younger-aged group meets at the South Carroll Senior Center in Eldersburg on Friday nights for an hour and a half. The older group meets on Saturdays at the Eldersburg branch of the Carroll County Library for two hours on Saturdays.

Anna says that she is interested in expanding and having groups for younger children, but hasn’t had a high enough response to form a group.

“There’s a need there, but I need the help to get the word out because it’s not going to be very social if there’s only one (child) there,” she said.

Each group works on different skills, with the older group getting the opportunity to work together to plan outings. They learn how to communicate with each other, how to come with ideas, how to make decisions about where to go—all before they ever leave the building.

Anna has taken the group to restaurants to learn how to order, figure out a bill, and calculate a tip. They visited the Baltimore Humane Society and received a tour, asking questions along the way. Activities in preparation for outings like this might include a Jeopardy poster board game, where they could win play money for correct answers and then learn how to identity the bills and calculate winnings.

The younger group works on their social skills through play and encouraging them to use their imagination, especially artistically. Anna said she also tries to ensure everyone goes outside at least once during each session, as well as encouraging them to work together if they choose to play with board games, puzzles, or card games.

The overall goal, though, is to encourage all of the children, teens, and young adults to feel safe and supported in anything they choose to do, Anna said.

“I want them to be independent of their autism. That will always be a piece of them, but I want them to do whatever they want to do. If they want to drive a car, drive a car. If they want to be a scientist, be a scientist. Whatever they want to do, I want to help them get to that level,” Anna said.

For Mya, coming to the social group meant that she learned she could be herself in front of people who were unfamiliar to her—she didn’t have to worry about the noises she made or how she moved her body or any other behaviors she usually felt she had to suppress.

“She didn’t feel out of place. She felt accepted,” Simone said. “You might be different, but you’re still a person. You’re not just Mya with a disability.”

Visit Independent of Autism to find more information about the organization or to join a social group. You can also connect with Independent of Autism on Facebook.