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Southwest Florida Autism Center Bridges Gaps for Families of Children with Autism

Southwest Florida Autism Center Bridges Gaps for Families of Children with Autism

by David Brown, President, Family Initiative, Inc./Southwest Florida Autism Center

Valonna French recognized the signs just a couple months after her son, Lucas, was born.

“He was a great baby, quiet, stared out the window. He never fussed or cried,” she said. “Babies just don’t do that.”

By age 3, Lucas had a formal diagnosis. Like 1 in 68 children around the United States, Lucas is on the autism spectrum.

For the next six years, the family managed long wait lists, high out-of-pocket costs and travel from doctor to therapy to school. But last year, French saw an ad for a new playgroup for children and families with autism while at a therapy appointment at Healthpark Hospital. She took a photo of the ad for the new nonprofit – Family Initiative Inc. – and showed up that Saturday for a play group with Lucas, now 9.

Lucas hasn’t missed a Saturday since then. “They understand him and know how to take care of him,” French said. “His communication with other kids has improved, a lot more eye contact. Even his teacher at school said, ‘Whatever you are doing at home, keep doing it.’ He has grown by leaps and bounds.”

Family Initiative Inc. is nonprofit based in Cape Coral that is dedicated to supporting and strengthening local families by providing resources for children and teens diagnosed with autism. The nonprofit offers autism play groups, art groups, parent groups, and more. We are also partnering with the Lee County Sheriff’s Office to offer training for dealing with individuals with autism.

Our vision is to offer a one-stop shop for families and children to continue to attend groups, but also receive therapy and integrate treatment by bridging current gaps in services. We want to provide all these resources under one roof, providing families the ability to go to one location, network, share transportation, and grow and learn together. That’s what the Southwest Florida Autism Center would offer.

The Southwest Florida Community Foundation has been critical to these efforts. Recognizing that families with children on the autism spectrum have not been able to receive integrated services in one location in our area, the Foundation has provided a grant to help us get the Southwest Florida Autism Center started. This grant, along with other funding we are pursuing, will help make this dream come true and make lives easier for families across our area.

We are not there yet, but we are moving closer to our goal every single day. And we are doing this for children across Southwest Florida just like Lucas.

“These groups have made him more independent. To be able to have fun in a safe environment is so important,” said his mom. “And they make it fun. Every Saturday at 8 a.m., he’s ready for play group, and I have to say, “Lucas, it doesn’t start until 12:30!”

To learn more about Family Initiative, Inc. or donate to the Southwest Florida Autism Center, go online to or find us on Facebook at

About the Southwest Florida Community Foundation
The Southwest Florida Community Foundation, founded in 1976, cultivates regional change for the common good through collective leadership, social innovation and philanthropy to address the evolving community needs in Lee, Collier, Charlotte, Hendry and Glades counties. The Foundation partners with individuals, families and corporations who have created over 400 philanthropic funds.  Thanks to them, last year the Foundation invested $5 million in grants and programs to the community.  With assets of $106 million, the Community Foundation has provided more than $67 million in grants and scholarships to the communities it serves since inception. The Foundation is the backbone organization for the regional FutureMakers Coalition and Lee County’s Sustainability Plan.  Based in Fort Myers, the Foundation has satellite offices located in Sanibel Island, LaBelle (Hendry County), and downtown Fort Myers.  For more information, visit or call 239-274-5900.





Southwest Florida Community Foundation
Southwest Florida Community Foundation

Our ambition is a more vibrant community that will continually address the evolving community needs in Lee, Collier, Charlotte, Hendry and Glades counties in Southwest Florida. We invite you to join our family and invest in the community with us!