Guest Commentary: Pass the budget, support families with autism

By May 30, 2023News



Autism. It’s a hard diagnosis to swallow. A lot of my hopes and dreams for my son, Kolby, changed after that diagnosis.

Without many programs for children or young adults with autism, it was a difficult journey until we found Family Initiative, which believes every child, young adult and family has the chance to thrive.

The nonprofit Florida-based organization supports families like ours, providing social skills programs, clinical services and education with a very personalized focus on each individual child and family.

Family Initiative listens to the families they serve, and together, we are very strong advocates for children on the autism spectrum, and we have very clearly defined one of our greatest areas of need — a private educational setting for young people on the spectrum. Another moment of clarity came after Hurricane Ian. Our region needs a special needs shelter that can adequately protect our children and families in the event of another natural disaster.

Thrive Academy has been piloted as a micro school in the 2022 school year and will serve high school students with autism. Currently, 10 children on the autism spectrum are enrolled, and we will be ready to enroll more students in the fall. Additionally, Thrive Academy will provide wrap-around specialized education, vocational training and clinical support. The funding will support the acquisition, renovation or construction, and operations for Thrive Academy.

As we pursue our goal of creating Thrive Academy, we are thankful to Florida House Speaker Paul Renner, Florida Senate President Kathleen Passidomo, Florida House Rep. Jenna Persons-Mulicka and Florida Sen. Jonathan Martin for including funding for the Thrive Academy and special needs shelter in the proposed state budget. Family Initiative parents and board members applaud these leaders for establishing a safer, brighter, more independent future for young people on the autism spectrum while also protecting families needing shelter from another big storm. The budget, as recently agreed to by the House and Senate budget chairs, includes $5 million for the acquisition and construction of a school and special needs shelter in Southwest Florida. The Legislature authorized the planning and development of a school in the budget in 2022, with the idea that it would be fully developed later. The next step is for lawmakers to approve the funding.

The Thrive Academy and special needs shelter will give young people on the autism spectrum the opportunity to become more self-sufficient using their unique talents. These true public servants have embraced this project and strengthened it by including a special needs shelter designed specifically for families with special needs. This project will build on what was started last session and will provide protection for families in an emergency. We are immensely grateful, and we thank the delegation and Gov. Ron DeSantis for empowering parents to make educational decisions impacting our children and for protecting us in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian.

Thrive Academy will fill a huge gap in our education system, and as a result, our children will thrive. They deserve a chance to learn in a setting that’s best suited for their needs, and we are inspired for the launch of Thrive Academy. They will learn so much, and so will we. Kolby has certainly taught us a lot. He has taught me to be more open, more patient and to advocate for what’s best for him.

Jessica Van Hart is a board member with Family Initiative. For more information, visit or call 239-910-0712.