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Quesnel family pinning autism awareness onto community

Quesnel Cariboo Observer - 4/7/2020

Over the last eight years, Laura Hender and her son Matthew have sold autism awareness pins to encourage a dialogue about the developmental disorder and raise money for local charities.

After Matthew was diagnosed with autism more than eight years ago, Laura began to see how little the general public was aware of what autism is and how misunderstood those living with autism could be.

One of the first times she saw firsthand just how unfair life can be for individuals with autism can be was when Matthew, who was four at the time, was given a "time-out" by an instructor during a swimming lesson for misbehaving, when in reality he just didn't understand what he was supposed to do.

The instructor had asked the swimmers to grab a kick board and swim to the other end of the pool. Matthew stood still, having not understood the verbal directions, which prompted the instructor to label him as being difficult and issue the "time-out." Laura believes that if the instructor had been more aware of how to work with autistic individuals, the incident would have easily been avoided.

"She gave him a 'time-out' because she said he was misbehaving for not doing what she asked, but in reality, people with autism, they don't often learn in just one way, so her just saying verbally 'can you grab kick board and swim to the end of the pool,' he didn't know what she wanted him to do — but if she had demonstrated by grabbing the kick board and doing the activity, he would have known exactly what to do," said Laura.

In the wake of that incident so early in her son's life, Laura became very aware of how misunderstood individuals living with autism are and how unfairly they may be labeled as "difficult" or as having "behaviour problems."

"It was just a real eye-opening moment for me to understand just how misunderstood he was and that this was how he was going to be labeled," said Laura. "It really concerned me that people just aren't aware and they don't understand what autism is and that he was going to be labeled negatively and this was how he was going to have to face his life moving forward, and I thought it's our job to create awareness and to help people understand what people with autism face."

Laura came up with the idea to create a pin, something physical that she could put out into the world that would spark conversation around autism awareness, as well as raise money for local charities.

Laura, who had no prior experience in creating and manufacturing pins, came up with a design and then reached out to a few of her friends in the Quesnel community to see if they could help. She sent her design to friend Jeannie Martins at Hello Promotions, who in turn sent the design along to her brother, who has background in design and was able to turn the rough sketch into a refined prototype.

Hello Promotions then donated the cost of shipping the pins to Laura and has continued to do so to this day.

The pins were a big hit in the community, and Laura realized after a few years that she needed some help selling them, so she approached Granville's Coffee hoping that they would allow her to put a small display near the register so people popping by the busy coffee shop would see them and purchase a pin. What Granville's owner Ted Martindale offered to do was more then she could have ever expected.

Martindale offered not only to allow Laura to put a display in his coffee shop, but also to give everyone who bought a pin a $5 voucher to Granville's as well, something Laura says has really helped get more pins out into the community.

"He's so generous, so he's done that for five years now," said Laura. "People who might only have bought one pin before now might buy three or four because of the vouchers to Granville's, so it's really cool."

Another Quesnel business that stepped up to help the cause is Big Country Printers, who print all the vouchers free of charge for Laura, who says although she may have started the initiative, it is really the community who are responsible for keeping it alive.

"It really is a community effort at this point," said Laura. "We started it and keep it going, but they all help out in some way."

In the first year of production, Laura ordered 100 pins. With the immediately positive response from the community, demand for the pins grew, and so has the production. This year saw more pins than ever make their way into the community.

"I ordered 100 pins to start, and I didn't know how it was going to go," said Laura. "I paid for for all these pins and then started selling them just to friends and family, and it just took off and it went really well, so the next year, we ordered a few more and then a few more, and then this year was our biggest year. I did a pre-order campaign and I ordered 600, and they sold out so fast."

Every year, the Henders donate all the proceeds from the sale of the pins to a charity of Matthew's choice. In the past, proceeds have gone to CHAAPS, Evans Consulting, BC SPCA and the Quesnel Special Olympics Program. This year, Matthew has chosen the Quesnel Special Olympics track and field team to be the recipient of their donation.

The Henders hope they will be able to continue to send out as many pins as possible into the world and dream that eventually, they will inspire conversations and education around autism awareness across the globe.

"It would be so cool to see it go nationwide, and Matthew's big goal is for it to go global," said Laura. "Just getting those pins out there and getting people talking and sharing their stories is so rewarding. Spreading awareness was the ultimate goal, and I feel like we are doing that on a small scale right now, but it is growing as we continue to move forward."

Laura says they still have about 200 pins available, but with the COVID-19 pandemic leaving many in the community to have to self-isolate and limit unnecessary travel, she is still selling the pins but is offering to hold onto them for buyers until the pandemic passes, as well as offering no-contact pick-up or delivery.

"Right now, you can get them at the liquor stores — we don't want to encourage people to go out just to buy them right now but they are available," said Laura. "Some people have come to my house and picked them up from my mailbox, or some people are asking that I just hold onto to the pins for them until all this passes, so whatever works."

Anyone interested in purchasing an autism awareness pin can do so by contacting Laura Hender by email at or by phone at 250-747-4627. The cost of this year's pin is $7.