Meet Lorri Unumb, Winner of the 2021 Civitan International World Citizenship

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Meet Lorri Unumb, Winner of the 2021 Civitan International World Citizenship

Civitan Magazine (MAY 2021) Champion of Advocy Lorri Unumb Recognized with Honor

Nothing quite turns your world upside down like an autism diagnosis for your toddler son. But imagine you are also told the treatment to help him would not be covered by insurance. In fact, it would cost you around $70,000 a year. You sell your house, take other drastic measures and scrape whatever you can together to afford it. South Carolina lawyer and mother Lorri Unumb did just that but more. She started a revolution of sorts.

“I was heartbroken again thinking about the children who would never have the benefit of a therapy that can be absolutely life-changing,” says Unumb.

Unumb wrote legislation to require health insurance to cover evidence-based treatment as prescribed by a doctor for children with autism. She personally contacted virtually every legislator in South Carolina and explained autism and the need for the legislation. After two years, it passed in 2007 and became known as Ryan’s Law.

“Once Ryan’s Law passed, people around the country began hearing that insurance would pay for Applied Behavior Analysis in South Carolina,” says Unumb. “They could hardly believe it was true, and hundreds of families reached out to me – to verify that it was true, to ask how we had managed to get coverage, and to ask for help passing similar legislation elsewhere.”

Unumb started a national gathering called the Autism Law Summit, where parents and professionals discuss how to improve the laws to help people with autism. She also shifted her career, going from working at the United States Department of Justice to working for Autism Speaks. Spending more than a decade traveling the country working with families and state legislatures to pass similar legislation to Ryan’s Law, she was an agent of change.

“In some states, the effort to pass the bill took 5, 6, even 7 years. In 2019, we finally hit state #50. Thus, in just over a decade, the landscape changed dramatically, from a situation where only wealthy families could afford ABA for their autistic children to one where insurance coverage for autism is available in every state in the nation,” says Unumb.

Now three years later, Unumb is the CEO for The Council of Autism Service Providers, which is an association for autism providers organizations. Her Autism Law Summit is in its 15th year, and she and her husband Dan are the proud founders of a non-profit center for families affected by autism in Columbia, South Carolina, which provides a variety of diagnostic services, social skills classes, and job training. And, in July, she will be Civitan International’s next recipient of its World Citizenship Award, which has been given to champions of service like Eunice Kennedy Shriver and President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Unumb says she is incredibly humbled but, like all of her life experiences, will use it to impact others.

“I just hope it brings attention to the still-unmet needs in the autism world. So much has been accomplished in the last couple of decades, but so much is yet to be done. People in the autism community can identify exactly what needs to be done – housing, respite, employment – but they need help accomplishing it,” says Unumb.

Unumb may be a lawyer, advocate, business owner, CEO, and award winner but the job of mother is the one she cherishes the most.

“At my age, I see friends going through their mid-life crises and wonder if they’ve done anything worthwhile with their lives. I don’t ever wonder about such things. Having a child with autism has given me meaning, focus, and direction, and I can appreciate that that’s a gift.”

It is certainly a gift that keeps on giving.

View the June 23, 2021 Press Release

This article originally appeared in the May 2021 Civitan Magazine: CIVITAN MAGAZINE | Civitan International

Author: Scarlet Thompson, Executive Vice President Civitan International