A Coconut Creek mom volunteers on behalf of her child and others with autism

While the black tank top that Ellen Blackburn wears might not catch most people’s attention, it did catch the attention of a woman who noticed the shirt’s beaded  puzzle piece. She approached Blackburn at a Starbucks and started a conversation about her son, who has autism.

It’s not unusual for Blackburn to be approached by people asking questions about autism. Because of her 20-year-old son, Aaron, who has autism and Landau-Kleffner syndrome, she has been helping families for years.

For years, she was a volunteer secretary of the Autism Society of Florida. She worked on an information newsletter and attended events, but felt that something was missing.

“I saw that there was so much need for support of fun things—not just living on therapy,” Blackburn says. “My son just went from therapy to therapy five days a week, three times a day, and it’s hard. I thought, ‘Wow, there’s nothing fun.’ ”

Frustrated by other autism societies that she thought didn’t help families financially, she decided to branch off and form her own foundation. Using the familiar puzzle piece imagery from other autism initiatives, she created The Puzzle Place Foundation in 2004, dedicated to supporting, informing and helping families.

“I wanted to give back to my families as much as I can, whether it’s financial support or emotional support. You just have to listen,” she says. “You have to be a friend. … Whenever you need me to talk to, I’ll do my best to help.”

The foundation has sponsored numerous special outings for families, including “Disney on Ice” performances at the BB&T Center, as well as events like haircut marathons. She raises awareness of businesses that benefit families with autistic children, such as Personal Ponies in Boca Raton and the Dan Marino Foundation’s WalkAbout Autism. Through her efforts, the foundation has been recognized by the city on Autism Awareness Day (April 2).

“I raise big money for other people,” she says. “I help the parents find the programs. I’m the support parent. I try to just get enough money to do the fun things to bring the parents together. That’s what I do.”

Through friends, friends of friends, and supportive local businesses that she comes across, the foundation’s network of volunteers and parents know that her doors are open to help—whether it’s sharing the latest research or talking to an overwhelmed parent at 2 a.m.

“If I can put a smile on a kid’s face, it’s worth every time I drive around to bring a $10 ticket to a parent,” she says.

To learn more about The Puzzle Place Foundation, visit thepuzzleplace.com.