You might say Lorri Unumb is a high achiever. She would say it is just what women do.
Lorri got her work ethic from both her mother and her father, Elsie and Ryan Shealy. Elsie graduated from Columbia College with degrees in math and French, but rather than take the job she was offered teaching at the college level, Elsie chose to teach at Batesburg-Leesville High School. There, she met Ryan, a World War II veteran, who had returned to finish school after his military service. After the two married, Ryan went on to become an attorney and also served many years in the South Carolina Legislature.
As Lorri and her four siblings grew up, Elsie supplemented her income by selling encyclopedias in the summertime for World Book Encyclopedia. Elsie excelled at sales thanks to her strong belief in the power of reading to children, and it was lucrative. She pursued sales full time, rising quickly to become the company’s first female vice president and the major breadwinner for her family. “It definitely shaped my personality and drive to have a mom in the 1970s who was a jet-setting corporate executive raising five children in a small town,” says Lorri. When Elsie retired, the company kept her on as a consultant. She gave motivational speeches throughout the United States and abroad. She was, truly, a jet-setter in a time when few women were. Elsie prepared Lorri for the life she would one day lead.
As a young attorney working for the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Division in Washington, D.C., Lorri worked on immigration cases. Down the hall in the Torts Branch worked handsome Dan Unumb. A romance bloomed, and, on Jan. 2, 1999, they married at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Lexington, the same church where Elsie and Ryan were married more than 50 years before.
Lorri and Dan’s first son was born in March 2001 at Lexington Medical Center just one week after Ryan passed away in the same facility. The couple named their baby after Lorri’s father. Eighteen months later, at a routine checkup, Ryan’s pediatrician was concerned about his developmental delays and referred the Unumbs to a specialist at Johns Hopkins. Ryan was diagnosed with autism. “I was young and newly married with my first child,” says Lorri. “I barely knew what autism was.” Living in the Washington, D.C., area, the Unumbs had top-notch medical facilities in their backyard. They sought additional opinions from Georgetown University Medical Center and the Children’s National Medical Center. The diagnosis did not change.
“They told us that Ryan’s autism was severe and he would need intensive therapy, known as applied behavior analysis therapy, 40 hours a week to have any chance at a normal life … and it would cost $70,000 a year,” Lorri says. “I remember looking at Dan and saying, ‘Thank goodness for health insurance.’” To Lorri and Dan’s dismay, insurance would not cover one cent.
The diagnosis was devastating news. “I remember crying in my niece’s stylist chair,” Lorri says. “I told her my goal was that one day Ryan would pay taxes.” Fortunately, Lorri and Dan were likeminded when it came to Ryan’s diagnosis. “So often when parents get the news, one or both of them is in denial,” she says. “Neither Dan nor I were like that. We didn’t ask, ‘Why us?’ It’s not productive. Instead, we said, ‘How can we make it better now?’”
They were also aligned when it came to Ryan’s care. “We were determined to get him the care the doctors at Johns Hopkins said he needed.” They sold their house, downsized to a smaller one, and lived on Dan’s salary while using Lorri’s to pay for Ryan’s therapy. As Lorri got to know other parents of children with autism, she realized how blessed her family was. “I wondered what these parents do who live in apartments and don’t have houses to sell?” Lorri says. “What if you knew something would help your child, but you’re not financially well off enough to provide it for them?”
Lorri’s questions were the seed of a movement, one that began with a move back to South Carolina. “By this time, I’d left the DOJ and was teaching at George Washington Law,” she says. Lorri and Dan had no family support nearby, and it was hard. “I heard that a new law school was forming in Charleston, so I wrote Alex Sanders and volunteered to be its first professor. He wrote back and said they’d be happy to have me.”
During this same time frame, in June 2004, the Unumbs welcomed another son named Christopher to their family. Ryan’s diagnosis was very much a factor in their decision to expand their family. “Since Ryan was diagnosed at 22 months old, we knew he had autism before we decided whether to have more children,” says Lorri. She and Dan went through genetic counseling and knew the chances of having a second child with autism were increased but decided they wanted more children regardless. “We figured that if our next child was healthy and neurotypical, he or she would be a good language model for Ryan, who did not speak. And, if our next child were diagnosed with autism, at least we’d know what it was and how to get a jump on early intervention.” Christopher was born “neurotypical,” as opposed to “neurodiverse” as his brother is. The concept of “neurodiversity” recognizes that differences in brain functioning such as autism, dyslexia, or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder are normal variations, with strengths and weaknesses. It is not a medical term. Individuals or groups that exhibit those variations are considered neurodivergent or neurodiverse. The larger population is said to be neurotypical. Christopher is now a sophomore at Northwestern University, majoring in saxophone. He wants to be a professional musician.
In 2005, back in her native South Carolina, Lorri began the work of drafting a bill that would require insurance companies to cover evidence-based treatment prescribed by doctors, like ABA therapy. “I didn’t know how to write a bill, but I knew the problem and I knew what had to be done to fix it,” says Lorri. She was particularly influenced by a few of her professors at the University of South Carolina School of Law, including Greg Adams, Alan Medlin, and Rob Wilcox. “They taught me that just because something is the law doesn’t mean it needs to stay the law,” Lorri says. “The law is written by people and can be rewritten by people.”
Lorri needed someone in the State House to sponsor the bill. She identified Rep. Nathan Ballentine, who was a freshman legislator at the time. “Nathan was willing to learn about autism and was a great supporter,” says Lorri. A difficult, two-year effort began. “Legislators kept asking questions, like the number of people in each state with autism. I was worried about my credibility because I didn’t know the statistics.” Lorri emailed autism experts around the country. “I asked them if they would come to Charleston for a Saturday to help me.” Twelve people met in a room at the Mount Pleasant Public Library for the first of what Lorri named the Autism Law Summit and helped her come up with answers. The Autism Law Summit caught on and has been held in a different city each year since then. It now boasts 350 attendees.
As one might expect, the insurance industry fought Lorri and Dan’s efforts hard. When the bill finally came up for a vote late in the 2007 legislative session, it passed both the House and the Senate but was vetoed by then-Gov. Mark Sanford. Lorri and Dan rallied all their autism-affected contacts around the state. A big group of parents, grandparents, and friends converged on the state capitol. In the end, the legislature unanimously overturned the veto and Ryan’s Law was born. The Unumbs capped off a banner year by welcoming Jonathan in October. Now a high school sophomore, Jonathan is active in the marching band and wants to be a nuclear engineer.
In 2008, Lorri heard of an opening at the National Advocacy Center in Columbia, a move that would place the Unumbs even closer to supportive family. She called the NAC’s director, Mike Bailie, whom she knew through teaching at the NAC when she worked with the DOJ, and expressed her interest. “It was the kind of job I always wanted to do,” says Lorri. “It was the perfect blend of my experience with DOJ and my teaching experience.” Lorri got the job. At the same time, Lorri’s friends from the Autism Law Summit asked her to help pass similar laws in their states, so she volunteered her time.
Just six months later, Lorri was contacted on behalf of Bob Wright, Autism Speaks president and former NBC CEO. “They said, ‘All 50 states should have that law. Come work full time for Autism Speaks and make it happen in all 50 states.’” Lorri was torn. She had just started the job she had always wanted. “I talked with Mike Bailie, and he was so supportive,” she says. “Mike said, ‘Are you kidding? There’s no one else who can do what you’ve done for autism.’”
In September 2008, Lorri left the NAC to become Autism Speaks’ vice president for state government affairs. “I met with lots of parents and providers and helped write the bills, then let the locals tweak them,” says Lorri. It took a little over a decade of hard work. The last state, Tennessee, passed its law in 2019. Throughout the fight, the Autism Law Summit met yearly and marked off states in green as they passed autism laws. “We couldn’t hold the summit in person in 2020 because of the pandemic,” she says. “However, in 2021, we held the summit in Columbia and celebrated that last state. Women wore green gowns.” Not to be left out, Ryan sported a green tuxedo. “It delights me that there are people who don’t know there was a time when autism services weren’t covered by insurance. The landscape changed entirely.”
It would seem that Lorri’s fight was done after snagging that 50th state. However, that is not the case, and Lorri is not one to rest on her laurels. “I’m always thinking about more,” she says. “The system still doesn’t work perfectly. There’s still work to do.”
Given everything she had going on, it is easy to assume that passing a law in every state is all Lorri accomplished. After all, how could one person do more? Yet she and Dan did. Lorri and Dan came to the conclusion that Ryan, and those like him, would benefit from a clinical setting for ABA therapy. “There were lots of schools and centers in New England,” says Lorri. “We thought of moving, but that would solve the problem only for Ryan, not for anyone else.” As with Ryan’s Law, Lorri’s thoughts were for those who could not advocate for themselves like she and Dan could. The Unumbs opened the Autism Academy of South Carolina with three students and four staff. The academy was first housed at the Capital City Baptist Church on Percival Road. Later, the academy moved to its present home at Bull and Blanding streets in Columbia. In 2019, the board voted to change the name to The Unumb Center for Neurodevelopment. It now has 40 full-time staff and serves children throughout the Midlands.
Passing Ryan’s Law made Lorri a popular speaker for autism and law groups nationwide and internationally. In 2011, Lorri and Dan cowrote and published Autism and the Law: Cases, Statutes, and Materials, a first-ever comprehensive compilation of the key statutes, cases, and related legal materials on autism spectrum disorder. Dan founded the National Autism Law Center, the mission of which is to enforce and expand the legal rights and protection of individuals with autism. In 2019, Lorri left Autism Speaks to become CEO of The Council of Autism Service Providers, an international nonprofit trade association.
Additionally, the couple had the not-so-small matter of raising three busy boys. School, sports, and music kept the Unumb family hopping. During the pandemic, Lorri recognized that the boys needed structure. The Unumbs held international nights to give them something to which they could look forward. They would choose a country, Christopher would research it, and Lorri would whip up a meal based on the country’s cuisine. “I made up for many years of takeout dinners during the pandemic,” Lorri says with a laugh. Everyone in the family helped, which included scouring the Unumb home for decorations.
The Unumbs enjoy traveling together. Sometimes the trips include Ryan, and sometimes he stays at home with a caregiver so that Lorri and Dan can give Christopher and Jonathan a typical family vacation. The conundrum causes Lorri no small amount of guilt as she strives to balance the needs of all three. “Ryan is fine either way; it’s me,” she says. “It’s the same as working mother guilt.”
Ryan has made great strides thanks to his therapy at the Unumb Center. “He has such a great attitude, and he wants to be helpful,” Lorri says. This year, Ryan reached an important milestone. During a two-week work evaluation program, Ryan earned his first paycheck. Lorri’s dream of Ryan one day paying taxes came true.
With Ryan growing older, Lorri and Dan recognized the need for a residential campus for people with autism. “Kids like Ryan will need support for the rest of their lives,” says Lorri. “Dan and I aren’t getting any younger. We want somewhere we’re excited for him to live.” Lorri and Dan conceived Unumb Place, a residential community for adults with autism. Preliminary plans include eight houses, recreational facilities, a chapel, a community center, a picnic pavilion, a greenhouse, and walking trails. Here again, efforts are hindered by rules. “We discussed the plan with the South Carolina Department of Disabilities and Special Needs,” Lorri says. “They loved the idea but have to jump through hoops to license it because of a regulation discouraging more than two group homes in a cluster.” The regulation had its place when enacted: to prevent people from being put into institutions. It is a hurdle Lorri is determined to overcome.
Through it all, the Unumbs’ efforts are bolstered by the support of the community. They have received many noteworthy grants, including $100,000 from the NASCAR Foundation; $90,000 from the Junior League of Columbia; $10,000 per year from Children’s Charities of the Midlands; and many thousands from the Civitans, to name but a few.
Lorri Unumb, in partnership with Dan, has moved mountains in her comparatively short life. People all over the country who are touched by autism have hope because of Lorri. She uses her gift of communication and her knowledge of the law to make life better for people with autism. She is a jet-setting executive and mother raising three accomplished sons. Elsie would be proud.