Boardwalk crafters have autism awareness in the bag

Autism is one of the most inexplicable and complex diseases known today. With no known cause of the developmental disorder, scientists and advocates are in a constant struggle to understand how they might prevent and treat for the disorder, which affects as many as 1 in 110 children. Autism can be extremely daunting and require immense attention and patience for those affected the most. Susan Hardt and her sister, Ann Bebefield, understand all too well the struggles that come with autism, but they have managed to cope through craft.

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These AS IF bags are just a sample of the bags that will be available at the Bethany Beach Boardwalk Arts Festival this year on Saturday, Sept. 11. A portion of the proceeds will go to charities that focus on autism research.
For the second consecutive year, Hardt – the mother of an autistic son – and Bebefield will bring their custom, handmade, “AS IF” bags to the Delaware shore for the 32nd Annual Bethany Beach Boardwalk Arts Festival on Saturday, Sept. 11. The sisters began making handbags and purses in 2005, with the intention of raising funds and awareness for autism, specifically, Asperger’s syndrome. In fact, the company name, “AS IF” is an acronym for Asperger’s Syndrome In the Family.

“It all kind of came together at once,” said Bebefield. “We had a friend take a sewing class, and she made a great bag. She got us into it and it all took off from there.” Today, the two work together to provide bags, purses and gifts for their customers.

Statistics from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that the rate of autism is increasing 10 to 17 percent each year. Studies suggest that males are three to four times more likely to be born with autism than females.

The Autism Society of the United States states that the approximate lifetime cost of caring for a child with autism ranges from $3.5 million to $5 million, and that the country is facing almost $90 billion annually in costs for autism – a figure that factors in research, insurance costs, Medicaid waivers, educational spending, housing, transportation, employment-related therapeutic services and caregiver costs, among others.

Asperger’s syndrome is an autism spectrum disorder, characterized by significant difficulties in social interaction, as well as restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior and interests. Although the incidence of Asperger’s Syndrome (AS) is not well-established, experts estimate that 2 out of every 10,000 children have the disorder. Like autism in general, boys are three or four times more susceptible.

The one-of-a-kind AS IF bags each possess their own personality and range in sizes, styles and patterns, from whimsical sock monkey bags to sophisticated purses made from imported fabrics. Since AS IF’s start, the sisters have expanded their merchandise to include cosmetic cases and mini-scarves, as well.

A portion of the proceeds from sales is donated to KIDLAB (Krasnow Investigations of Developmental Learning and Behavior) at George Madison University in Fairfax, Va., and Give Autism Hope, a not-for-profit organization invested in providing lifelong opportunities for children with the disability of autism and related disorders, and their families.

AS IF Bags can be found at a variety of arts and craft shows throughout the Mid-Atlantic region. They area also available online, and are also a hot item at ArtSpring, a community art store in Hardt’s Silver Spring, Md., hometown. While online business is the company’s primary source for sales, art shows help to promote the name and increase Web traffic.

“The shows are definitely a big part,” Bebefield said. “People hold onto our business cards and will check out the Web site weeks afterwards. It’s another way we maintain our repeat business.” The economy’s decline has had an impact at many shows.

“You can definitely notice a difference,” she said. “It’s been scary the past few years. You notice that people are not spending as much. Fortunately, the online business had helped that.” Additional information about Bebefield and Hardt’s bags, including ordering information, is available at You can also catch them at their booth on Garfield Parkway at September’s art show.

“It’s nice to be doing something we enjoy and raising money and awareness for something like this,” said Bebefield.

The 32nd Annual Bethany Beach Boardwalk Arts Festival will be held throughout downtown Bethany Beach, along the boardwalk and on adjacent streets, on Saturday, Sept. 11, from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. Painters, sculptors, jewelers, glass blowers, photographers and many others will bring their specialties to the show. For more information, including a list of participating vendors and their booth locations, visit