When Windham entrepreneur and autism activist Stephanie Lay died suddenly in February of 2020, documentarians Lauren Shaw and Karlina Lyons were the ones to find her. Arriving at the home Lay shared with her teenage son, Bryce, the pair had come prepared with shot lists, questions and plans to continue their work on the film about Lay’s life caring for the severely autistic Bryce, and starting the homemade salsa business Maine-Tex Grilled Salsa.

Instead, Shaw and Lyons called 911 to report that Lay was cold on the floor and, as first responders arrived, director Shaw and producer Lyons looked at each other in shock and denial. What had drawn the filmmakers to this woman’s story was Lay’s seemingly indefatigable and unstoppable drive. To make a fulfilling life for Bryce, to overcome the obstacles facing a single mother of an autistic child, and to grow the business she started in part to make a place for Bryce and other autistic Mainers to make a living. 

“We thought for sure this was over,” recalls Shaw, a filmmaker (“Maine Women: Living on the Land,” “Angkor’s Children”) and professor at Emerson College. And while the filmmakers had been working on their film, now titled “Routine Interrupted,” since Shaw first sought out Lay back in 2017 (in order to secure a few cases of Maine-Tex for her daughter’s wedding), Lay’s death certainly appeared to doom what had shaped into an inspirational story of a mother’s love and perseverance. 

It was only then, in the days after Lay’s death, that the filmmakers discovered just how much bigger and more far-reaching Stephanie Lay’s story was. 

“We went up to her service fully imagining that it was done,” said Millinocket-born Lyons, “But everybody we met there told us, ‘You can’t stop.’ We had no idea that this community existed until after she passed away.” Added Shaw, “Her friends just came out of the woodwork.”

In speaking to Lay’s wide circle of friends and other parents of children with autism, Shaw and Lyons came to see how their subject’s dedication and activism extended not just to Bryce, but toward creating a supportive community she herself never had.


“There was no support for moms of kids with autism in Maine. So she made one,” Lyons said. 

Gaining access to Lay’s journal and the endless hours of video of herself and Bryce, along with her voluminous correspondences with others on Facebook, the filmmakers set out to chronicle Lay’s daily mission to provide for her son, and for other parents and children in similar situations.

“Everybody at every state agency knew her,” Shaw said of Lay’s legendary dedication. “She’d been interviewed all over local news and was working on an autobiography with a writer from the Boston Globe. And all that wasn’t because of ego – it was just because of her tenacity and belief that a single mom with an autistic son, with the help of a community, could raise an incredible kid.”

Starting Maine-Tex Grilled Salsa as a way to involve Bryce’s love of the barbecue at their home, Lay eventually approached Doug Mercier, the store manager at Hannaford in West Falmouth, about stocking the homemade product. From there, Maine-Tex went on to be sold in some 61 Hannaford stores, as well as more than a hundred others around the state, with Lay employing other autistic Mainers in its production, and starting a foundation to help advocate for others like Bryce. 

But if that feel-good story was what drew the filmmakers to Stephanie Lay, the tragedy of her sudden death only served to broaden their film to encompass what a huge imprint Lay’s life left. 

“We’ve gotten to know her in a way very different that if she had lived,” said Shaw, currently busy in postproduction on “Routine Interrupted.” “We first knew her as this community-minded warrior-woman, this beyond-belief mother. But having access to her journal and meeting others in the community, we saw there were two sides to her, that she dealt with personal struggles, with health issues. The film was about the relationship between her and Bryce. And while it’s certainly that now, it’s also about who she was and is to the community and to Maine.”


Added Lyons, “The film goes to the characters and not just the situation. It’s about who they are as people.”

Shaw and Lyons are currently editing together what they anticipate to be a 30-minute finished film, and are raising money through the film’s website for completion funds. As Shaw puts it in reference to Lay’s many hours of home movies of her life with Bryce (currently living with loving guardians in Portland), “Stephanie’s done most of the preproduction work. We’ve been working on this for three years. Stephanie was working on it for 19.”

And while they anticipate “Routine Interrupted” will be submitted to Maine’s esteemed Camden International Film Festival this fall, Shaw hopes that Stephanie Lay’s story will expand its reach beyond the festival circuit.

“I’d love to see it travel to organizations that help families,” said Shaw, with Lyons adding, “As filmmakers, we’re always looking for opportunities where we can serve a purpose.” 

You can visit the “Routine Interrupted” website at routineinterruptedfilm.com, where you can learn more about Stephanie and Bryce Lay, and find links to donate toward the film’s completion. 

Dennis Perkins is a freelance writer who lives in Auburn with his wife and cat.

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