We just came back from our family vacation. While we were very excited to go on vacation, I knew it would be a little difficult with our monkey. As special needs parents know, we have to pick and choose our battles.

For example, when we went a restaurant, we allowed my monkey use a tablet. We ended up getting a lot of stares. Other families weren’t very supportive of our son using a tablet during what is supposed to be family time. I understand. I used to be that mom. The mom who constantly compared other kids to mine. When I saw someone throw a tantrum, I would think, “My daughter would never be allowed to pull a stunt like that”  or “I would never let my daughter tell me what to do.”

We did have a small dilemma in one of the restaurants when the waitress tried getting my monkey’s attention. When she realized he wasn’t going to look up from his tablet, she told us we shouldn’t be letting him use the tablet.  After all, she said, this is family time. I explained to her that my son has autism, and this is the only way we’ll be able to have a nice dinner. The tablet will let us all eat in peace. This way, my husband, daughter and I can have actual conversations. If it weren’t for this tablet, we would be apologizing to the family behind us because our monkey wants to sit with them. Or we would be looking for his shoes under the table because he threw them. Or we would be running down the hall after him, hoping he won’t bump into someone with a tray stacked with plates.

My son doesn’t have a sign that he carries so everyone will know he has autism. Because of that, many people assume he is a spoiled toddler who cries when he doesn’t get his way. People don’t see his struggles. People can’t see how frustrated he gets because he can’t communicate with us.

While we were at SeaWorld watching one of the shows, my monkey was everywhere. He just couldn’t sit still. My husband tried so hard to keep him from disturbing the people around us. We tried so hard to get him to watch the animals, but it didn’t work. The show was only 20 minutes in, but it felt like hours. After it ended, an older man came up to my husband, patted him on the back and said, “Great job, dad!” Those words of encouragement were much needed.

Having my monkey has taught me to be more understanding, more patient and not to be quick to judge. We need to remember that everyone is probably going through something even if we can’t see it. So the next time you see a mom or dad struggling with their kids, try taking a different approach. Try giving them a smile. Or if you’re feeling brave, offer to help.  Because you never know when something as small as a pat on the back is exactly what they need.

The Mighty is asking the following: What’s one unexpected source of comfort when it comes to your (or a loved one’s) disability and/or disease? If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our “Share Your Story” page for more about our submission guidelines.

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Here’s a father-son team at its finest.

Shaun Evans, a 37-year-old ultra-marathon runner, regularly pushes his 9-year-old son, Shamus, in a wheelchair dubbed the “running chariot,” according to CBS. After the two won a 45-mile race in November 2013, Shamus began asking his dad when they would complete a cross-country run, Runner’s World reported.

Now, Shamus’s wish is coming true. On Saturday, July 4, the father and son from Galway, New York, will embark on a 65-day, 3,200-mile run across the country to prove children with disabilities don’t need to sit on the sidelines. The two will start their run in Seattle and cross through 15 states covering up to 65 miles a day before finishing in New York City in early September, according to an itinerary Evans posted on Facebook. They’re fundraising for Ainsley’s Angels of America, a group that works to include children with special needs in endurance events. The Evans’ team has already raised more than $73,000 to benefit the organization.

They also plan to donate running chariots to approximately 20 families with children with disabilities along the way, WNYT reported.

Really, the mission is all about promoting inclusion,” Evans told CBS in the video below. “A lot of times, kids with physical limitations or special needs of any kind get left out.”

Hear more about the Evans’ story in the video below.

To keep up with Shamus and Shaun Evans throughout their journey, check out their Facebook, Twitter and Instagram pages. To support their team and Ainsley’s Angels of America fundraiser, head here.

Feature image from the Ainsley’s Angels Power to Push Facebook page.

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Photographer David Jay’s photo series “The Unknown Soldier” takes a bold and unflinching look at the consequences of war.

Jay, a former fashion photographer, spent three years taking portraits of veterans returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The photos document the lives and the stories of these young soldiers.

Jay embarked on the project by meeting amputee veterans at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, and offering to photograph them, NPR reported. For him, one of the goals was to help these veterans be seen by the public.

You can imagine how many times each of these men and women have heard a parent tell their child, ‘Don’t look. Don’t stare at him. That’s rude,'” Jay told NPR. “I take these pictures so that we can look; we can see what we’re not supposed to see. And we need to see them because we created them.”

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Images © David Jay Photography.

The large-scale photos are part of a nationally traveling exhibition and have been acquired by the Library of Congress as well. A documentary is also currently in production.

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Images © David Jay Photography.

It’s not how a man or woman wants to be seen,” Jay told Time. “However courageous they were on the battlefield, I give them a lot more for just standing in front of me, sitting in front of me, and allowing me to take their picture when they’re very exposed in every possible way.”

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Images © David Jay Photography.
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Images © David Jay Photography.
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Images © David Jay Photography.
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Images © David Jay Photography.
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Images © David Jay Photography.
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Images © David Jay Photography.
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Images © David Jay Photography.

Ultimately, ‘The Unknown Solider’ is not about war,” Jay writes on the series’ website. “It’s deeper message is one of humanity. It’s images transcend the politics, race, religion, greed and fear that drove us here… illuminating the scars that unite us all. Perhaps it’s about peace.”

Visit David Jay’s website to see more of his work or the Unknown Soldier website and Facebook page for more information on the project. 

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In her post “The First Time My Son With Autism Got a Birthday Invite I Didn’t Have to Decline,” Tricia Rhynold describes the time another mom took an extra step to ensure Rhynold’s son could attend and enjoy an upcoming birthday party. This got us thinking: What other extra steps have people taken to insure every child, no matter his or her needs, is included? To find out, we turned to you, our Mighty parents. We asked you to share one thing someone has done to help your child with special needs feel more included, and you had some wonderful responses.

Here are 24 simple yet extraordinary stories of inclusion:

1. “A stranger once asked my son Ethan, ‘What’s your name?’ My son’s speech is not clear, but he said his name. The stranger bent down closer asked again and again and again until finally she understood him. Then, she responded, ‘Well, Ethan, I’m Mary, and this boy here is Adam.’ Adam was nonverbal, and his eyes danced as Ethan repeated the name ‘Adam.’ After watching both our sons smile and acknowledge each other in the middle of a hospital corridor, Mary and I are no longer strangers.” — Geraldine Renton

Geraldine Renton

2. “Our friends keep their highchairs, long after their kiddos have grown, so our daughter with hypotonia can eat with her peers at birthday parties and dinners.” — Lyndse Marie Ballew

Lyndse Marie Ballew

3. “Our local librarian lets my son with Asperger’s syndrome take home and read new library books related to my son’s special interest before the library puts them in circulation. They go above and beyond to make him feel a part of that place.” — Lauren Cockrell

Lauren Cockrell

4. “People sometimes make up special party bags for our lifetime tube-fed son. The bags have no sweets or cake and also no balloons because they’re a real texture problem for him. It’s always so touching when someone goes that extra mile for him — the smallest gesture can mean an enormous amount to us.” — Helen Bates

Helen Bates

5. “When our town dedicated the new war memorial at the new park, my daughter’s Girl Scout troop had a part in the ceremony. When the organizers realized the processional route was not wheelchair accessible for my daughter, they changed it at the last minute so she would be able to participate with her troop.” — Sue Rutan Donald 

Sue Rutan Donald

6. “The kids in the neighborhood had a startup kickball game. Some of the older kids wouldn’t play unless my son pitched for both teams! My heart was full.” — Amy Scoggins Laster

Any Scoggins Laster
This is a current picture of John. The community where he lives recently renovated its playground to make it accessible. He was asked to be one of the first kids to see it.

7. “Our son is 3 and attends daycare part time. He was invited to a birthday party, which we were undecided about attending. Gatherings are hard enough with family, and this would be his first birthday party. Upon picking up my son from daycare, I ran into the birthday girl’s mother, who asked me in person if we received our invitation. She then told me how much they would love if my son could come. She loves seeing him every time she picks up her daughter — he gives her high-fives and is so always so happy. I loved hearing how she saw him for who is really is: a kind, lovable little boy.” — Carrynn Kels 

Carrynn Kels

8. “Our entire little town ensures that my younger sister (who happens to have Down syndrome) is never left out. She was the most popular kid in high school and always performed in talent shows to many cheers. The school administration and her class got together for her last day of school and arranged for a local police officer to come meet her and give her a drive around town (she even got to turn the lights on!).” — Melissa Graham

Melissa Graham

9. “My son’s mobility is limited to rolling, and he can only eat limited amounts of purees by mouth. We visited some friends for Easter this year, and they were insistent on including him in the egg hunt with the other kids. They set eggs out on a blanket that he could roll to, and they’d put stickers in the eggs. I was so touched, and my son had the biggest smile on his face.” — Kallie Locklair

Kallie Locklair

10. “I took my two little boys to a local carnival with games and rides. My oldest, 3 at the time, has hypotonia and autism, and he can’t stand or walk without help. There weren’t really any games or rides he’d be able to go on because of his limitations. I hesitantly walked over to the bounce house and saw groups of kids going in at a time. Since he couldn’t move on his own, my boy would be trampled if I put him inside. A carnival employee saw me and asked if my boys wanted a turn. I gave her the short version of our story, and she smiled and said her son had similar needs. She let me take both of my boys into the bounce house and the three of us got to play in it by ourselves.” — Megan Hufton 

Megan Hufton

11. “A good friend researched my daughters’ condition and had her children watch videos on it to prepare them before meeting them. The first time they met my daughters after I adopted them, they weren’t scared or left wondering what to do. They treated them like any other children. It was one of the most precious gifts.” — Katie Hurst

Katie Hurst1

12. “A friend’s grandfather sat with my daughter for two hours while she drew drawing after drawing for him. He remained excited the entire time. He made her feel so happy and proud that he was so interested in what she could do.” — Rose Harrison

Rose Harrison

13. “We were at a Little Big Town concert, and one of the band members came over and gave my brother with Down syndrome a hug. Then she went and got each of the other members to come over and shake his hand. She gave him a guitar pick, too. He was so excited!” — Andrea Anderson Watkins 

Andrea Anderson Watkins

14. “My son with Down syndrome is learning to swim, so on the day of his school swimming carnival, another parent from the school got in the pool with my son and me to help him complete a race. The whole school came to the pool’s edge to cheer him on. He was so proud of himself. The school kids, that lovely parent and my son are all legends to me.” — Tanya Neilson

Tanya Neilson

15. “My daughter has autism, and a couple years ago, she had a broken leg. We went to a restaurant, and our waiter seated her at a table in her wheelchair immediately. Emma talks quite a bit and asks tons of questions about restaurants when we go in them. Instead of brushing her off or ignoring her, this waiter was kind and patient as Emma stuttered out all she needed to say. He answered all her questions, spoke directly to her and made her feel special.” — April Charisse

April Charisse

16. “Tonight at our church vacation bible school, a new member of our church took it upon himself to slide endlessly down the blow-up slides with my son. He treated him just like his own son, and he did it all with a smile.” — Jill D. Powell

Jill D. Powell

17. “My son was temporarily paralyzed due to a rare muscle disorder, and he was learning to walk again. His teachers made sure he was getting to play with other kids and while at gym time to help him use a trampoline without getting trampled.” — Leidy Jesse Garcia

Leidy Jesse Garcia

18. “My 5-year-old daughter with disabilities attended her first birthday party with her typical twin brother. I had to keep her in another room most of the time because she couldn’t handle the chaos of kids running around, screaming, popping balloons, etc. We ventured out when the musician started playing kids’ birthday songs. When she finished, instead of packing up and going home, the musician approached my daughter with guitar in hand and sang ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.’ It made her day.” — Raquel Bercovich Wadler

Raquel Bercovich Wadler

19. “A sweet family from our hometown invited our daughter with autism to be part of the football homecoming ceremony. They knew she had issues with lots of attention, but they said, ‘We’d love for her to be a part of this. If that means you have to walk onto the field with her, then that’s fine. If she decides at the last minute not to go out there, that’s fine. But she’s the one we want to help us.’ The lack of pressure, the belief that she could do something like that and the acceptance made it possible for her to beautifully break down major barriers that night, and it gave us such hope for the future.” — Erica Nash

Erica Nash

20. “My friend’s husband would notice my son off by himself if we were at a lake or park with the other kids. He always made a point to include him or adapt a game the kids were playing so my son felt like he was just as good at things as the other kids. Nine years later, they still have an unspoken bond, even though they barely see each other. My son is a teenager now, so they just give each other a wink and a nod when they see each other.” — Larisa Wood

Larisa Wood

21. “The leaders in the children’s class at church didn’t bat an eye when my son with autism did somersaults over and over during music time. They even cleared a section of the room so he had a safe place to stim. When the other children asked why he did that, the leaders explained his brain works differently and the only way he could sing was by moving and doing somersaults. Since the adults didn’t make a fuss over it, the kids didn’t either. It was just a normal thing to experience.” — Jenn Kilstrom

Jenn Kilstrom

22. “My son started playing Auskick football, and he was having a lot of trouble joining in. He would get angry, have meltdowns and run off. One day, another little boy talked to my son and showed him how to kick a ball. Ever since that day, my son loves Auskick. I am so thankful for that little boy.” — Lee-Ann Mitchell

Lee-Ann Mitchell

23. “My child has an intellectual disability. A young man in our apartment building, who has a physical disability and is in a wheelchair, showed him how he could operate the brakes in his car with his hands. Just because he was asked. It meant a lot.” — Melody Nance

Melody Nance

24. “My oldest son was in a wedding for a family friend. His friends have always treated my youngest son, who has autism, just like one of the guys. At this wedding, there was a girl in the wedding party we’d never met before. [My youngest son] loves music, so he always stands closest to the speakers and dances like nobody’s business. Well, this girl in the wedding party had been watching him all night (stares are not unusual, we just ignore them). Long story short, she came up and asked if I thought it would be OK if she asked him to dance. Of course I said yes. The look on his face when a girl asked him to dance was priceless. One of the best moments of his life.” — Lisa Mabry

Lisa Mabry

*Some responses have been shortened and/or edited.

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“Why aren’t you smiling?” “Aren’t you excited?” “Why aren’t you happy?”

For years, questions like this were directed at me since my facial expressions weren’t matching up with the emotional moments everyone else was experiencing.

I’m now aware it can be a characteristic of being on the autism spectrum, so I’ve developed a standard response to such questions: “This is my happy face.”

For people on the autism spectrum, this is described as a “flat affect,” which simply means their facial expressions often don’t mirror the social environment. So I often appear to have no reaction to emotionally charged situations. If you know a person with autism, then you probably understand how that’s possible because it’s also difficult for people with autism to read facial expressions on other people.

The world I live in is completely foreign to the world most neurotypical people live in. Take nonverbal communication for example. In the world of nonverbal communication, you can assume someone is “saying” something without having a conversation with him or her. Unfortunately, that’s not how my world works. Neurotypical minds can learn something about communication from high-functioning people on the autism spectrum. Verbal communication is extremely important.

A few weeks ago, I graduated with my doctorate degree. My family and I traveled to Virginia for the graduation ceremony. Like most graduations, there are pictures to be taken. I admit, I’m not one for taking pictures, but it wasn’t about me. It was about celebrating the occasion. So I took pictures. 

I had already finished my dissertation, successfully defended it and even received it in the mail a few weeks before graduation. I would’ve been perfectly fine with not walking across a stage in front of thousands of people. The graduation was for my wife who was so happy and my children who were excited to be there. The graduation was also for my congregation who supported me and prayed for me.

On graduation day, more than 17,000 degrees were awarded. I had to file into an enormous football stadium filled with about 30,000 people. Once the commencement began, it wasn’t long but it was loud. The sounds from the stage and from the thousands of voices screaming and cheering were overwhelming for someone like me who deals with sensory overload. But I toughed it out, because I wanted my children to have the experience. I wanted to be happy for those who were happy for me.

So when I took pictures of the experience, my face didn’t seem to match the excitement of the moment. But you have to realize that my being there at all was a nod to my family who wanted to experience the excitement of the ceremony. It doesn’t look like I’m happy, but that’s OK.

Lamar Hardwick the mighty

The Mighty is asking the following: What’s one commonly held opinion within the community surrounding your disability and/or disease (or a loved one’s) that doesn’t resonate with you? If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our “Share Your Story” page for more about our submission guidelines.

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When my daughter cries out to me, “I wanna be all right,” it stops my world. She wants to be all right? There’s an inner conflict going on inside her head. My child’s brain is paved with unique and atypical neuro-highways. She gets confused about her feelings. She understands her situation should be OK, but somehow it still upsets her. So she cries and wails and says she wants to be all right.

This situation usually happens when she doesn’t get her way. Or her little brother takes her toy. Or she isn’t allowed to eat a snack. Or her mom tries to put on her blue dress. Or those shoes! And what is this pasta thing sitting in front of her?

You may be thinking, “She’s spoiled.” “She’s throwing a tantrum.” “All kids her age throw a fit.” “But you’ve been indulging her,” you think again. “You let her have her way and don’t set boundaries.” Yes, I know this is what you may be concluding when she lies on the ground. In the middle of the store aisle. The cement sidewalk. Even the parking lot has been the setting for our drama. She goes down on her knees like the world is crashing in on her. And the thing is, her world is crashing down on her!

She may understand some social norms, but she does not like all of them. But somehow she’s “supposed” to be OK with them. She’s “supposed” to let it go or go with it. It’s like a war waged inside my child’s brain. And this war I barely understand hurts my mama heart.

“I wanna be all right.” I feel I can’t fix it. I can’t make it better. My heart breaks when she directs the comment toward me, adding “Mama” to her honest and sincere request.

I hope to soothe her. I tell her it’s OK. We can be mad a little bit. Do you want to take a break? Come back and join us. It will be all right. I hope this works. Or on a not so perfect and patient day, I sweep her away and hope to be home in a flash.

She wipes her nose and wipes aways the tears back and tells me, “I’m all right, mudher.”

And I think, a little storm has passed. The sun shines. She’s happy. She’s all right. I want to help her keep that “all right” feeling. But I also want to help her weather through it when it’s not so all right. I want to make sure the sun will still shine on at the end of it. 

I can’t begin to know inner workings of my daughter’s brain. I strive to learn more every day. I want people out there who have little to no idea about autism to be a bit more accepting about families living with autism. You can help make it “all right” by adding your compassion.

The Mighty is asking the following: What’s one commonly held opinion within the community surrounding your disability and/or disease (or a loved one’s) that doesn’t resonate with you? If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our “Share Your Story” page for more about our submission guidelines.

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