Growing up with a socially different mom had its challenges, and most of them were made up in my head.

When all eight of us kids were small and growing up with a single mom struggling financially, you’d imagine going out for meals would be an almost-never experience. And yet, because my mom knows the value of learning social skills and loves teaching in real world environments, and because eating has to be done anyway, going out happened most months.

Learning social skills was a pretty big deal in our house! My mom adopted six of her eight kids, and five of my six adopted siblings had various special needs. Fetal alcohol syndrome, autism, Irlen syndrome, Tourette’s — the list of words we learned while growing up with my adopted brothers is almost endless. Of course, because my mom herself grew up with similar words thrown at her, she never saw words when looking at us kids. She saw people.

People in the restaurants we visited didn’t usually follow in her footsteps. To them we were messy, loud, rude and scary. And for too many years, I was on their team.

I liked eating in restaurants because it meant not having the chore of doing dishes. But I found myself always apologizing for my family, especially my brothers. And I found myself wishing my mom wouldn’t be so rude or expect the world to be accepting in ways it obviously couldn’t be.

My brother might steal a french fry from a neighboring plate and my other brother might climb the table or put his lips on your fork, and my mom would look at both patrons and staff with a curt smile and expect them to be OK with it. Believing that as the strangers watched her explain to my jumping, stimming, squealing brothers why they couldn’t steal or lick people’s forks, they’d see she was dealing with it and it would be water under the bridge. And almost always at some point during the meal she’d let everyone know it was too cold in the restaurant and she had to go now. That we needed doggy bags and the bill now.

My mom had sensory issues and synesthesia, and she assumed the world dealt with similar issues. She had an overflowing basket of children and love, and she expected the world to understand, or at least try to.

But I mumbled apologies and I begged Mom to do the same. I gave waiters and cashiers apologetic glances and looked at my own family with troubled eyes that saw mess and inconvenience.

Why did I care so much about the strangers? Why did I care so much that I would apologize in front of my brothers, hinting to them that they were a problem we were carrying around?

Because despite my mom teaching me otherwise, I let the staring and fear of strangers speak louder than love, that’s why.

But it’s also true that my mom’s socially different ways didn’t let her put artificial politeness ahead of people. Especially not her people.

Going out to restaurants with my family was about teaching my brothers, my sisters and I social skills. It was not supposed to be about apologizing for our challenges. While I apologized, Mom taught. While I felt embarrassed, Mom felt encouraged by little lessons learned.

But Mom wasn’t just patient with my brothers, she was also patient with me; she was teaching me. And over time, I too learned to teach and celebrate rather than apologize. I began to see all of us through the eyes of Mom, eyes that saw us all as beautifully capable.

Going out to eat with my family now is still noisy, but it’s inclusive. We are friendly and largely appreciated by patrons and staff. We are certainly strange, but kind. And we are unlikely to apologize.

My mom was socially different and rarely saw what we would want to apologize for. I’ve finally been gifted with that social difference, too.

Follow this journey on Autism Answers With Tsara Shelton.

The Mighty is asking the following: “Staring” is a topic that comes up so much in our community. Tell us about one unforgettable “staring” experience you or someone you love had that’s related to disability, disease or illness. 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.


Whether or not being called “an inspiration” is a good thing is a polarizing question in the disability community, with passionate people on both sides of the argument.

Although it’s ultimately up to the individual as to whether or not they want to receive it as a compliment, we at The Mighty decided to ask our readers how they felt about the issue.

This is what they had to say:

1. “I feel like it’s ridiculous, honestly. It’s one thing to be told I am an inspiration because of something I accomplished (like getting a book published, for example). But too many times in my life I have been called an inspiration for simply existing or for going out in public living my life. In that case, it’s degrading… it implies that my own existence is something to be overcome, that living my everyday life is above and beyond what anyone expects of me.” — Tonia Says


2. “Inspiration can come from anyone or anything. If my son inspires someone to keep going, I take pride in that… He has been to hell and back multiple times and continues to wake up each morning with a smile and bounce in his step.” — Lorie Crowell Doll

3. “I consider it an honor. I was born with spastic quadriplegic cerebral palsy at 25 weeks. When someone tells me that I’ve inspired them in one way or another, I feel blessed.” — Tino Tarango


4. “I would much rather be asked, ‘How can we support you?’ than be titled ‘inspirational.'” — Bonnie Brown Clark

5. “For me it’s like one of those ‘Thanks… but no’ type feelings. Yeah, I have a lot of junk going on, but I’m not an ‘inspiration’ just for walking out of the house… If you want to call me an ‘inspiration,’ talk to me when I win a marathon!” — Ashley Laverdiere


6. “It depends on who is speaking and what it’s about. When my husband calls me one, I know it’s because he watches me trying so hard to live a normal life. When a parent of a child with the same condition calls me one, I know it is because they hope their children turn out to be as helpful as I try to be. When a stranger calls me one, it seems awkward. I am just living my life. They don’t know what it’s like and often say I’m an inspiration because they want to feel good about looking up to someone ‘lesser’ than them.” — Kirsten Schultz

7. “I feel like I should be flattered when someone calls me inspirational. Honestly, though, it drives me crazy. I am just living the life I was given the best way that I know how. I make mistakes every single day just like everyone else does… I have been a wheelchair user for almost 34 years, so I should have life as such figured out by now. I am thankful when I have the opportunity to give others hope, but I do not think of myself as inspirational.” — Jamie Spore


8. “As the person who does the ‘inspiring,’ it’s awfully hard to talk with you about my fears and pain, our many hospitalization, our insane amount of doctor visits. And frankly, you may not want to be disappointed by my honesty. I appreciate so much the heart behind the desire to place me on the tall seat of being an ‘inspiration,’ but do take me down, please. Instead, ask me how you can help and if you make an offer, follow through… I don’t have super powers. I’m not in some other league than you. I’m just under extraordinary pressure and I’ve had to adapt. You would too. So offer support, love, empathy, compassion and protection, but kindly keep me off the pedestal please.” — Stacie Poole


9. “If living life the best way you can is inspirational, then I guess that is what I am. I’d like to believe that means that we all are inspirational in some way or other. None of us is perfect, but we continue to live life, travel the roads we are given and do the best we can.” — Marcia Minutello


10. “I’ve been told that I inspire people many times from many friends and family. It’s nice to have someone notice you, your life, your situation, your struggle and your fight… It’s nice to be noticed.” — Melissa Cote

11. “I think it’s really stupid to call me an inspiration because I have a disability. You can find a conversation with me or my sense of humor inspiring, but please don’t be inspired by the fact that I have a life.” — Vici Michel


12. “I have been told I am inspiring. It makes me laugh. I appreciate people finding something in me to inspire them but I don’t see myself being any different from them.” — Meghan Nagy

13. “I really feel uncomfortable when someone tells me I am an inspiration. I’ve learned to try to take it the way it’s meant, as a compliment, but it still tends to feel condescending… Everyone has struggles. Just because you can see mine doesn’t make me an admirable person.” — Donna Gibbings


14. “Sometimes it feels like all the tears, pain, hard work and things get kind of of swept under the carpet as people only look at the achievement and not what goes on behind the ‘inspiration.'” — Antnz Burgess

15. “I feel honored and proud that I inspire people to find strength. It’s always there. Just have to find it.” — Becky Pantano


16. “I try and take it in the spirit intended by the speaker, but I hate it. I feel pressure to live up to that expectation of who I am, which I really do not need. I feel like the person speaking doesn’t know — and in some cases does not care to know — who I really am, preferring this idealized, saint-like picture they have created. This can be really isolating at times.” — Jess Guest

17. “I am no more of an inspiration than anyone else. Anyone can be an inspiration. Not just someone who is not the ‘norm.'” — Angela Lucia


18. “It’s a little weird, unwarranted and sometimes embarrassing. After all, I am just little old me. However at the same time, I feel incredibly happy and humbled to think that by sharing my story, raising awareness, increasing understanding and reducing stigmas I might be inspiring others out there. It’s just my story, and it is only one of many, but everyone has a story to tell. Even if I only help one other person, to me, that is important and making a difference.” — Stoma-licious


19. “My almost 11-year-old is a pediatric stroke survivor. The ‘inspiration’ comments that annoy him most are the ones from complete strangers who know nothing about him other than the fact that his left side is very weak. On a shopping trip not long ago, a stranger started gushing over him and saying how brave he is. Tired of the patronizing comments, he responded, ‘Why? I’m grocery shopping, not saving puppies from a burning building.’ I couldn’t help but smile. No, it wasn’t the most polite response, but after hearing the many well-meaning but annoying comments he receives, I couldn’t blame him. ” — Jo Walker


20. “I can tolerate it surprisingly well when people call me an inspiration for doing little things because it’s clear that they just don’t know better and I can easily steer them in the right direction. What bothers me the most is when I do something really great, like win a scholarship, and instead of saying it in reference to my efforts, my accomplishments, or something else the person relates it to my blindness. I want my achievements to be recognized for what they are, not for what they are in spite of my disability.” — Kaiti Shelton


21. “Fighting through metastatic breast cancer and living my life, being happy no matter the outcome — if that inspires anyone that’s great.” — Janet Oney

22. “It’s nice that people notice how much I go through at times, but I feel unworthy of the title ‘inspiration.’ It’s probably because I know all the times I’ve failed, cried and almost given up and because I know of so many others who have gone through so much more than me or are going through more than me. I feel they are the inspirations.” — Jennifer Hines Hansel


23. “I’m honored when I hear it but also don’t really know how to process it and react.” — Harper Spero

24. “When I’m able to inspire someone, especially someone else living with a chronic disease or disability, I feel like it’s one small way my disease can be used to bring good. I’m not perfect and there may not be much that I can accomplish on any given day, but if I can encourage someone else to keep fighting or keep smiling than I have accomplished a great thing.” — Hannah Anderson


25. “I hate disability and inspiration porn with a passion… pictures of amputees with slogans that are meant to make able-bodied people feel grateful that they’re not disabled [are] insulting, and it treats disabled people as ‘other’.” — Louise Evans

26. “Living with anxiety and bipolar [disorder] doesn’t make me inspirational. Being a mom to a little boy with sensory processing issues doesn’t make me inspirational. To be called it makes me uncomfortable and uneasy. I’m a mom. I’m a woman. I am alive… Find inspiration in people who make things better for more than themselves. I’m not an inspiration, not when all I’ve done is survive the worst my brain can throw at me.” — Cassandra Coogan


27. “Many times people say to me, ‘You’re an inspiration. I couldn’t do what you do!’ One day I was fed up with it so I replied (with a bit of snark), ‘What? You couldn’t love your kids?'” — Carly Pointon

28. “I am proud of myself privately because I know I put all my effort into participating in life each day.” — Patricia Howarth Andersen


29. “If I can touch someone’s life through my life with gastroparesis, then I am happy to do it. I know I am merely one cog in the wheel of life that helps a person along.” — Christine Rachuy

30. “I have mixed emotions. Part of me feels proud, like I am being validated and recognized for the struggles I face and the things I go through. The other part though kind of feels like a fraud. They only see one side of me and my illness — the times I am actually feeling well enough to be in public, the carefully worded Facebook posts, etc. They haven’t seen the times I’ve not been so graceful — the crying from frustration after a bad doctor’s visit, how I get apathetic during a long hospitalization, the depression that accompanies my serious chronic illness, and the times where I haven’t been sure how I was going to keep going. But overall, if someone calls me an inspiration, it means they are taking the time to be invested in my life which means the world to me.” — Ellis Milligan


31. “I cannot express strongly enough how much I loathe being called inspirational.” — Nadine Riches

32. “I appreciate the sentiment when someone says that, but I don’t understand it. Living as best I can for as long as I can is my goal (which I think is probably most of our goals) and I don’t feel that is inspirational. It’s just playing the hand you are dealt with dignity.” — Tasha Moreno


33. “I don’t mind it. I’m a poet. I want to inspire people. If my writing inspires people why cant my life?”– Marissa Stone

34. “I’m totally fed up with being put on a pedestal because I live my life the best way I can. I sometimes feel other people tell you how amazing you are whilst all the time thinking that if they pay a compliment they somehow are helping. No, sorry, that damn pedestal just makes me feel more isolated.” — Liz Morris


35. “I am not an inspiration. I fight because it’s the only option I have. If you were in my position you would fight too.” — Brooke Nelson

36. “I consider it a compliment because I feel when life deals us a difficult hand we all need a little push to keep us going through our rough day. If I can inspire one person to make it through one difficult day then I feel as though I’ve made a difference in their lives.” — Nicole Small


37. “I feel good about it! I worked hard to get well and if I can help one person, it is all worth it.” — Megan Roach

38. “[When] people ask, ‘How I do it?’ I say, ‘What am I supposed to do, kill myself?’ Not an option. We all have things to deal with, some are harder than others but we all have something. I’m not inspirational, I’m human. Believe me, I have my days when I feel crappy and act crappy. I am just a person.” — Horn K. Jean


39. “I don’t like it. I see life as a choice. You have the choice to pick your self up, dust yourself off and push through; or sit there and let life pass you through.” — Cassie Rebeor

40. “I appreciate it because they’re usually acknowledging how I positively deal with my diseases. When I can inspire someone else to keep going, it gives me more reason to keep fighting illness every day. It also makes it seem like maybe something good can come from all this pain.” — Katherine Mitchell


41. “I get it, but it makes me uncomfortable. I think sometimes that overcoming incredible odds can set you up for an accidental lack of support later. After all, you survived the impossible.” — Alena Belleque

42. “It brightens the dark days when people say that they are inspired by me.” — Klansi Kelly


43. “People with an illness aren’t objects of inspiration. I prefer not to be used so someone can think ‘I could have it worse, I could be like her.’ It’s just disrespectful.” — Anna Riordan

44. “Seriously? It’s great that I’ve survived 40 years of bipolar disorder, over 30 hospitalizations, suicide attempts, etc. I’m a survivor. Eff yeah I’m an inspiration.” — Amy Hrynyk


How do you feel about it? Let us know in the comments below.

*answers have been edited for brevity.  

To the mom in Walmart: I’m sorry.

I’m sorry for all of the staring and upset people looking at you like you couldn’t control your son. I’m sorry I looked, too, and was a little upset but tried not to look it. I’m sure you didn’t even notice me, what with everyone staring at your family and scoffing at you.

I heard your son in the first aisle of the grocery section. He was upset and screaming his head off. It caught my attention, even though I couldn’t see you or him. As I made my way through the store, I kept hearing him and at one point, I saw you, your small son in the seat on the front of your cart, and your other, older son, from a distance. Your older son was so calm and and just held onto the cart while you pushed it, trying to calm your younger son. I heard your son throughout my time in Walmart and even during check-out.

And I’m sorry. I judged you for being a bad mom. I thought it must be your fault that you couldn’t keep your child calm. I thought he must be having a tantrum. But I don’t know your story. I realized as I was leaving the store that your son had been screaming and clawing at you for a long time, and it dawned on me that he might have autism or some other special need, and that he might be having a meltdown. I will never know, but I’m sorry I judged you. I know now you were doing the best you could.

Since that day, I’ve made a vow to myself: If I see or hear what I heard that day, I will ask that person if they need help. I will ask if there’s anything I can help them with or do for them. I promise I will show more compassion than I did that day and not judge them, but offer to help them instead. You could have had a child with special needs and I didn’t know. But now I know and I will ask you if you need help next time. I promise.

The Mighty is asking the following: “Staring” is a topic that comes up so much in our community. Tell us about one unforgettable “staring” experience you or someone you love had that’s related to disability, disease or illness. 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.

Lead photo source: Thinkstock Images

I remember getting the call that my father had been rushed to the VA hospital in Phoenix. He had been in and out of the hospital a lot lately and each time seemed worse than the last. I remember it was late — by the time I pulled into the hospital parking lot it was dark.

I was nervous as a walked through the corridor to the psychiatric unit and asked to see my dad. My parents had divorced when I was 20, so as the oldest child the responsibility of my father had landed on me. This was not my first time dealing with this situation, but it was the first time I felt its weight. I had a sick feeling as I was directed into a large room with chairs and a phone on a small side table. I could tell it was a lounge and visitation area for patients and their families, but other than my father who was sitting next to the phone, it was empty that night.

As I walked in he grabbed me. This was unusual — my father never hugged or showed affection towards me. I thought he was going to hug me until he started feeling around my stomach and waistline.

He asked, “Where are the bullet holes?”

Of course I was confused and asked what he meant. He continued to feel around for gunshot wounds. I had to take a step back.

At the time I was young and didn’t understand the extent of my father’s mental illness. I proclaimed, “Dad! How can I be dead if I am standing right here?” My father was confused. He told me about a shootout with the police where I had gotten caught in the crossfire. He saw them take me away in a body bag. It did not make sense to him that I was standing before him. 

The blow hit me in that moment. It was as if someone had punched me in the gut, hard, knocking the wind out of me.

I could not imagine living my life seeing such awful things and believing they were real. I had to stop and consider that losing his children must be one of my father’s greatest fears.

My father has a hard time being convinced something did or did not occur. You can spend all your time telling him the voices are not real or that no one is conspiring against him, but you will likely never be able to persuade him. To him, they are real. 

There have been other times like this. Once he thought my siblings and I were all killed in a car accident. He said he received a call saying all four of us had died. At the time my brother was stationed in Afghanistan and the rest of us all lived in different places. There was no possible way we would be in the same car together. But schizophrenia does not operate in logic. It causes the mind to believe what it wants and there’s usually no convincing otherwise. My father didn’t fully believe we were all OK until he spoke with us and saw us for himself. Today he will tell you all of his children are alive and well.

My father still has hallucinations and moments of paranoia, but taking his medication correctly plays a huge part in keeping them to a minimum. 

I often find myself afraid for my dad. That someday his illness will take him to a level of madness he won’t be able to return from. I don’t want him living his life continually experiencing a fear we can only imagine. At least for now he still still has positive moments of reality.

I know he desires for his mind to be free. I see it every time he tells me God has cured him, and he doesn’t need his medication anymore. And I want to believe it. I want to believe with all my heart he is better and his mind is no longer haunted by such horrific thoughts. But I know there’s no magic pill or cure that will suddenly make him better. I know it every time I get a call telling me my father has been admitted to the hospital again.

We will never understand why this disease has chosen him, but I know he would never wish it on another soul. He’s too kind-hearted for that. Yet this is a lifetime for him. A lifetime of experiences many cannot understand. All I can do is hope and pray his episodes are few. That he no longer sees me being carried away in a body bag. That I no longer have to tell my dear, fragile father, “I am not dead, I am standing right here. I wish I could help you.”

Follow this journey on Beautiful Warrior Chicks

I have two children, now adults, on the autism spectrum. They are amazing and wonderful, smart and sweet, but they are different. That’s OK with me, and it’s OK with them. Most of the time, the outside world doesn’t get to us, but now and then, it does.

I’ve encountered many different types of people on our journey through life with autism. Some are supportive and accepting, some are cruel (intentionally or not) and then there are those seemingly well-meaning people who unintentionally fall somewhere in between.

Those are the ones who can sometimes hurt us the most. They can be loving friends, family or complete strangers. It doesn’t matter who they are; what does matter is what they say.

Please do not tell me you understand. You do not. There is no way you could.

Please do not tell me your typical child does the same things. Trust me, there is no comparison.

Please do not tell me it’s just a “boy thing.”

Please do not tell me it’s a phase or they will grow out of it. It’s not and they will not.

Please do not tell me I need to discipline more. Discipline does not “cure” autism.

Please do not look at me or my children with pity. We do not need it, nor do we want it.

Please do not ask me if I wish they were different. I don’t.

Please do not give me advice unless you walk the same walk we do.

Please do not tell me what worked for your child unless your child happens to be autistic.

Please do not tell me they do not “look autistic.” That is ridiculous.

Please do not tell me they do not “act autistic.” People on the autism spectrum don’t all act the same.

Please do not say things like, “If that was my kid, I would…”

Please do not accuse me of letting them get away with things. I certainly do not.

Please do not ask me what I did or did not do during my pregnancy. That has nothing to do with it.

There are more, but I think you get the point. I hope so. I spend every minute of my life trying to teach my children coping skills, daily living and social skills. So sometimes you will see them like they are any other young person their age, and other times you will see them in all their autistic glory.

I discipline my children, maybe not the same way you do, but I do. Everything is a teaching moment, and there’s a difference between discipline and punishment. You do not punish a toddler when he falls as he is learning to take his first steps; you help by teaching him how to pick himself up and try again.

When someone asks if I would change them if I could, it infuriates me. Would you change your child? The fact is, personally, I wouldn’t, and the fact is, I can’t, so why ask such a silly question? I believe God, in his infinite wisdom, gave me these amazing children as they are, and I accept and love and cherish them without question. The first time this was asked of me it broke my heart. From the moment I laid eyes on them, the moment I realized they were different and every moment since, the thought has never crossed my mind that I would want them any other way.

What you say and how you say it leaves a mark, an impact on the very heart and soul of me, of every parent with children with special needs. I know it’s impossible to put yourself in our shoes, to imagine what life is like, but if you could just stop and think about how you would feel if someone gave you a backhanded compliment, belittled you or judged you for something they do not truly understand, you might choose your words with a bit more care.

The Mighty is asking the following: Describe a moment you were met with extreme negativity or adversity related to your disability and/or disease (or a loved one’s) and why you were proud of your response — or how you wish you could’ve responded. 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.

We are blessed to have some incredible people in our lives, but since our differently-abled addition to our family was a unique component, not only for the family at large but also for our small community, it took a great deal of time for people to act and talk in a way that helped and not hurt us. I know it wasn’t a lack of caring but simply a lack of knowledge of what they should or should not do. Here’s quick reference list of eight dos and don’ts that I think would be helpful for friends and family members of children with special needs:

Please DON’T:

1. Don’t avoid us.

I know you have most likely never dealt with anything like this before, but by pushing us off to the side, you’re not only sending the message that a person with special needs is less valuable, but you’re also robbing yourself of the richness that accompanies loving and getting to know someone “different.”

2. Don’t judge us.

I know you might think your success in different areas might make you an authority, but the truth is that until you have walked in our shoes, you have no idea of what we go through on a daily basis. Yes, your child might never have experienced a meltdown in public, but I’m almost certain you would also never have celebrated the day when your child was finally able to verbalize why he had the meltdown.

3. Don’t offer parenting suggestions.

I know you honestly want to help, but since you don’t know what we’re dealing with — something you can only know if you’re walking in our shoes — suggestions of how to prevent our child from having a meltdown or advice on how to make our child act like “other” children won’t do a bit of good and will only cause us to feel frustrated, not helped.

4. Don’t encourage others to think there’s something wrong with us.

I know you may very well be frustrated with your interactions with someone who doesn’t fit your definition of “normal.” However, when you — a person close to us — shares your concerns or observations with other people, you’re inadvertently spreading the message we should be avoided. That only hurts us. It hurts even more when we hear you saying these things or find out you said them from other people.

Instead, please DO:

1. Do show us we matter.

I know it might be hard for you to know how to do this, but believe me, if you ask us how you can best support my child with special needs and myself, I promise you we’ll have some suggestions for you. Just like everyone else, we want to know we’re valuable and that we are valued by you.

2. Do tell us you care.

I know the fact you’re in our lives means you do care, but just like everyone else, we need to hear it spoken once in a while. If you love us, please say so! I promise you that even if it doesn’t look like my child with special needs heard you or processed what you said, those words are absorbed and we’ll both know that you care.

3. Do be patient.

I know it must be frustrating when a child with special needs may not understand what you’re trying to teach or tell them. Yes, I know you have shown them something over and over, countless times, causing you to think your efforts are being wasted. I promise you that they’re not! It might take a child with special needs a little bit longer to figure something out, but when they do and are able to succeed, it’s an awesome feeling not only for them, but for the people who have helped them.

4. Do be understanding.

No, a child with special needs may not always understand what you’re saying or respond to you in a way that you might understand at first. They might also have a meltdown in public (it happens!), need to have a particular object always with them or constantly be in motion. If these things happen, they’re just a part of how they’re wired. Just like everyone else, they just need someone to understand who they are and the unique components that make them who they are.

Marybeth Mitcham the mighty.1-001

Real People. Real Stories.

150 Million

We face disability, disease and mental illness together.