Sensory overload isn’t just the clock ticking on the wall or the humming of the lights in Walmart. It’s not just the ear-piercing shrill of a baby’s cry or the sound of a crowd of children.

Sensory overload isn’t just the pungent odor of a skunk or a woman’s perfume that literally burns your nose. It’s not just the smell of a person across a crowd who may have forgotten to apply deodorant or the unidentified odor that drives you crazy until you’re able to figure out what’s causing it.

Sensory overload goes way beyond the basic senses. For me, they’re feelings I have tried to explain for so long but could never find the words. They’re sensations that are triggered not just by sights, sounds and smells but by people and objects, too.

I believe children and adults on the autism spectrum disorder can read people in different ways than others. If there is something “off” about a person, it might be noticed immediately. I’m not referring to just a vibe. It is more like a sixth sense.

I’ve found the same goes for a person I may have a strong emotional connection to. Whether it’s a person of the opposite sex (not just romantic), a mentor, a friend, a teacher, a therapist or a co-worker, certain people have a way of touching me in ways that can’t be explained.

You see, sensory overload isn’t always a negative experience for me. My special relationships — which are few and far between — have the ability to cause profound sensory overload. It’s an aura that’s difficult to explain. The sensations I feel are overwhelming and heartwarming at the same time.

Throughout my life, I’ve come across people who I’ve been able to identify with based on experiences. These people genuinely care about me and my well-being. An attachment — for lack of a better word — is formed with certain people who have the ability to trigger an extreme physical response. It reminds me of the butterflies and excitement you feel when you start dating someone. But it’s much more than that.

Meghan Scarfo the mighty.2-001

Neurotypical people may find these sensations difficult to understand. I have a hard time explaining it myself. A simple message, phone call or hug from the person with whom I feel this way produces a response that makes time stand still. It’s an overpowering tingling sensation or warmth coupled with heart palpitations. A truly unexplainable experience. The moment may be brief or long-lasting, but it’s very intense.

This type of sensory overload is extremely powerful, yet enjoyable. Caught in a daze or a “fog” so to speak, everything pauses around you for that moment.

I’d like to think of this sense as a gift. It’s an ability to connect with someone on such a level that is unheard of.

Perhaps other people don’t speak about this sense for fear of jeopardizing relationships. Perhaps people fear that neurotypical people will turn away from them.

Personally, I feel as though this sense is a blessing. It’s an ability that should be discussed, explored and researched.

My hope is that others on the spectrum are able to identify with these feelings and breathe a sigh of relief.

Follow this journey on Open Your Box.

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I’m a mental health therapist.

I work with children who have behavior and mental health concerns. I’ve completed grad school and have been working in this field for four years. I’ve been trained in different evidence-based therapies. I’m an outpatient therapist, mobile therapist, behavior specialist consultant and meetings facilitator.

I’m also a patient.

I struggle with anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and in the past had an eating disorder. It’s funny how I can deal with other people’s mental health issues all day, but when it comes to my own it’s so hard. After hitting a particularly rough patch, it took me many months to seek therapy for myself. Months more to go to my primary doctor to see about changing some of my medication. A year more to make an appointment to see a psychiatrist. This appointment was the hardest. You see, I’m the one who does the assessing. I’m the one who hears the stories and offers support and counsel. I recommend for a child be evaluated by our psychiatrist for medication.

I’m not the one who gets evaluated. Being the patient was an eye-opening experience. 

I finally called the psychiatrist to make the appointment and left a message. Days went by. Anxiety increased. Finally I got a call from the doctor to schedule. It was a bit of an awkward conversation. I answered my phone using my nickname, which threw the doctor off. I then thought he asked me if I knew my address, which I thought was odd, but I started to give it to him. He’d actually asked if I knew the address of his office. “Um no, that would be helpful.” He asked, “Any questions?” to which I wanted to respond, “Do I really have to do this?!” but asked instead how long he thought it would take. I needed to prepare myself for how long this “torture” would last. We said our goodbyes, and the dread of the appointment started in earnest. My desperate desire to feel better was the only thing that kept me from canceling.

I hear other people’s stories all day, but it’s not nearly as scary as having to share my own — to be open and vulnerable with a virtual stranger. The more my clients tell me, the better I can help them so I knew the more I told him, the better he would be able to help me, but all my defense mechanisms were screaming to minimize everything, to shrug it off, to only give the basics. The day of the appointment arrived, and I felt surprisingly calm. I wasn’t feeling well physically so maybe that took my mind off things. Well, that and the Ativan

Once I got to the waiting room, a man came out and said, “The doctor will be with you shortly.” Before I was ready, another gentleman came out and called me back. I sat on the proverbial couch and immediately wished for some of the Silly Putty I give clients to use when they’re feeling anxious or distracted. I needed something to do with my hands. I crossed my legs, and my foot would not stop shaking. I realized what I was doing. I realized the doctor would note this, as it was something I would note if I were with a client. But I was powerless to stop it. So there I sat, fidgeting with my hands, legs shaking, trying to keep my breathing even and calm. Then the dreaded, “What brings you here today?” I resisted the urge to sarcastically reply, “Look at me! What do think brought me here today?! I’m a basket case.” I answered honestly though. I often will use humor when I’m uncomfortable and nervous. This doctor was kind and compassionate but did not laugh at my attempts at humor. He just waited until I gave a serious answer. Insert awkward silence.

Overall I was pleasantly surprised. It was refreshing to be able to talk and not be the one who was supposed to have the answers. To not have to reciprocate with, “and how are you?” like I would with friends. He asked questions, and I talked. He demonstrated he was listening by following up with relevant comments or questions. I felt heard for the first time in a long time. He understood that my job is not high paying and further reduced the sliding fee scale for me. He ended the evaluation by asking if he could pray with me. And he did while I fought back tears because I was determined not to be the stereotypical patient who cries in the psychiatrist’s office.

I know everyone has a different experience, but mine ended up being a positive one. I not only took steps forward to improve my own mental health but also got a glimpse into what my clients and their families must often feel and experience. I still would rather be the one giving the counsel, but being on the other side of the desk provided me with invaluable insight and understanding.


A friend of ours was married today. This was one of the first major social outings we’ve had with our daughter, Elva, so she generated a little bit of interest, mostly from people we knew but had yet to see since her birth. At one point, Elva was lying in her pram when I walked a few steps away to pick up a drink and returned to find two older women standing over her. I have no idea who they were, and they didn’t introduce themselves to me at all. I was a little unsure what to do, so I wedged myself in and started stroking her head. They smiled at me and told me how lovely she was, and then the older of the two said, “It’s a shame she has to grow up in such an evil world.”

I really didn’t know what to make of that. Was it a religious statement? “Children growing up in this day and age have to contend with an exceptionally sinful world.” Or was it intended to refer to Elva’s Down syndrome and that she would have an especially hard time growing up in our society? Likely it was both. I gave a nervous chuckle, half nodded and stroked her head, but I wonder if I should have said something.

You see, I believe there’s never been a better time in history to be born with Down syndrome. We have great intervention programs, treatments, supplements and even funding in many countries. Advancements in medical science can mean longer and more fulfilling lives. Routine institutionalization is no longer practiced in most places, and people are starting to realize that those who have Down syndrome are capable of being productive and useful members of society — we just need to give them the chance. But all that being said, we still have so far to go.

Recently I saw a video of a woman with Down syndrome singing the song “Colors of the Wind” from the Disney movie “Pocahontas.” I learned all the words to that song as a kid, but it was only while watching this woman sing that I realized how just how incredibly poignant and moving the words are. “You think the only people who are people, are the people who look and think like you. But if you walk the footsteps of a stranger you’ll learn things you never knew you never knew.” Apt words for any kind of prejudice, really.

I will be the first to admit that I didn’t understand the depth of my own prejudice toward people with disabilities and had no concept of the harm it can cause before the birth of my daughter.  Have you ever used the word “retard” in a derogatory fashion? Or perhaps the word “special? has come to replace it in your vocabulary. “It’s a colloquialism,” I hear you say. “There is no negative intent behind it. I’m not a bigot.” And perhaps you’re not. Perhaps you hold no actual malice toward people with a cognitive impairment. Perhaps you have friends or family members who have disabilities and you love them very much. That’s wonderful, and I’m glad, but that doesn’t change the fact that there is a prejudice that assumes people with a cognitive impairment are inept or worthless. When you use the words “retarded” or “special” as synonyms for those words, it’s not funny or clever. It’s not humorous or satirical. It’s perpetuating an ugly and harmful prejudice.

This pervading prejudice means that society doesn’t always see people like my daughter as functional people. They see Down syndrome and consequently might see mental disability and outdated, upsetting stereotypes from the days of institutionalization. But nowadays, people with Down syndrome also have more opportunities. Given access to Early Intervention services and appropriate support systems, people with Down syndrome can flourish. These days many people with Down syndrome can have jobs and work to support themselves. They can live out of home, keeping house and cooking for themselves with competency.

Our children have so much potential, but they have to fight to fulfill that potential in a world that still questions their capabilities and comprehension at every turn. So I think I agree, it’s a terrible shame that Elva has to grow up in such an evil world. But boy am I glad she gets to grow up.

Think about these other lyrics from “Colors of the Wind”: “How high does the sycamore grow? If you cut it down, then you’ll never know.”

Follow this journey on Beautiful Little Souls Blog.


It happens almost every time we go to the grocery store. Or the toy store. Or the school. Or a sports event. Or really anytime we leave our house. At first I didn’t know how to react. Being a mom to a little girl with special needs does not automatically arm me with some power to deflect stares and pointing. I didn’t ask to be the center of attention and neither did she, but the most awkward situations usually leave the most room for growth.

I remember the first time I found a different end to the stares. We were standing in line at the grocery store and an innocent little girl stood staring from the next checkout stand over. I could sense her little eyes and I had the deep feeling for her to know my little girl as I did — not as someone different than her, but as someone with so many things in common. With the little girl’s eyes glued to me, I reached forward and kissed the top of my daughter’s head as she worked hard to balance herself in the cart. I continued to talk to her as we stood in line, gave her hugs and sang songs. By the time we were both checking out, that little girl was staring even more intently at us as her mom led her away out of the store — but not because she noticed my daughter was different. She was smiling and wanted to be a part of our fun games while we waited in line.

That experience shed the first bit of light on a way to shape how people view those with disabilities. Gaining confidence, I used this little game several times in circumstances that the staring could have been uncomfortable. Maybe I was ready for the next step.

Again in line at the grocery store several months later, I heard a little girl ask her mom something about my daughter. I looked over in time to see the mom grab her little girl’s pointing finger and say, “It’s not nice to point. Don’t stare at her.” My heart sank again.

I have always been touched by the innocence of children. It was OK for her daughter to be curious.

Going against everything that seemed logical and socially acceptable, I wheeled my daughter over to the little girl and her mom and said, “This is Bryer. I noticed you were looking at her. She is 4. How old are you?”

The little girl perked right up” “I’m gonna have a birthday and then I’ll be 4 too!” Ding! Ding! Ding! We found something in common!  I told her that Bryer loves to sing songs and listen to music on my phone. “I play my mom’s phone!” she giggled, holding up her little fist with a tight grip on her mom’s phone. Bonus! More things in common!

At the sound of the little girl’s voice, Bryer smiled her big, whole-body smile. I explained that Bryer’s body doesn’t work like ours, so she is still learning to do things that we do. I told her that she understands almost everything we tell her and she answers questions to tell us what she needs. With a little explanation, I could see the mother’s face soften and I knew I was on safe ground with her, too. For some reason it was easier to talk to the curious little girl than the grown mom.

After a couple questions from the mom and quick answers about what cerebral palsy is, we walked away and found ourselves at the back of the line. I hope that little girl will stare next time — and then I hope her mom helps her follow it up with a hello. I hope she will step outside her comfort zone and make friends with someone with special needs down the road. I hope her mom won’t feel ashamed that she caught her daughter pointing, but instead honors that curiosity and sees it as an opportunity to get to know someone that may look or act differently than she does. Everyone deserves kindness. Everyone deserves a friend, even if it starts by staring and just being curious.

As a special needs mom, I love it when people ask about my daughter. I am not offended in the slightest and welcome an opportunity, as most moms do, to talk about my pride and joy. It’s more awkward to avoid the obvious and wonder what someone thinks. Before I was a special needs mom, I always wondered what the “right way” to ask about someone was. Now I know a friendly hello or a sincere compliment is all it takes and conversation will follow.

Follow this journey on The Briar Effect.

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.


There are times when we have an idea that, on the surface, seems like it will be a good fit. The expectations seem reasonable and attainable, we may even have experienced success in the past. We know to anticipate a few ups and downs but for the most part, feel confident the day will go well.

I had one of those days this week. We’d made a plan to attend an amusement park with relatives. This type of outing has always gone well in the past.

It was quite chaotic trying to get ready to leave that morning, but we finally made it onto the highway.

It was an hour-and-a-half drive to get to the park.

We arrived and met up with another cousin who we hadn’t seen in a while. Everyone was excited to go in and start exploring the park and the rides. Smiles, laughter, boasting about previous experiences. Happiness.

Within 15 minutes of our arrival, anxiety took full control.

It’s always hard to watch this happen because you know your child doesn’t choose this. The things that happen, the words said, this is the anxiety roaring and asserting itself as master. Anxiety chose escape as its only strategy that day. Escape was all that could be thought about.

Get.Me.Out.Of.Here.Now.

These moments are hard for a parent. You don’t want to “give in” by simply getting up and leaving. You need to do a good assessment of the situation and determine the likelihood of being able to turn things around. You need to provide the time and opportunity to calm, to re-frame, to try again. And you need to set aside all your own hopes and expectations you had for the day and really listen to what your child is trying to tell you.

It was pretty clear that anxiety wanted nothing to do with the amusement park, but I still tried. We walked for a bit, hoping the movement would help. It didn’t. We sat on a bench. Just sat there. Nope. We left the park and sat in our truck.

I saw the anxiety loosen its hold a bit then. Muscles unclenched. I wasn’t ready to give up yet. We continued sitting there. Sometimes talking, sometimes not. Just allowing ourselves time.

There just wasn’t going to be enough time on this day.

That’s the thing about anxiety. It doesn’t give you a solid timeline for recovery. Ever. Sometimes we’re able to manage it quickly and continue on with our day, and other times, like this day, it holds you tightly in its grip. Not willing to move on.

When we finally drove out of the park, sleep took over. A full hour of sleep.

Ah-ha. I started reflecting on the clues and signals that had been sent my way. The excitement of the coming day had interrupted our sleep the night before. My child had provided me with clues earlier that morning, but in the rush to get ready to leave I didn’t give the attention I should have. I thought about all the expectations I’d recently placed on my child – we’ve been traveling to visit relatives, our time in the vehicle has exceeded 30 hours in the past ten days. Our longest stay in one place has been four days. And you know what? My child, this boy who craves routine and quiet and space, he has coped so well with this trip.

Sometimes when things are going so well, we forget to pay attention to the details.

We forget to look at and honor what it takes to cope with such a deviation away from our typical, quiet, predictable days. We assume that because things are going well they will continue to go well, forgetting all the energy it takes to manage and cope.

As he slept in the seat beside me, I could have embraced my own mom guilt about what had happened at the park, but instead I chose to think about all the successes we’ve already had on this trip.

When he woke up we had a chance to talk about what had happened. He gave voice to all I’d been thinking about while he’d been sleeping. It’d simply been too much. We talked about our plans for the coming days. We’d be staying in one place for the remainder of our trip. We’d become more predictable, and I’d pay more attention to the signals he was giving me.

When we arrived back home, we let the dog outside to play. Our child has a lot of anxiety about his dog being out off-leash; he’s worried our dog will run away or get hurt.

But on this day, the one that had been so hard, I asked my son to let me show him how our dog would listen and run with me when he was off his leash. Only for a minute. Reluctantly, he agreed. But he wanted to run with the dog.

I smiled as he unhooked the leash, and I directed him to run towards an outbuilding and then back towards me.

It was a beautiful moment. Anxiety was replaced by joy. My boy laughed and marvelled at how fast our dog could run, how quickly he could switch directions. He let the dog stay off leash for the rest of the time we were outside.

And in those moments, my son had released his own tether to anxiety, and both of them were free.

Follow this journey on Champions for Community Mental Wellness.


As anyone who lives with any kind of medical condition knows, it can be trying at times. Sometimes you don’t notice your difference as much as other times.

I have Moebius syndrome, which is a rare neurological condition. A few of my cranial nerves did not form properly, leaving me with facial paralysis and a speech impediment. The speech issue is the hardest thing for me on a daily basis.

Today I was at Starbucks and I ordered my usual nonfat iced white mocha. Sometimes the barista understands on the first try, but today it took me multiple times saying it for her to understand. There was a blender going in the background as well, so that made it even more challenging. What made it worse was that my dad was with me, and when things like that happen in the presence of other people, it’s a bit humiliating and makes me remember that yes, I am different.

If it were a few years ago and a barista didn’t understand me at Starbucks, I just would’ve changed my order to something easier to understand. The easy way out.

My last two years in a journalism program at college changed me. I will no longer be held back just because I have Moebius syndrome. I figured out a few things in college. It really shaped me as a person and made me realize that if I want to live, if I really want to have a life, I can’t let Moebius hold me back.

One thing I figured out is that there’s more than one way to get things done. I did a lot of emailing during the journalism program. It works a lot better for me than calling up someone on the phone. I can explain a bit about myself if they then want to follow up with a phone call. When I have to give my name at a doctor’s office or give my address to sign up for a library card, I often just give the person my driver’s license. It makes things a lot easier. If worse comes to worst, I write things down for people.

There is so much more to life than what you see inside your comfort zone. Going to college where I knew not one soul was absolutely terrifying, but I did it and met some of the best people who are now in my life for good. I’m even moving on to university in the fall. I believe you have to take risks and chances and step outside your comfort zone if you want to grow as a person. It will help you find who you’re truly supposed to be in life. I want to volunteer with and eventually work for non-profits (I did an internship with Autism Speaks Canada), I want to travel and I want to write a book.

The biggest thing I realized over the past few years is that I need to get out there and raise awareness of Moebius syndrome and other disabilities. As people with medical conditions, we are advocates. We can share our stories with the world and make the world a more tolerant and understanding place for all. This is what I want to do in life — be an advocate and raise awareness. Most of my writing in college was about disabilities, and that is my true passion in life. We all have a voice. Let’s use it to advocate for ourselves and for others!

Celebrating diversity and raising awareness of Moebius syndrome.  (Photo by Kelsey Ferrill /The Press)

I implore all of you to look inside yourselves and see that you are worthy of so much in this life. We are all, regardless of our disabilities, worthy of so much. If you have dreams, chase them. If you have goals, get them done. Know that you can, because you can!

We also are the best advocates. We know what it’s like to live with medical conditions, and we have an opportunity to educate others, let people know what it’s like and really make them see that we’re all human beings trying to find our place in this world. Education and advocacy are vital to making the world better and more tolerant. When people know about our conditions, maybe they won’t feel the need to stare, point or make comments about us. We have the power to change the world, we really do.

This is why I will not let having a disability hold me back, and why I believe no one else should either. We are all worthy of so much. We are all Mighty.

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