Dear Classmate,

I know you may have not believed me the day I told you I was on the autism spectrum. You said it was the first time you met someone who had the disorder. We were both in middle school. I’d only just begun telling a few of my peers that I was on the spectrum. A year a half earlier, my parents told me about my diagnosis. I honestly had no idea what it meant other than this was the reason people had said I have “special needs.”

kerry grad photo It didn’t really faze me when you said, “You can’t have autism! You can talk!” I started discussing the facts and statistics about autism I’d heard to help you understand why what you said was inaccurate. As time went on I forgot this talk ever even happened.

I recalled the conversation when I started to become an autism advocate in college. Even though many individuals in our community can’t talk, some still communicate with amazing grace and ability. Some exceptional persons I’ve met on the spectrum have gone on to give talks around the world.

So as an addendum to our conversation that day in sixth grade, I just wanted to tell you this:

If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism. Don’t think of autism as a one-size-fits-all disorder because you will be wrong. I was nonverbal until I was 2, and it took many years to be able to speak and have conversations with my peers. Being able to talk today is a blessing I will never take for granted. I can now call myself an author and a professional speaker. Now I give talks about combating bullying, but more than anything, I try to give our society an education on how different is beautiful. We all have our unique traits that make us who we are, and that’s something to celebrate.

I hope now that we’re both in our mid 20s, that if you ever come across this letter, you can educate your friends, family and community on what autism is. We all need to start thinking about how we can make an impact in a world that’s getting more diverse by the day. It can start with us right now if we want it too.

Your friend,


This blog originally appeared on


The Special Olympics World Games aim to make the Earth a more inclusive place, to better the world for the 200 million people with an intellectual disability. While we couldn’t talk to all 6,500 athletes who participated in the 2015 Special Olympics World Games in Los Angeles this summer, we were able to ask some participants what they think everybody should know about people with disabilities. Here’s what they had to say.

1. “I want them to know that people with disabilities are good people and they can participate in any sport.” — Reagan Robinson (Zimbabwe, Golf)

2. “See the ability first then after see the disability.” — Tess Trojan (Canada, Golf)

3. “That we can pretty much achieve anything we want to as far as jobs and life.” — Jennifer Maddox (US, Equestrian)

4. “We are who we are and we are like everyone else.” — Janine Schwirblatt (Germany, Equestrian)

5. “Just treat them like any ordinary people. You know, just because people has an intellectual disability or disability doesn’t say that they’re not the same kind of people.” Oliver Doherty (Ireland, Golf)

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

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