People often write about the challenges of having a child with autism. Yes, it can be hard. But not how people think. For me — and I can only speak for myself — it’s hard when my son faces challenges. It’s hard when I have to fight for services that should be a given. It’s hard when the insurance companies don’t pay for what we need or when a provider doesn’t take our insurance. Other’s people ignorance is hard. But my son, he is a joy. He is a bright light in a dark tunnel. He is the life preserver I need when I am drowning in the system.

Here are the eight best ways my son with autism brings me joy:

1. To people driving by, my yard looks like it’s full of weeds: dandelions, clover and the like. To my son, it’s a field of beautiful flowers that he picks for me as soon as they pop up in spring until the last days of fall.

2. When he is excited, he jumps so high and flaps so hard that I think he’s going to break something one day. How many times can you say you were that excited? Over a TV commercial? Or breakfast? Or popcorn popping? Or a red crayon?

3. How many times do you say, “This is the best day ever!” after a trip to Wendy’s or McDonalds? He says it almost every time we go there.

4. When is the last time you flapped yourself right out of your chair at the movies or stood up, jumped up and down (while flapping) and clapped because the movie was that fantastic? He did last week.

5. Can you repeat every word of every episode of your favorite TV show? My son can. And movies. It’s pretty cool. You can do that, you say? Can you mimic every sound and voice? He sounds just like Merida in “Brave” or Wall-E. I’m totally jealous.

6. He can draw scenes from any show he loves, too. Intricate scenes. He pauses the video and copies it with the detail of a master artist but in pencil and crayon. He even taught himself cursive from an episode of “Gravity Falls.” I painstakingly learned cursive from Sister Carmen in second grade.

7. He can smell chocolate on my breath from three feet away because he has super smell, one of his super powers. No joke. I can’t sneak anything past this kid in the house and I love it. I now have a partner in crime.

8. Most importantly, he doesn’t initiate conversation unless he means it. Really means it. So when he voluntarily says, “Mom, I love you!” he means it from the bottom of his little heart. He feels it with every fiber of his being every time he says it. They’re the most beautiful words I can hear. It took years to hear it, and I cherish it every time he says it. He also says it when he kisses my shoulder, or shares his art or turns on my favorite Christmas movie to watch together (even if he falls asleep every time we watch it). Each time he does these things, it means he loves me, he trusts me and I am his “#1 favorite person in the whole world.”


children in front of TV

The Mighty is asking the following: Create a list-style story of your choice in regards to disability, disease or illness. It can be lighthearted and funny or more serious — whatever inspires you. Be sure to include at least one intro paragraph for your list. 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.


Santino Stagliano loves drawing dragons.

The 10-year-old with autism even started his own nonprofit company, “Santino’s Dragon Drawings,” to sell his designs on T-shirts, hats and other products online. Half the money he earns through sales goes to the Center for Autism in the Staglianos’ hometown of Philadelphia.

Since Santino first began selling his designs in April 2015, he’s sold hundreds of T-shirts and has even been featured on the news. But Lisa Stagliano, Santino’s mom, said her son never really seemed impressed with his success, she told

Finally I said, ‘What would excite you?’” Stagliano told the outlet. “‘If Adam Sandler wore my shirt,’ he replied.”

Santino’s dreams soon came true in a big way. A photograph of the “Happy Gilmore” star wearing one of Santino’s dragon T-shirts recently surfaced on the Internet:

Photo from Santino’s Dragon Drawings Inc. Facebook page

Stagliano says she thinks her friends got in touch with the actor’s representatives, but she isn’t sure how they did it, according to

Santino was ecstatic when he saw the photo. On August 20, Stagliano posted a photo on the T-shirt company’s Facebook page of Sandler wearing one of Santino’s dragon T-shirts next to a picture of Santino reacting to the photo of Sandler:

Screen Shot 2015-08-28 at 12.10.52 PM
Photo from Santino’s Dragon Drawings Inc. Facebook page

We cannot thank you enough, Adam Sandler,” the Facebook post accompanying the photo reads. “The joy you brought Santino and the autism awareness you’re helping spread is amazing. Dreams really do come true.”

To learn more about Santino’s Dragon Drawings or to purchase an awesome dragon T-shirt, visit the company’s Facebook page and website.

Related: How a Boy With Autism Launched His Own Nonprofit With the Help of Dragons

I am a mother who’s been diagnosed with Asperger’s, and I have autistic children.

I wrote this account of positives because I believe these are strengths I have. I see too many negatives in the media about autism, so enjoy these positives and see if you recognize yourself or your child.

1. I can hyper focus. I can zero in on every grain of sand as it trickles through my fingers. I see colors brightly and instead of hurrying when I walk, many of us who are autistic might stop to examine a crevice in a wall or a spider weaving a web in a bush. I can zero in on a leaf on a tree from a distance when I look out the window of a moving train, tracking it and then moving on to the next one. I will pause to watch an ant make its way across the pavement, curious at to where he’s off to. Many of us who are autistic like to read or play video games, becoming completely enthralled and enjoying these things immensely. Crocheting, painting and anything that’s cause and effect is extremely satisfying to me because it’s constant and dependable. Visuals can be important to us.

2. I find things funny that sometimes I really shouldn’t. I love comedy though I don’t always understand it. When I laugh for seemingly no reason, it’s because I’ve noticed something you haven’t or because I’ve replayed a funny memory and felt the exact same reaction all over again. The same goes for unexpected crying.

3. I enjoy certain sounds like music, wind in the trees or the rushing of a river. I hear each note and each beat individually, the rustle of each leaf and sway of each branch. I hear every ripple of a stream as the water rushes over every rock. I hear the coffee machine, the people talking and the beat of the music playing in a crowded café. I zero in on one to help me cope with the noise.

4. I say what I think. You are never in doubt as to how I feel. You may not understand why I feel angry, sad or happy, but you will know about it! I’m honest and if I do lie, I have great difficulty with it as it goes against the very core of my being.

5. I make sense of my world by finding things to cherish and collecting them. Through homing in on that one thing, the world then makes sense to me. It’s a form of security in an unpredictable day. Anything could happen! But if I know that one thing will be in focus, I can bring it home and add it to the others, and then the world is right. I show great passion for my collectibles, whether they’re video games, books, colored glass, bottle tops or shells. It helps me cope after a busy day. Knowing the little shell I found on the beach one year ago is on a certain shelf with all my others provides security and a sense of worth.

For parents of children on the spectrum, cherish your child’s differences, stoop down to his or her level and listen to what your child is listening to. You may be surprised!

The Mighty is asking the following: Create a list-style story of your choice in regards to disability, disease or illness. It can be lighthearted and funny or more serious — whatever inspires you. Be sure to include at least one intro paragraph for your list. 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.

I’m your average college junior theater major who loves to sing, act, dance and get her hands and clothes dirty in the scene shop. I also happen to have Asperger’s syndrome, but that doesn’t keep me off the stage because I love to perform! Here are the 10 things I wish theater people knew about Asperger’s syndrome:

1. There’s more than what you see on the surface.

On the surface, I’m socially awkward, totally out of it and obnoxious. Inside there’s a girl who can understand other people’s wants and needs, never runs out of show tunes to sing and can remember choreography from prior shows even after eight years. If I’m working backstage and other actors have certain requests for things, I can accommodate accordingly. For example, in a production of “Sweeney Todd” I worked on this summer, the girl who played Johanna asked to not have her ears show when I did her hair, and offstage I had two bags of frozen vegetables for her itchy skin.

2. I don’t always look before I leap.

Sometimes I tend to do or say things without even thinking twice, and yes, it may cause embarrassment for you. But trust me, I feel the burn of what I did afterward. It’s just that when I’m so caught up with whatever impulse I act on, I’m not thinking about the direct consequences in the moment.

3. Don’t just give me a fish, teach me to fish.

I’m usually eager learn how to do something you’re doing — a fouette turn, fake punch, a certain dialect. Don’t be afraid to teach me how to do it and give me pointers along the way. Oh, and brace yourself for having to repeat it with me multiple times (or fewer) because it’s a trial and error process for me.

4. Anxiety is a part of the deal.

Sure, there’s stage fright you get before performing, but for me it tends to go deeper than the surface, mainly because of something in a scene that may provoke anxiety for me. But you and I can figure out how to help me navigate it so I can thrive onstage.

5. Some things may not make sense to you as they do to me.

I’ve begun to carry around small stuffed animals backstage with me. Sometimes I need something to hold on to for comfort and to keep my senses in check. It may seem silly for someone in their 20s to carry around a teddy bear backstage, but it’s my way to make sure I won’t lose my mind.

Alison Loughlin the mighty.3-001

6. Learn how to head off meltdowns before it’s too late.

They happen only if I’m anxious, overwhelmed or easily upset. If you notice that I’m either agitated, going into sensory overload or stressed, please move me out of the room immediately. If you already know what upset me, it’ll be easier to cope. And whatever you do, don’t make fun of me for something I have trouble with from time to time.

7. Be mindful of how you speak to me.

Nothing is worse than being treated like a baby over something I’m perfectly capable of doing or yelling at me because I won’t do something you ask me to do. And neither tone will certainly help me in the midst of a meltdown because that only adds more fuel to the fire. Sometimes, all I need is a little encouragement to get me through a tough situation.

8. Concentrate and feed off of what I can do.

I love to be challenged in musicals and plays, because I know there are certain roles out there I want to be able to portray that will challenge me. I don’t always want to be in the ensemble, so playing a featured or big role every so often is great to show what I’m capable of. If there are killer acro tricks, I want to show off — there can be a way to incorporate it!

9. Pay attention to what I’m trying to tell you, even if I can’t find the words to say it.

Subtle clues on what’s agitating me in a certain situation may give you an idea on how to help me cope. For example, the timeless “thousand-yard stare” and sudden silence only occur when I’m anxious, so in that case, you can put your arm around me to snap me out of it. If I suddenly get quiet and pull away, then it’s a clue that something’s going on and I need help.

10. Acceptance is the way to go.

Embracing the quirks that come with the package can make it successful, no matter if I’m backstage with the crew or onstage taking a bow with the cast!

The Mighty is asking the following: Create a list-style story of your choice in regards to disability, disease or illness. It can be lighthearted and funny or more serious — whatever inspires you. Be sure to include at least one intro paragraph for your list. 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.

When more than one parent reader asked our Mighty team for tips for photographing children with autism, we went to the experts — other parents! We asked our readers on Facebook to share their tips to getting a great photo.

Here’s what they had to say:

1. “As a photographer with a daughter with autism, I find [taking pictures] is a great chance to work on eye contact, even if we can only grab it for a minute. I started by asking her to see if she could see something in my lens. Then, as she got more comfortable, we would work on short spurts of eye contact. I don’t usually pose her. The less you interfere while taking pictures, the better it will be.” — Kate Sytsma 

Kate Sytsma

2. “Don’t make it a big deal. Use your camera a lot so it feels normal to them to be photographed. I take hundreds of photographs every month, and my son just plays and does his thing without taking much notice. The minute I try to say ‘go by that’ or ‘turn toward me and smile,’ he melts down, but those aren’t the good photos anyways — the candid ones of him making discoveries or getting engrossed in something interesting are the good ones.” — Tristen Wuori

Tristen Wuori

3. “Hold something your child likes at the right eye level behind the photographer so their eyes and smiles are facing the camera.” — Lynn Siegler

Lynn Siegler

4. “[My daughter] responds to music. So if I want a picture, I sing to her or play music. Then I can get a great picture.” — Melissa Cote

Melissa Cote

5. “Take a full-length mirror and place it on a wooden deck or floor. Let the child look in the mirror and photograph the reflection.” — Andrea Armitage Connors

6. “Our son loves to see himself on the screen, so I bought a camera where the view screen on the back rotates and flips to the side so he can see himself in it. He smiles and makes faces, and I just click away.” — Susan Dietz

Susan Dietz

7. “We use short sessions and don’t tell him to pose, cheese or smile. We also make sure he’s not hungry or tired and has a book or toy. One of our best family pictures happened when he was melting down and I had a big lollipop in my purse.” — Kathryn Hazelwood

Kathryn Hazelwood

8. “My daughter is super into emotions right now, so I ask her to make a happy, silly, sad or bored face, and the finished product always somehow turns out pretty good. I’ve learned to be quick as well.” — Justin-Amanda Thiessen

Justin-Amanda Thiessen

9. “I take a video of my son. Then, I go through it frame by frame and I screen shot the frame I like. It’s a natural shot, and no one knows it was done that way.” — Larisa Shrewsbury 

Larisa Parker

10. “Photograph them doing something they love. My little man loves to play and be tickled, and we get the best shots of him when he’s in his element. Candid shots are always my favorites. They are genuine.” — Jessica Crane

Jessica Crane

11. “My son is 19 and has autism. We’ve learned through the years to let him guide us. Eye contact is never the issue. We want to see him smile through his eyes.” — Nicole Bonvini Del Purgatorio

Nicole Del Purgatorio

12. “I just take as many pictures as I can. They’re all natural and capture the pure joy in whatever [my son] is doing. Sometimes I even get a good one where he is looking straight at me that I’ve caught by playing peek-a-boo.” — Christie Ashby 

Christy Ashby

13. “Explain everything — what [the camera] is, what it does, why it does it and when it will do it. Doing so helps them to not be so afraid.” — Candace Gudenburr

14. “Patience, lots and lots of patience. Every child is beautiful and capturing those candid moments is where you will find them.” — Beverly Popolo 

15. “I use my zoom lens and catch my son doing something he enjoys from afar.” — Annabel Lawlor

Annabel Lawler

16. “I find it works best when my son is in his natural environment where he’s comfortable and doing something he loves. The photos can’t be rushed. He has always been fascinated with opening and closing doors. This photo was taken at our front door after it was opened wide. Pure joy.” — Tyann Sheldon Rouw

Tyann Sheldon Rowe

17. “My son loves reciting parts of movies, so I recite some of his favorite lines while the photographer snaps pictures. He’s giggling up a storm!” — Joyce Rohe

Joyce Rohe

18. “I’m a photographer and my son has autism. Be ready. Don’t push them — let them be themselves. I always ask if he can see the dinosaur, car or kitty inside my camera lens. Let them try out your camera and take your picture.” — Kirstin Aitken

19. “I try to make my son genuinely laugh. We talk, we laugh, and I just take the picture. He is who he is and he’s beautiful — looking at the camera or not. Truthfully, it’s the spontaneous, honest pictures that are the best. They show so much more heart than portraits.” — Jen Milburn
Jen Milburn

*Some answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Do you have your own tip? Let us know in the comments.

It’s 2015 and we’re seeing some pretty staggering statistics with regards to autism spectrum disorder (ASD): 1 in 68 children are on the spectrum, according to the CDC. I don’t know the reason and I certainly don’t have the answers, but I do know that with numbers like these, the odds are that your child might be in a class or a camp or an after-school program with the “1 in 68.” And for every one of them there are a few of us: their family.

Sometimes you’ll see us and never wonder or think a thing. But maybe we had a talk outside the classroom. Maybe we are both room moms or volunteering at gymnastics or bringing coolers to the soccer game. Maybe you’ve gotten to know us more than you thought you would. You’ve seen my face at school functions, the look in my eyes when things aren’t going the way I hoped and planned and you want to know: Is there anything you can do to help?

Yes, you with your big heart, yes, there are most definitely some things you can do to help:

1.  Ask me those uncomfortable questions.

Go ahead, ask them! When was she diagnosed? How did we know? Strengths? Weaknesses? Does she show affection? Can she solve complex math problems in her head? Have we tried a gluten-free diet? We so often keep ourselves removed from the experiences of others by not asking the questions circling in our minds. Don’t do that. Get to know my family. We won’t be offended. In fact, you will be immediately endeared to us because you cared enough to ask any question at all.

2. Ask us over for playdates!

Invite us to your birthday and end-of-the-year pool parties. Please. PLEASE! My kid need balloons, cupcakes and an occasional paper invitation in her backpack. Most importantly, she also needs time with your kids. Because the more time kids on the spectrum spend with neurotypical people, the more comfortable they might become with them. And I believe the more comfortable they become, the easier mainstream settings might be for them. So many kids on the spectrum can play just like anyone else (and want to play just like anyone else), but it could take time with your children to help us get to that.

3. Keep trying.

You’re going to say hi to my daughter, and she might walk right past you. You’re going to ask her a question, and she might not answer. You’re going to call her to do something, and she could stay right where she is, reading or drawing or playing by herself. Sometimes you have to say it twice, three times, maybe even more than that. But please keep trying, and if she feels comfortable talking to you, eventually you might get a response.

4. Cut them some slack.

Kids on the spectrum look like any other kid, so sometimes it’s hard to tell. But I believe having autism spectrum disorder might be like living on another planet where no one speaks your language and no one gets your jokes. It might feel like you’re constantly being bombarded with distractions and no one else seems to notice them. So if these kids start jumping up and down for no reason or curl up in a ball or become devastated by the simplest of directions, be as patient as you can be, give them a break and see #3.

5. When you teach your kid about diversity, don’t stop after race, religion and gender.

Teach them about disabilities. Teach them about mental illness. Teach them about wheelchairs and head injuries and amputations and rare diseases. Teach them respect and patience for all things outside the norm. Teach them all people are worth the time it takes to get to know them. Teach them a friendship with a special person makes you a more special person because your heart and your mind will grow a little bit bigger. Trust me, I know. I’m friends with one of them.

Betty Sweet Atkinson the mighty.1-001

Follow this journey on Betty Sweet Writes.

The Mighty is asking the following: Create a list-style story of your choice in regards to disability, disease or illness. It can be lighthearted and funny or more serious — whatever inspires you. Be sure to include at least one intro paragraph for your list. 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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