It’s been years now since my son received his autism diagnosis. As I look back at all the progress we have made, and how much our life has changed for the better, I am so grateful.

As I look back, I can also see that many of the things we learned, we did so by trial and error. It wasn’t a doctor, or one specific book or another expert. I believe that by God’s grace it was just us, trying to help our son and figure out how to live this life.

It was sleepless nights and trying one thing, and then another, and then another.

It was trying one special diet, and then another, and then another.

It was going to one therapist, and then another, and then another.

It was trying one medicine, and then another, and then another.

Although I think some of this was just part of figuring this autism parent thing out, there are some things I wish I knew back when my son was diagnosed.

1. The behavior has a trigger.

I repeat, the behavior has a trigger.

Just because I had no idea what was causing it, doesn’t mean there wasn’t a reason for my sons increasingly violent, agitated behavior. After finally getting the diagnosis, it all started to make sense — especially the extreme reactions to things that seemed effortless for other children.

Basic everyday occurrences like putting on socks, wearing shoes that were not crocs, touching grass or sand or dirt or cement with his hands or feet, chewing meat that was a little on the tough side, smelling anything at a restaurant, on a plane, in a public restroom — these things had been causing anxiety and meltdowns for years.

It’s very simple to write the above paragraph now and correlate these triggers to the meltdowns. A few years ago however? Totally different story.

“I have no idea what is going on. He totally lost it today when it was time to get ready for class. He threw his game system at me and started trying to tear his clothes…before I even told him he needed to put his socks and shoes on. My poor boy. What is happening?”

This was a regular conversation I had with just about anyone who would listen. I just didn’t make the connection, or if I did, I didn’t totally trust it.

I wish someone had looked me in the eye and said, “He is reacting this way for a reason. Ask him when he’s calm. Study him when he’s melting down. The answers are right in front of you. You can figure out what is causing some of this.”

2. Figure out what works even if it seems odd.

Occupational therapy has been so, so good for my son (read more about his therapist and our approach here). One of the things we learned very quickly in OT is that my boy loves the feeling of Lycra on his skin. I have no idea why, but it doesn’t matter. Lycra soothes his over reactive sensory system better than anything else we have tried.

When his therapist told me there were sheets made of Lycra, I immediately did some research and intended to buy a pair — until I saw the price. Oh my goodness. No way.

Instead I went to the fabric store with a 40 percent off coupon, bought yards of it and tied it around his bed.

It’s not pretty, but, oh my goodness, it works! It changed our world.

Not only has it helped him relax and sleep at night, but when things are loud and overwhelming or he is just having an off day, he retreats under the sheets for a little while. It calms him down and when he feels better, he comes back out with us.

This is called self-regulation, my friends, and it’s awesome.

For your child, it may not be Lycra sheets. It might be a weighted blanket or squeezing in between the couch cushions. But it’s there. I wish I’d known to look for it.

3. Dress for success.

When I go to our various doctors appointments and therapies, I have found it helps to dress professionally and try to do my hair and makeup (I stress try).

Why? It may not be fair or right, but I find when I am dressed professionally, the doctor is more likely to treat me as an equal. More importantly, if I have questions, my concerns are taken more seriously. When I wear sweats and my hair all a mess, I find I am more or less given instructions, rather than being treated like an important resource.

It may seem a little unfair, but it works. And I wish I would’ve figured it out sooner.

4. Alone time is OK.

It used to make me anxious that my son would spend so much time in his room. He was usually reading, but for some reason that didn’t matter. I thought it meant he was withdrawing from the world and his family.

The truth is, my son just needs more time to himself than I consider average. He is an introvert to the extreme. After being out and about with people (including interactions with me), he needs time to unwind. He needs time to pursue his interests, to immerse himself in learning more and more about all of his favorite subjects.

You know what? He almost always comes out refreshed and ready to once again engage. I have learned to not only respect his need for time alone, but appreciate it. It makes him more capable when he is interacting with us, and I get a little bit of time one on one with his younger brother.

Shawna Wingert the mighty.3-001

5. There is blessing.

Oh boy, this one is big. When we finally had a diagnosis, I was grief-stricken and a little panicky.

My heart felt like it was shattering. All my hopes and dreams for my son felt hollow, and now, unrealistic. I felt robbed.

I had no idea that years later I would say there is so much blessing to be found in this life, even with, and sometimes especially with, this diagnosis.

There is no way I could’ve know the peace and joy that comes from simply having my child give me a hug or enjoy a play date with his friends. I would’ve never counted cooking with my son in the kitchen or shopping at the farmers’ market together a spirit-filled experience.

I do now.

What I wish I would’ve known back then is that all of it is purposeful. It can be messy and sad sometimes, yes.

It’s also fun and new, interesting and challenging, loving and joy-filled.

This is the life we have been given. It is a blend of all of these things — the good and the bad.

What I couldn’t have possibly known then is how grateful I am for all of it.

Follow this journey on Not the Former Things.

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You know who you are. You know what you’ve done. You try to deny it. You say he’s so smart. He tries so hard. But it’s you. You were the catalyst we needed. You made the difference. You.

You are so humble and genuine. You teach in a private school with neurotypical children. You are in a “regular classroom” but took my son in with open arms. He’s anything but typical. Yet you treated him like all the others. You insisted that you were his teacher, not his aide. You kept him mixed at the tables with the other students. You invited him onto the rug at story time. You kept him in the middle of the chaos, so he belonged.

Tracy Boyarsky Smith the mighty.2-001

But you allowed him to be different and embraced it. You allowed him to use red crayon on his tougher days to complete an assessment. You allowed him to sleep in the afternoon because his little body was worn out from working so hard all day long. You allowed him to take walks when meltdowns proved he had his fill for the day and needed an escape. You pushed him to beat the odds and work hard. You taught him more than I ever thought you would.

When we began our journey, I was so scared that he wouldn’t make it. “They” said he wouldn’t make it. Not at a typical school. Not at a private school. Only a special program would do. He has moderate autism, severe ADHD and everything that goes along with it, yet is quite bright. We were told that most children with his severity of disability don’t have the same cognitive ability he has. You saw it immediately. You saw it, and you insisted I see it, too.

When he came to you, he couldn’t hold a pencil. I just wanted him to be able to write some uppercase letters in crayon by the end of the year. Others had tried to get him to hold a pencil and write, but it just didn’t happen. Within two weeks of being with you, he held a pencil and wrote both uppercase and lowercase letters. You taught him to read. You taught him to cut with scissors. It wasn’t perfect. There were bumps and yelling and throwing and kicking. He tried to escape once or twice. Even with all this, you gave him the foundation he needed for the other team members to be successful, for my son to be successful.

You got in my face. You forced me to believe that he could do it. I fought you. But you insisted. You never gave up on him or me. You not only taught him, you taught me. I learned just how gifted my son really is. I learned that pushing him gently is what he needed. I learned that he can; he is able. I remind myself of this when he flounders. I remind myself of this when I worry. I remind myself of this when people doubt him. I doubt him no longer.

One of the greatest compliments, though, is what you told me at the end of the year. You said, “He made me a better teacher.” Not only did you teach us, you allowed him to teach you. He stretched your limits in many ways. You were already an outside-the-box teacher, but you allowed him to take you further and explore more. We challenged each other because of this little boy. This little boy brings out the best in everyone he meets.

Thank you for allowing us to work as a team. Thank you for seeing him for who he really is. Thank you for pushing us beyond our comfort zones. We are all better because of it. You made more of a difference than you’ll ever know or admit to, and we are forever grateful. Because of you.

Tracy Boyarsky Smith the mighty.1-001


Most people mean well when offering parenting advice, but for parents of children with autism, the advice and opinions can get overwhelming. To help with that, The Mighty came up with a useful chart for knowing when it’s a good time to offer up some parenting wisdom.

Check out our helpful chart below:

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Growing up, I always found the last week of summer to be a bittersweet experience. I relished the freedom, yet I felt terrified about the new school year ahead. I’d start to build up an overwhelming amount of anxiety that would travel with me into the classroom.

If you had asked me what I feared the most, I probably would have said the social challenges that I always struggled with. But there was another difficulty involved, one that I didn’t understand until many years later: the sensory onslaught that a new school year represents.

Back then, I didn’t understand that I was on the autism spectrum and had sensory sensitivities. The world just felt like… well, the world. I didn’t know how to disentangle the reality I was perceiving from the individual senses that were piecing that reality together. It took a long time to figure out how it all worked — not just my senses, but their patterns and the different ways habit and change can impact them.

Today, I can look back and understand why going back to school was stressful: being at home during the summer meant being somewhere so familiar that I had long since acclimated to the sensory data of the surroundings. The lighting, sounds, tactile variations… my mind was used to it all and did not have to work as hard to process the never ending stream of incoming data.

The familiar is peaceful.

Change is the opposite. Change means the senses are raw and exposed and under attack.

And school was always that opposite after a summer immersed in the sensory familiarity of home.

A new school year would mean not just a different setting, but one that included a huge number of different rooms and activities. The classroom had one set of sensory experiences (the sound of pencils being sharpened, the peppery scents they caused, chair legs scraping floors, etc.). The hallway had another set (rowdy kids, their echoing voices). The playground had its own range of sensory experiences, as did the lunchroom, the bathrooms and so on.

It takes my mind quite awhile to acclimate to any new environment. And school was a dozen new environments all rolled into one.

At the time, I didn’t understand why I found simply being at school to be so overwhelming. Today when I go places, I immediately feel run down and I understand: my mind is just having to sort through a huge number of unfamiliar data points. The lights are different, and this can be painful until I acclimate (which can take many months). The sounds are different, which can feel strange and disorienting… again, I need time to get used to that.

If it is unfamiliar and it filters through one of the five senses, it can take quite a bit of time to acclimate to that newness.

For me, school was just layers and layers of confusing input that shifted throughout the day and intensified as we were shuttled from one activity or room to another. It felt like being inside of a giant sensory kaleidoscope that spun too fast — that I had no control over, that never stopped turning.

I mention it now because at the time, I never had words for any of this. I just stressed and felt overloaded and I couldn’t understand why.

I don’t know what could have made a difference, what sort of interventions might have been helpful. I just think understanding it would have been nice. Understanding it would have removed a lot of that confusion. And these being sensory issues, they were invisible to others. I wish the impact of school had been better understood by teachers and other students.

I think with kids on the spectrum, people see the discomfort and sometimes the outbursts. They can see the results. What they don’t see is the internal chaos that is being caused by factors most people aren’t even aware of.

Pencil being sharpened. Echoing voice. Chair scraping floor.

Simple things for some. Chaos for others.

Your reality can get thrown into that kaleidoscope and start turning and turning.

Follow this journey on Invisible Strings.

The Mighty is asking the following: What’s one thing people might not know about your experience with disability and/or disease, and what would you say to teach them? 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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The Disney Channel will air a special episode of “Girl Meets World” this week that the company hopes will start a discussion with kids about autism.

According to a press release, the storyline is aimed at delivering “both entertainment and information for kids and parents about Asperger’s syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder.”

The show’s main characters, Riley and Maya, show “empathy and acceptance as they support their friend [Farkle],” who wonders whether he may be on the autism spectrum. In the episode, “Girl Meets Farkle,” we’ll also see Mr. Matthews (played by “Boy Meets World” alum Ben Savage) address his students about “the importance of uniqueness and compassion.”

four members of the cast of Disney's Girl Meets World
Disney Channel/Ron Tom

The network hopes the story will “spark conversation among kids and their families,” and producers consulted with three experts: Elizabeth Laugeson, Psy.D, The Help Group; child development consultant Arthur Pober, Ed.D.; and Shiela Wagner, M.Ed., retired, Emory Autism Center.

While a number of hit shows have briefly touched on the subject, Bustle pointed out that the last time a notable TV character was diagnosed with the disorder was on NBC’s “Parenthood,” which wrapped up in spring 2015. Max Braverman, who was on the spectrum, dealt with bullying, and the series chronicled the struggles and triumphs of his daily life.

The “Girl Meets World” episode will air on Friday, September 11 at 8:30-9:00 p.m., ET/PT on the Disney Channel.


So let’s take a minute to talk about autism and obsessions. Now, when I say “obsession,” I really mean obsession. This is much different than just having an interest in a person, place or thing. Your child might really, really like SpongeBob, but a child with an obsession won’t see, hear, think or talk about anything else no matter how hard you try to distract them. I’ve found that when an obsession takes over a child with autism, it can consume them. Also, more often than not, I’ve seen a child with autism develop an obsession with an odd object, not just a toy or make-believe character. With that being said, I want to share with you a story about my son, Granderson, and how his obsession with an odd object completely transformed my way of thinking about autism obsession. Yes, my 4-year-old (at the time) taught me, his mother, that when it comes to autism obsessions…just let them be.

At about age 3, my son became obsessed with microwaves. Yes, microwaves!  I have no idea what his fascination with microwaves was because he couldn’t verbalize that to me. All I know is that his life, and in turn my own, became 100 percent consumed by microwaves. He would draw them constantly — amazingly detailed drawings — he would talk about them constantly. He would pretend everything in the house was a microwave. And he would find them everywhere. I had no idea so many gas stations had microwaves! Probably the hardest part of this obsession to swallow was that he beeped like a microwave — constantly! We bought every pretend microwave we could find, and then I resorted to making them for him out of cardboard boxes because it was the only thing that peaked his interest even a little bit. My entire house was filled with microwaves! This was by far the longest obsession he has had thus far. It lasted well over a year.

So when Halloween rolled around, I bet you can guess what my son wanted to be? Yep, a microwave. By now, I had mastered the art of cardboard microwave origami, so it wasn’t the effort of making the costume I dreaded. It was my fear of what other people would think of him wearing it. I tried to get him to change his mind. I’m sad to say I practically begged, but when an autism obsession is in full force, it’s like a Category 5 hurricane, knocking down any new idea in its path.

What would people say when they saw my 4-year-old dressed up as a microwave? What would other kids say? Would they make fun of him? I dreaded thinking about the comments about how he was “weird” or “strange” and immediately hit the fast-forward button in my brain to see him growing up and hearing comments like that. He already has extra challenges because of autism. Why couldn’t he be obsessed with something more normal and that wouldn’t draw attention to him in a negative way?

The silver lining was that a part of me was happy that he actually verbalized to me his own thought. It was his own idea, and he was able to tell me about it, which is a huge accomplishment for a child with speech delay and echolalia. And that is why, much to my own dismay, I gathered my supplies.

One cardboard box, one can of silver spray paint, one gray sweat suit, one piece of cellophane, one black sharpie and one battery-powered push button light and we had our microwave costume!

My son was thrilled!

The night came that I was going to take Grandy trick-or-treating in the church parking lot. I dreaded thinking about the large number of people all gathered into one parking lot. I dreaded the anticipated comments and stares he would receive. I dreaded the fact that it wasn’t very dark outside so he would be easily seen by everybody.  I was dreading the whole experience. But what I didn’t know was that my entire outlook on autism obsessions was about to do a complete 180!

We got out of the car at the church parking lot with my son holding my hand and proudly displaying his love for microwaves. Before we could even walk five feet the first comment was made…

Brittany Miller the mighty.3-001

“Oh my gosh, look at that little boy! He’s a microwave!” a lady said, pointing at Grandy and nudging the group of people she was with. “That is the most creative costume I have ever seen!” I watched the entire group turn their attention to Grandy. They were laughing at my son, but it wasn’t the kind of laughter I was dreading at all. It was the innocent giggles and smiles of other children and adults oohing and ahhing over how cute my son looked dressed up as a microwave.

All evening long the comments kept rolling in. Everywhere we walked, someone was complimenting my son about how awesome, cute and creative his costume was. I could only take credit for making the costume, but I made sure to mention that it was all his idea. My son reveled in all the extra attention and all the extra candy he received because of his creative costume idea. He was the star of the show. All eyes were on him, all comments were about him and all reactions were 100 percent positive!

That was the single moment that changed my outlook on autism obsessions. You see, it’s not about what the autism obsession is or how other people view it, it’s about the happiness and creativity it brings to your child. It’s about taking their obsession and letting them use it to be their own person. It’s about letting your child stand out in a crowd. Looking back, my child wasn’t afraid of what other people would think of him dressed up as a microwave, he was just happy to be a microwave. That fear lied solely within me.

So my here’s my advice on autism obsessions: No matter how strange they may seem, just let them be. Let your child grow with the obsession, learn with the obsession, be creative with the obsession and, most of all, accept the obsession. Don’t force your child to change their interests because you’re afraid of what other people may say or think. Let your child march to the beat of their own drum, and maybe you’ll find that marching along with them isn’t as hard as you thought it would be.

On that day, in just a single moment, my 4-year-old taught me the true value of acceptance, love, compassion, creativity and individuality. My 4-year-old taught me how to march along beside him, and for a single moment, he let me inside of his world. And it was beautiful.

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