Great News for NFL Fans on the Autism Spectrum

The Seattle Seahawks have partnered with a pair of autism moms from Tulsa, Oklahoma, to offer their fans with autism a better experience at games.

Michelle Wilkerson and Jennifer Sollars Miller started a nonprofit program called “I’m A-OK,” which offers free game-day kits to fans who are on the autism spectrum. The kits include noise canceling headphones, ear plugs, sensory toys, a detailed schedule to help keep track of the game and an “I’M A-OK” identifier badge, according to the Seahawks website.

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Wilkerson and Miller want to make it easier for people with autism to participate in sporting events and other loud public activities.

They have to learn the skills,” Miller told NBC. “They’re not going to learn unless they’re actually in the environment.”

Wilkerson and Miller contacted the Seahawks back in July; the Oct. 18 game against the Panthers marked their first partnership with an NFL team. They hope to expand and work with many other teams in the future.

We realized there were a few simple things we could do that would make a positive impact for Seahawks fans on the spectrum,” said David Young, VP of Stadium Operations, according to the Seahawks website. “The toolkits are just the first step.”

Get more on the story from the video below: 



These Photos Capture the Beauty of Kids With Down Syndrome in Every Season

Bethany Balsis, a photographer from Bristow, Virginia, recently shot a calendar for the Down Syndrome Association of Northern Virginia.

October. Courtesy of Bethany Balsis.

Balsis was inspired to take on the calendar by her girls, Payton, 9, and Addison, 8, who both have Down syndrome. Payton is Balsis’s biological daughter and Addison was adopted from Russia when she was 2. Both girls also appear in the calendar.

“They have inspired me to advocate for people with Down syndrome as much as I can,” Balsis told The Mighty in a Facebook message. “If I can help spread awareness through my photography, then I am so happy to combine two of my passions into one.”

November. Courtesy of Bethany Balsis.

Balsis’s photos beautifully capture her subjects in a backdrop that evokes each month, but the images do something else as well — they show the versatility and potential of people with Down syndrome.

December. Courtesy of Bethany Balsis.

“There are so many misconceptions about Down syndrome out there, from how they look to how they act to what we can expect from them,” Balsis told The Mighty. “I hope others look at my images and see that people with Down syndrome are beautiful souls with personality and so much potential.”

Check out some images from the shoot below: 

Payton Balsis poses for March. Courtesy of Bethany Balsis.
April. Courtesy of Bethany Balsis.
May. Courtesy of Bethany Balsis.
June. Courtesy of Bethany Balsis.
July. Courtesy of Bethany Balsis.
Addison Balsis poses for August. Courtesy of Bethany Balsis.
Calendar cover. Courtesy of Bethany Balsis.

Calendars are available for purchase here. Visit Bethany Balsis’s Facebook page for more of her photography. 


18 Mental Health Questions We Want to Ask the Presidential Candidates

Listen up, potential President of the United States — we want to talk to you about mental health. No, not as a subset of the gun control debate. Mental illness affects about 61.5 million Americans, and we have some issues we’d like you (and other elected officials, for that matter) to address as we approach the election year.

So at the convenience of future debate moderators, we asked our readers what mental health-related questions they’d want to ask the presidential candidates.

Here’s what they had to say.

On mental illness and prison:

1. “What will you do to make sure prisons aren’t continually used to hide people with mental illness?” — Shawn Henfling

2. “What impact does the for-profit prison industry have on the high rates of incarceration in this country, particularly the incarceration rates of those with mental illness?” — Paul Banuski

3. “Housing the mentally ill in prison is unacceptable. What plans do you have for other treatment options?” — Rebecca Chamaa


On the connection between mental illness and gun violence:

4.Will you comment on the fact that nearly two-thirds of gun-related deaths in this country are suicides and not homicides, and does that information change the way you approach the issue of the proliferation of guns?” — Paul Banuski

5. “Will you agree to end mental health stigma by ending the practice of speaking about mental health issues in the context of gun violence and start discussing the real problems with our mental health system in the U.S.?” — Dolores Sanchez, Founder of Mental Health Justice 

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On mental health care:

6. “When will there be more affordable medications? — Theresa Lafar 

7. “How can you make mental health treatment more affordable for the uninsured and underinsured?” — Erica Mcclellan

8. “How would you address the shortage of qualified mental health care providers?” — Lindsay Ballard

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9. “What will you do to make mental health care a priority in this country? How will you make it more accessible?” — Nikki DeMeyers

10. “What do you consider your priorities when it comes to mental health reform in the U.S.?” — Gen Somers

11. “Can they explain why, despite the great need, mental health care feels like an afterthought rather than a priority?” — Julianne Leow

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On mental health and our veterans:  

12. “How are you going to help lower veteran suicide rates?” — Bridget Flynn

13. “Veteran mental health care seems to be at a loss if you talk to the vets. I’m curious, how is this being addressed?” — 

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On helping those who are have a serious mental illness:

14. “What will you do to reprioritize those with series mental illness who continue to be filtered out to prisons and homeless shelters?” — Deborah Mihalik Geesling

15. “Why is money being spent on the fluffy stuff like pamphlets instead of being redistributed to help those who are seriously mentally ill?” — Alicia Renkema

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On more mental health-related issues: 

16. “How would you help eradicate mental health stigma?” — Erica Enos

17. “Why does it feel like those with mental health issues are consistently subordinated to those with physical health issues?” Kayla Wientzek  

18. “How would you make mental health a global priority?” — Emilyanne Wachter 

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Have more questions? Drop them in the comments below: 

Related: The Only Time Mental Health Was Discussed During the Democratic Debate


When I Lost It While Attending to My Child’s Special Needs

Well, it happened.

I’m not proud.

My son, Jack, stood in the center of his room with tears rolling down his face. We just finished the 15-minute nightly battle of me injecting chemo down his throat followed by another painful teeth-brushing war. The side effects of chemo have nearly destroyed what’s left of his baby teeth. Every stroke of the brush is a reminder this shit is far from over. I know it’s normal to feel some sort of dread for this daily routine, as most 5 year-olds don’t particularly enjoy bedtime. For me, I hate this time of day. No, I despise this time of day. At least up until we start reading, that is.

Is it weird I look forward to the amount of days left in his treatment to match the number of stairs I count every time I put him to bed… as if that means some magic number? I guess it’s one of the many coping mechanisms to help pass the time.

Then again, unlike other parents, I’m grateful to have a light at the end of the tunnel. I feel selfish and a little guilty when I throw these self-pity tantrums. Other people don’t have that luxury. Other people have it much more difficult than us. Other people don’t have an end in sight. Other people struggle to put food on the table. Other people don’t have access to doctors and modern medicine, and parents are forced to watch their children die in their arms over preventable diseases. Other people simply don’t have an option. Even though I know these things, it doesn’t make it any easier. Sometimes I think this sort of perspective makes it worse.

Before I even begin to approach Jack with syringe in tow, my eyes are already squinting. My forehead seems to have grown a few wrinkles and I can feel the scowl on my face. I’m angry. No, I’m pissed off. Wait, no. Maybe I’m sad? Is it guilt? Or is it I feel cheated in some way? Probably all of the above.

Jack was now hitting himself in the face and screaming at the top of his lungs. I leaned in to give him a hug and pulled out the typical, “Take a deep breath, Jack.” He kept trying to leave the room, obviously frustrated with something. I gently grabbed his hand, attempted to bring him back to the bed and asked him to pick out his favorite book. He flopped to the ground and kept shaking his head no. This went on for several minutes. Finally, I lost it.


The house went silent. Jack’s crying abruptly became an awkward silence. We stared at each other for some time. He didn’t pick out a book nor cry again. He walked over to bed, pulled the covers over his head and went to sleep.

Guilt rushed through my body from head-to-toe. The pit in my stomach seemed to grow with every breath. Everything about me wanted to take it back. It was as if he just said everything I never wanted to hear — “Dad, I’m trying… cut me some slack.”

Or was it —

“Dad, I’m trying but the words won’t come out. These drugs you give me every day don’t help my speech delay either. The protective germ bubble you and mom force me to live in doesn’t allow me to go to school, interact with my friends, or be a normal kid either. You think I asked for this sort of life? You think I want to put you, Mom and Charlie through this? You think I don’t want to talk?”

I was crushed.

After all, it’s not his fault he was born with Down syndrome, diagnosed with A.L.L. leukemia and can’t talk (yet). He’s probably more frustrated than I am and deserves more self-pity moments than I allow. On the outside I’m hard on Jack. I try to treat him like I treat my other son, Charlie, and set high expectations. I won’t allow him to throw in the towel. Giving up has never been an option in our house, and I don’t ever plan to change that. Me losing it on him was like throwing in the towel, and that’s inexcusable.

On the inside I’m crying. I’m heartbroken for him. Somehow this life has cheated him in more ways than one. I continue to cheer him on from the sidelines, but I keep watching my boy get treated like a punching bag. I helplessly stand by and wait, and support, and encourage… and wait… and hopefully one day he can tell me everything he’s wanted to tell me.

And I’ll respond with, “I’m sorry.”

Follow this journey on Jack and Chuck.

To My Best Friend Who Also Experiences Depression

Five short years ago, I had never heard of you. You were kind of, but not really, seeing a friend of a friend at community college.

There was never a moment, in the beginning at least, that made me say, “Oh my God, you’re my best friend.”

Our friendship simply was. Like it had always been there. There was no definitive “start,” but I think I started noticing it when I was single on Valentine’s Day and you bought me chocolates.

I remember the day you told me how your dad died, because it was the day I told you I lost my mom.

The never had to say I had depression after that point. We were so similar in every conceivable way, I think you immediately could sense the darkness that sat in my stomach like anchors.

Because I recognized it in you, too. It killed me to see how a girl as beautiful and vibrant as you could hit the same low points as me.

We’ve been best friends now for years.

Those years have been paved with 4 a.m. text messages and phone calls, crying about nothing but also about everything. They’ve been paved with moments of silence, simply needing to be near someone, because once the words started, the tears and feelings of hopelessness would follow.

Our coffee runs did more for me than any counseling session I ever went to.

You showed me depression doesn’t need to be fought alone. You showed me I could be strong, and that no matter what happens there’s at least one person on this Earth who knows exactly how my heart hurts.

There were days before I met you where waking up made me feel like a bathtub full of concrete trying to drain itself. Days would go by where I don’t think I spoke a single word. My phone would never ring; it felt like no one cared. Sometimes I wondered if I actually existed, or if I had died somewhere along the way and no one thought to tell me.

But then you came into my life. You, beautiful you. With you came texts every single day and conversations that didn’t feel forced. You actively remind me I’m important to you, and more importantly, taught me to do the same. I know how hard your life is, love. I know how lonely it feels and how hopeless things can seem, but I swear I”ll continue to show up with your iced coffee sweetened with cream and sugar. I’ll continue to find you quick and easy recipes because I know how hard it is to take care of yourself when darkness settles in your mind. I’ll always tell the voice in the back of your head it’s wrong, and remind you how beautiful you are.

Our friendship isn’t just strong because we both have depression, babe. Our friendship is strong because we hold each other up when one of us can’t get off the floor. Our friendship is strong because we are strong together. I told you once we are women of storms. That our seas have never been calm. The rough waves that wore us down and eroded our hearts are the same waves that brought us together.

Thank you for the nights I didn’t want to be alone, and you drove over an hour to be with me. Thank you for being my only friend who went to my community college graduation. Thank you for making my accomplishments feel valid, from getting an associate’s degree to simply remembering to take a shower that day. I promise to always do the same for you.

You are my best friend in the world, and I hope I’m yours, too.


When I’m Judged Because My Child Needs Screen Time to Eat

Screen time is the nemesis many therapists, teachers, doctors and friends tell you is the worst possible thing you can give your child. When we’re out, I see how people look at me and judge my parenting because my child is watching a video while we eat. I see how they shake their heads and whisper about how I must be a lazy parent not to just engage with my child while we eat. I see it all, and I’m screaming inside that I see the judgment. Prior to having my son with special needs, I was the same as them. When I saw parents allowing their child to do this, I would think the same thoughts. Then I was given a child like Von.

My child was born with a complex disease. The disease nearly killed him when he was 3 months old. He hadn’t been diagnosed yet, and he spent a week on life support clinging to life as doctors tried to figure out why all his organs were failing. When he finally got diagnosed, the damage was already done.

He had prolonged low blood sugar for more than 48 hours, and it dipped as low as seven when he was the most critical. A blood sugar of seven would kill most people. It did not kill my son, but it did damage his brain. Doctors told us, “Your child will never be Einstein.” They talked about “learning disabilities” and “developmental delays.” He was just a tiny baby then, and at the time I ignored it. 

As he grew, he fell further and further behind his peers. He seemed to respond excessively to movement, and he would avoid touch and texture. He became obsessed with cars, trains and trucks. While other children were playing with toys, my son was itemizing them, lining them up and organizing them by type. He didn’t know how to play, socialize or eat. We tried everything — every single thing you can imagine, every food, every technique — and there was always a strong pursed lip and head shake when food came close to his mouth. Then one day we gave him a phone. He was able to distract himself with an entertaining clip on YouTube or silly dog video. We could sneak the bites in and encourage him to chew. After months of exhausting so many possibilities, we sought therapy with professionals to help.

The therapists said, “Your child has apraxia of speech, oral apraxia, severe oral aversion and sensory processing disorder.” I looked at the therapist and had no idea what any of that meant. They explained he’s so overwhelmed by all the things around him that he can’t effectively process motor movements in his mouth, he’s unable to chew and swallow because he can’t coordinate it in his brain, and the only way he can do any of this is if we make the process automatic versus planned. It finally made sense.

All this time, and all those judgmental looks from friends, family and strangers, and I had somehow known my child well enough to know he had to be distracted. If Von had to plan it on his own, his brain can’t do it. He can’t chew if he has to think about it. He can’t speak if he has to think about it. Everything must be spontaneous, or he has to be significantly distracted by other things to do basic skills.

I asked the therapist if it was OK for him to watch a screen while he ate. She told me he has to eat, and until we can help him learn to master this skill on his own, everything in our home should stay status quo. We shouldn’t interrupt meals and expect him to sit still and eat without distraction. He needs distraction to eat.

I felt validated when she told me I wasn’t being a bad mother for allowing this behavior. However, it doesn’t mean those looks I get when we’re out don’t sting any less. I know people think I’m a lazy parent and judge my choices. I see the comments on social media, and no matter how hard I try to not let it affect me, it does. Parents of children with oral motor processing disorders have to do things differently. It wasn’t even something I knew about before being a parent. I didn’t realize how hard it was to chew and swallow. I didn’t realize touching textures would be so hard for my child that he wouldn’t feed himself. I had no clue he would lack coordination to lift a spoon to his mouth to feed himself. 

I know it looks strange to see a 3-year-old being spoon-fed by a parent or to see me fight him to open his mouth to eat. Or when you see me put my finger in his mouth to scoop out the bolus of food from his cheek — I see those looks. What we’re doing isn’t normal. However, we’re doing our best to allow him to grow and thrive. We are all determined to help him learn to eat, because a feeding tube would be a step backwards for us.

Next time you see a parent like me struggling with their child to eat, instead of judging, maybe give them a sympathetic look or a high-five and tell them you understand. Let them know you aren’t judging them. Eating disabilities are real. They’re hard on all members of the family. Be compassionate, and remember we are all just doing our best.

Follow this journey on Von’s Super Hero Facebook page.

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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We face disability, disease and mental illness together.