The Gifts Autism Has Brought Our Family

He snuggles in closer, smelling of baby shampoo with a hint of something sweet mixed in. His head still fits perfectly on my shoulder, warm and precious as we read “The Polar Express” for the millionth wonderful time. As I begin to turn the page that will lead the protagonist to the train, he puts his hand on mine and says, “Mom, religion doesn’t matter to Santa Claus.  Everyone who’s good should get a gift.”

Amen to that.

I have no doubt the magic of Santa will prevail in the our household, and my boys are both confident they’ve behaved this year and that Santa will reward their efforts. I know this from my son Zachary’s coveted words and, equally definitive, from the priceless nod of my nonverbal son Justin’s head when asked if he’s getting presents this year. The fact that both of my autistic boys can communicate is a gift in and of itself, one I never take for granted.

And yet, if I’m honest, there are so many more gifts autism has brought us.

Ten years ago if someone had mentioned “autism’s gifts” to me, I would have rolled my eyes and probably detailed our daily existence to that individual, an itinerary of Justin’s day replete with insomnia, reflux, aggression, a complete inability to communicate and many other issues related to his disorder. I would definitely have looked heavenward once again seven years ago as we watched our second son Zachary regress, losing his words, his love of life and quite honestly, the very light from his eyes. Gifts were not forefront in my mind when thinking about the impact autism had on our family.

Fear and exhaustion were frankly much more present.

But years later, it turns out that so many of the issues have resolved themselves through hard work, maturity and love. The gifts are here, waiting to be seen, hoping to be discovered. I’ve watched both my children begin their lives’ journeys miserable, tired and seemingly lost in their own worlds where my husband and I could not traverse. Eleven years after that first diagnosis, I’ve seen two confident, loving and happy boys emerge from what seemed like an impenetrable fortress I could not break through to relieve their discomfort.

Of course, the fact that they both now revel in their lives is the biggest gift of all.

There are so many other gifts, however, all priceless in nature, many of which I would have overlooked had autism not been present in our lives.

Autism has made us closer as a family, has created a teamwork mentality I’m not sure we would have embraced otherwise.

Having two autistic children has given me the gift of educating everyone we meet about the disorder, to pave the way for understanding and hopefully make another family’s experience out in the world a bit easier.

Autism has given me the gift of the community as a second family, with whom I feel an instantaneous camaraderie and closeness that I treasure.

I’ve been given the gift of learning to revel in even the smallest increments of the boys’ collective progress.

Finally, autism has given me the gift of forcing me to be utterly present when I’m with my sons, making certain I never miss their ebullient smiles, precious eye contact or generous hugs.

Years ago, when all seemed especially bleak in the landscape of both my sons’ lives, an friend in the autism community told me this: No matter how difficult the moment, the hour or the entire day, at the end of the night find one moment of joy, and cling to it. I took that advice and built on it, finding many moments to be grateful for, enabling me to see that for this family, the gifts of autism outweigh the struggles. My advice to you is to find that instant in time, embrace it and foster it. Help it grow into multiple moments of happiness and peace.

After a decade of strife my sons are safe, productive and happy. They are a gift to the world.

And they will always be a gift to me.

Follow this journey Autism-Mommy Therapist.

The Mighty is asking the following: Tell us one thing your loved ones might not know about your experience with disability, disease or mental illness during the holidays. 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 Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.


The Prayer a Special Needs Mom Says After Her Child Is Bullied

It’s bedtime in our house. Teeth have been brushed, books have been read and it’s time to turn off the lights and tuck my son, Ben, into bed. Ben prepares to say his nightly prayers. For the past few weeks, his prayers have taken on a new fervor. Tonight is no exception. “God, please help tomorrow be a good day. Please help me be good. And please keep the bucket dippers away,” he pleads.

“Bucket dippers” is his term for the kids at school who dip into his metaphorical bucket. His class read a story called “How Full Is Your Bucket” by Tom Rath. The story talks about filling people’s buckets by doing nice words and deeds, and how doing mean things and saying unkind words dips into someone’s bucket.

Ben encountered a group of older kids, aka the “bucket dippers,” at school during the after-care program. It’s the time in the day when kids from different grade levels mingle in the gymnasium. Due to the loudness of the gym, Ben wears noise-cancelling headsets to help him deal with the sound. On this particular day, they pushed him down and tried to take the headsets. And when he started to cry, they called him a baby.

Heather Zink.2-001

When Ben told me what happened, I immediately talked to the teacher and the principal. The adults intervened right away. The boys had consequences. We created safe spaces and new options for Ben in the gym. And, to the best of my knowledge, these “bucket dippers” haven’t physically or verbally bothered Ben in weeks. And yet, every night Ben still prays to God to keep the bucket dippers away.

As a classroom teacher I’ve certainly dealt with situations like this in the past with my own students. I’ve mediated in cases of bullying and have dealt out consequences to the bullies while counseling the victims. And yet, it wasn’t until my own child was on the receiving end that I have realized just how deep the psychological wounds can scar.

I never considered until recently just how much a child, such as mine, who tends to perseverate and focus on something over and over, will relive the hurt and pain again and again to the point where even if the actual bullying has stopped, it is still alive and real in the person’s mind. This is the part of bullying I never considered. I’ve spent lots of time talking to kids about how to handle the actual event, but not nearly enough time thinking about the after-effects. The part where trust is rebuilt. And this was a one-time incident (I think and hope). I can only imagine how bullying impacts the child who deals with this every single day.

The situation with the bucket dippers has opened up many conversations about how Ben can stand up for himself in a strong but respectful way. We read the book “A Bug and a Wish” by Karen Scheuer. The book was recommended by my friend who happens to be a school psychologist. The book talks about telling the bullies what “bugs” you and what you “wish” they’d do instead. We practice saying those words so that if the situation arises again, Ben will be ready. We’ve talked about going to the grown-ups for help when necessary. We’ve talked about walking away. We’ve talked about all of those things, and yet he still worries and he prays.

As I snuggle next to my little boy, I wish I could shield him from this world, a world that isn’t always a friendly and welcoming place and getting scarier and more uncertain by the day. Unfortunately, the road for him is even more challenging because his differences are magnified, both in the way he speaks, the way he reacts to difficult situations and the tools he uses to cope with his world. Even though as a society we preach embracing differences, the hard fact is that many people are scared by differences. People don’t know how to handle different, and so they keep it at an arm’s length or poke fun of it.

I naively hoped my son would be spared from the harshness of bullying. I hoped his differences wouldn’t set him apart and his sweet nature and amazing personality would be enough. 

And so, as I plant a goodnight kiss on his forehead, I say a prayer of my own. I pray for strength to guide him through the days ahead. I pray for the wisdom to know the right words to say to him on those days when his heart feels broken. But, most of all, I pray for a world filled with way too many bucket dippers and not nearly enough kindness.

Heather Zink.3-001

Follow this journey on Changed for Good Autism.

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.

Twins With Autism Start Business That Will Make Your Christmas Extra Jolly

Mike and Eddie Tuckerman are 18-year-old twin brothers who have autism, and their way of spreading holiday cheer is selling wrapping paper featuring their own original artwork.

After learning about the unemployment rate among adults with autism, Sue Tuckerman, Mike and Eddie’s mother, was determined to find a way to keep the boys busy after they graduate from high school in three years. The twins have always loved drawing so when the family put their heads together and started brainstorming ways for the boys to learn work skills and support themselves, selling their artwork was an easy choice.

“We’ve always felt strongly that we need to focus on their strengths for the future,” she told The Mighty. “For a while we had been trying to come up with something unique, yet something that would have a demand, so wrapping paper seemed ideal. They also love to unwrap gifts — it doesn’t really matter what’s in them! It seemed only fitting that wrapping paper is our first product.”



The family’s company is called Tuckerboys Noveltees, and it’s been up and running for about two months.

“We’re still teaching them the concept of the business and we’re truly learning as we go along,” Tuckerman added. This year they hope to expand and sell other seasonal items like t-shirts. Their other son Timmy and other relatives help with sales.

Tuckerman told The Mighty that every order is exciting for the family, and so far they have sold over 300 rolls of wrapping paper. The boys told CBS Philly that designing and selling the paper makes them “happy,” and they even gave television cameras a peek at their design process.



“Someone told Eddie that he was an entrepreneur, and he responded with ‘I’m an artrepreneur?’ Tuckerman told The Mighty. “So that is our new saying.”

For $10, Tuckerboys Noveltees will ship a roll of wrapping paper directly from their home, and 50 cents of every sale goes to local charities, Tuckerman said. The wrapping paper is available on their Facebook business page and on their Etsy page.

All images courtesy of Sue Tuckerman / Tuckerboys Noveltees

8 Things Autism Parents Want for Christmas

Dear Santa,

Here is our list in order of importance:

1. Autism awareness and acceptance throughout the world.

2. Sleep.

3. Piles of money. (Literally, piles of it.)

4. The reflexes of a ninja when little teeth come at us.

5. The strength of a small child in a full-on meltdown when our child is in a full-on meltdown.

6. The restraint of a monk when parenting advice is offered at the grocery store.

7. The patience of a saint to watch “Toy Story,” “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” and “Thomas & Friends” again and again.

8. The liver of a champ and the metabolism of a teenager to make it through this holiday.

That should do it, Santa.


Autism Parents Everywhere

Follow this journey on Go Team Kate.

The Mighty is asking the following: Create a list-style story about the holiday season related to disability, disease or mental illness. It can be lighthearted or more serious — whatever inspires you. Be sure to include an intro 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 Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

Lead photo source: Thinkstock Images

10 Things I Wish People Knew About My Autism

There are so many different myths and misconceptions about autism, so here are 10 things I wish people knew about my autism:

1. I am first and foremost a person.

I am not a diagnosis. I am not autism and then Lottie. I am Lottie, and I have autism. Ask me what kind of language I want you to use. Some of us like person-first language, so person with autism. Others like autistic person, and it is very upsetting to us when you don’t use our preferred language. But also respect our choice of language even if you don’t agree with it.

2. I do not achieve things despite having autism.

I achieve things with my autism. Who could say I would have done all that I have without it? My autism has never held me back and therefore my achievements have never been despite my autism. However, they are not because of my autism. They are because I worked just as hard as the next person, and my autism was just, well, it was just there.

3. Please avoid asking me what it’s like to have autism.

I can explain exact things like what it feels like having a meltdown, but when you ask me to explain what it’s like to have autism, my answer will be “it just is.” It’s like me asking you what’s it like to live without autism. You’ve never experienced life any other way and therefore it just is. To help us and be our friends, you don’t need to understand what it’s like to live in our shoes and why we do what we do. You just need to accept that this is the way we live and that it makes sense to us.

4. When I am having a meltdown or shutdown, I have no control.

When I become overwhelmed, I have no control over my actions. It’s like a little man has taken over your brain and is now controlling you. You know what’s going on, but you can’t stop it. Please understand how frightening this is for us. We can’t process any more information at this time, so please avoid giving us extra instructions.

5. I can hold down jobs.

I am perfectly able to get and hold down a job just like you. I may struggle more with the social part of having a job due to communication difficulties, but that doesn’t stop me being a productive member of the workforce in whatever job I choose to do.

6. If I try to explain something about my autism, listen to me.

My autism is my autism. It is completely different than anyone else’s autism. Therefore, if I’m explaining something to you, please take me seriously and listen to what I have to say. Don’t just assume you know autism because your friend’s brother has it or you watched “Rain Man” or “Adam.” If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.

7. I am just as capable as you of being in a relationship.

My relationships may be different than most, since I’ll need to talk to my partner about things neurotypicals just “get.” But that doesn’t stop me from being in a relationship. I can be in a relationship, I can get married and I can have kids just like you. People with autism just need to be given a chance, and they may need you to completely rethink what being in a relationship is like.

8. I have the same feelings as you.

My autism makes it harder for me to express and understand my feelings, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have them. I still feel happy, sad, angry and frustrated. I am still capable of love and hate. I just struggle to express this to you, and I sometimes struggle to recognize it in myself. I still have the same sexual desires as you.

9. I do not need to be cured.

Autism is just a different way of thinking. I do not need to be cured; I need to be accepted for who I am and I will flourish.

10. If you want to talk to me, speak to me, not to whomever I may be with.

I am able to talk to you about anything. If you want to know me better or just want a conversation with me, then talk to me. I know about myself better than anyone else, and I can talk for myself if you want a conversation. My friends and family are not with me to be my voice; they are there to be my friends and family.

Lottie Harland.1-001

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.

Real People. Real Stories.

150 Million

We face disability, disease and mental illness together.