Back view of Young father and little girl at beach

I was first diagnosed with autism nearly four years ago at the age of 22. I started to figure it out when I was about 14. That was when I realized I had been having trouble in school the past few years, although not academically. I identified eye contact as difficult and uncomfortable and began to realize how much I disliked being touched. I realized how much I was bothered by little sounds that no one else seemed to notice. I remember going to a brand new high school and saying that the lights were loud and no one voiced their agreement. I remember the stress I would feel when the bell would go off to switch classes. It wasn’t the bell that bothered me as much as the impending overwhelming walk through the hallways that would take me most of the next class to recover from.

It didn’t get better in college. With stress, my symptoms and experiences continued to intensify. Away from the comforts of home and small-town family connections, I struggled. I remember taking one of those Facebook quizzes. It was something like, “Are you autistic?” I scored very high. I would get so anxious with the start of a new semester because of the new routine that came with it. I loved my routine and hated any change that came. About the time I would get used to my new routine, it would be a new semester. I’d sit in a corner and rock for as long as I could.

Finally, after I graduated college, my new psychiatrist mentioned autism. I did more in-depth research and realized that I identified strongly with this diagnosis, as opposed to some of the others I had been given.

A few months ago, I met a new psychologist who put me through a battery of tests to confirm the autism diagnosis. It was confirmed along with a couple other diagnoses.

In the two years between my first diagnosis and my confirmed diagnosis, my parents said very little on the subject. Despite my identification with and acceptance of the diagnosis and my siblings’ acceptance of autism, my parents seemed to disagree. Even after my mom met the new psychologist, I got the same vibe. A couple weeks ago, my dad called after attending a continuing education session on autism. He said he was sorry.

He said that he got it and that he was sorry they had missed it but that he saw it now. He said he wished they had been able to provide the appropriate support that I needed. He also said that he was even more proud of me now that he understood I was autistic, because of everything I had done without the help of my parents.

When I hung up the phone after talking to my dad, I cried for a while. I don’t cry often, but I could do nothing else with the overwhelming relief I felt knowing that my dad finally got it. My dad agrees with the diagnosis now. He accepts my autism diagnosis and loves and accepts me for who I am. He is proud of me. Since that phone call, I have felt so much lighter. I didn’t realize the weight I was carrying as a result of my parents’ lack of acceptance.

So for others with autism looking for your parents’ acceptance: Don’t give up. Be you, believe in yourself, and believe that you are deserving of the support and accommodation you need to make it through the daily demands of this foreign world.

For parents who don’t believe their child or adult child has autism: Listen to your child first and the medical professionals second. You may think that you are the only expert on your child, but the reality is that your child might be the expert, and you the invaluable assistant. Your child has likely felt your disapproval and has certainly felt a lack of belonging in this world. There is no shame in an autism diagnosis. Your child wants nothing more than your love, acceptance and support.

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Lead photo source: Thinkstock Images


Another Mother’s Day has come and gone. My children have long-since drifted off to sleep, and I’m quietly reflecting on the many ways they brought joy to me today. Some of this joy was the result of intentional acts of kindness, including a beautiful bracelet made by my oldest daughter, and a heartwarming “All About Mom” book, filled in by my kindergarten-aged son. These were gifts that my children made in advance and gave to me with great anticipation. They knew it was to be a special day for me. From the moment their feet hit the floor, they were active participants on a mission to make Mom feel extra-loved! Their mission was a great success, and I took every opportunity I had to let them know it.

My youngest daughter, on the other hand, didn’t appear to understand it was Mother’s Day. She’s 3 years old and on the autism spectrum. To her, it was probably just another day. Still, she, too, managed to make me feel loved beyond measure.

There are so many ways in which every child on the autism spectrum, verbal or nonverbal, is capable of saying “I love you.” What they need is for us to realize that we can listen with more than just our ears!

Many moms of other children with autism have opened up to me and have shared their stories. I’ve heard the heartbreak in their words as they have described how it feels to know they may never hear the voices of their nonverbal children. It’s humbling, to say the least. I’m incredibly grateful that I have heard my little girl’s voice say, “Goodnight! I love you!” From those mothers, I have learned that children with autism can express love in a multitude of ways, often without ever uttering a word.

When a child with autism has a great day, socially, yet breaks down the moment she is in the safety of her own home, she may be saying, “I love you enough to let you see this. I feel safe with you.”

When that same child clings to you and sobs over the most seemingly trivial change in routine, she may be showing that she recognizes security in you. She isn’t just being difficult or finicky. She can be saying, “I love you, and I’m not letting go, because right now, you’re the only one who I know can make it better.”

When a child with autism smacks you in the face as you pretend to cry during play, he isn’t being cruel. He can be expressing distress over seeing you distraught. He can be saying, “I love you, and I can’t stand to see you sad, Mommy.”

Yes, my daughter can speak, but she also does each of the things mentioned above. Instead of being hurt by her behavior, I’ve learned that I need to look beyond the surface and listen to what she’s telling me with her actions. They’re all rooted in love. This is not always easy to do. I’m far from perfect and often become frustrated during these outbursts, but I am learning to hear the things she’s not saying in times like these.

On Mother’s Day, her actions said “I love you” incrementally louder than any words she’s ever spoken. I put a different spin on Mother’s Day, this year. Since my children are what make me me “Mommy,” I gave each of them a gift — a small wooden photo of them with me. At bedtime, I found my youngest daughter in her bed, snuggling with hers.

In so many situations, you can feel an overwhelming expression of love without having to hear it expressed verbally. There is no greater feeling than looking at my little girl and knowing that I am loved and adored, just for being me.

young girl lying in bed looking at frame photo of her with her mother
Angela’s youngest daughter.

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I did not see this coming. I should have, but everything had been going so well. I was not prepared for it. We had just found our seats, and I was already mentally organizing our bags and figuring out what needed to go in the overhead lockers and what I needed to take out for use during the trip. Our seats were the four middle ones, nowhere near a window like on the last flight. His meltdown started. My son was screaming, kicking, hitting and doing everything he could to get away. I dropped everything I was holding and focused on confining him to the small space of our seats. I was struggling to hold on. He may be a skinny kid, but he is strong.

I call them “Bugatti meltdowns.” They go from zero to roaring past you at full speed leaving you wondering what just happened. Then you realize you have to catch and calm them.

My immediate thought was that we were going to be kicked off the plane. My biggest fear in planning this trip was suddenly looming over us.

A few weeks before, I’d seen the news about a girl with autism and her family allegedly being kicked out of a United Airlines flight. Being our first trip on an airplane with our boys, who are also on the autism spectrum, I was really afraid of the same thing happening to us. Especially since we had six flights to take. Six chances to get booted off. At least the family on the news was flying within the U.S. We were a continent away from home and still one more continent and yet another flight from our final destination.

One passenger walking past interrupted my thoughts by yelling even louder than my son, enough that everybody could hear: “You should know better, you are old enough.” The woman sitting behind us laughed and nodded in agreement. The mother bear in me wished I could let go of my son and tear into them for being so ignorant and judgmental. I could feel the anger rising from my belly.

That momentary focus on the two passengers and my own anger gave my son just enough leverage to shove me backwards into the aisle, smacking onto the man shuffling past. He responded by spewing F bombs and other profanities. I’m not sure if they were directed at me; it could have been just how he responds to everything, but each one landed on me like a guided missile. I felt angry and deflated.

I saw the flight attendant talking to my husband, no doubt telling him we would have to get off the plane. We couldn’t possibly expect go through the next 12 hours with our son screaming like that. I accepted our being kicked off as the inevitable ending, but until the police escort arrived, I had to focus on one thing, helping my son calm down. The only way I could do that would be to calm myself down first. I’ve had plenty of practice getting meltdowns under control over the last eight years. I have a method that works well. I simply had to trust it would work on an airplane too.

I took a couple of deep calming breaths and continued to focus on my breathing while I escaped to my paradise — my beautiful beach where I could no longer hear the rude remarks of fellow passengers and not feel the fear of our impending ejection from the airplane. I needed to focus on my son who desperately needed me. He had lost complete control and needed my help to get out of the storm he was swept up in. I went from barely hanging on to him to hugging him tightly and finally to having him sit on my lap while I rocked him. The tears and the sobbing finally ended. The storm of the meltdown had gone on for “hours,” but the end was finally in sight.

By the time the flight attendants started their familiar mime of the onboard safety rules, pointing out the emergency lighting and doors, my son was fast asleep. He slept for almost 10 hours.

I learned from my husband that during the meltdown, comments from many of our fellow passengers suggested they couldn’t wait to see London’s bobbies escort us off the plane.

I also learned the flight attendant I had been so sure had already given the bobbies a call, had actually been working on a plan to move us to window seats once boarding had completed. This meant four strangers had agreed to give up their seats for us so my son would be more comfortable. In addition, when we landed several hours later, a kind grandmother who had been seated close to us stopped to chat. After confirming that my son has special needs, she was particularly concerned about his education. She wanted to know if we had managed to find a good school for him because he needed a school where people would understand him. Only after she heard that he was indeed in a good school did she gather her belongings and leave the plane.

My son’s meltdown in an airplane did not get us kicked off the flight; instead it moved complete strangers to acts of kindness. They did what they could to show us their support and humanity.

This experience was a reminder that I need to trust myself more. I actually sometimes know what I’m doing on the parenting front. And for all the judgmental people out there, there are some who are accepting and supportive. They are the only ones I have to focus on, the rainbows in whatever storm I may find my family caught up in. To all the rainbows out there, thank you!

The Mighty is asking the following: Describe a moment you were traveling that was either incredibly challenging or where you faced adversity. Tell us how you handled it or wish you had handled it. 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.

Some people say that when a person is hungry enough, they will eat. But this statement is not true for me. I am on the autism spectrum myself, and I have had an issue with healthy eating habits my whole life. I take a multi-vitamin daily. But I also try to find healthy foods that taste good. For example, breakfast drink powders, or juice instead of soda. Also, I’ve noticed that the more I’m around food that is cooking, and the more I smell the food, the more I’m willing to try eating it. However, when I’m stressed out, I find it very difficult (sometimes impossible) to eat. It’s easier to sip a drink than it is to chew and swallow an entire meal. It literally hurts to put food in my mouth at these times. Both my mouth and my stomach hurt. My jaw tenses up, along with the rest of my body. And if I try to swallow, I may gag or even throw up.

I was definitely more restricted as a child. As I have gotten older, I find I have tried more foods — but it has been a very slow process. As I said before, when people cook foods I know I’m not going to be forced to eat, I’m much more willing to try them because I smell the foods cooking around me. However, forcing me to eat foods is a very traumatizing experience. I would honestly rather not eat than eat foods that I don’t like. I have nearly passed out because of that. No, I don’t like feeling that way. But it’s still better than putting foods in my mouth that I don’t like.

It’s not that I don’t want to eat healthier foods. It’s that it can hurt to do so. Forcing me to eat something that hurts me is only going to traumatize my eating experiences and make me want to eat less. Again, as strange as it sounds and as hard as it is to believe or relate to, I’d rather pass out from hunger than eat something that hurts me to eat it.

What helps me is to have people always offer foods and cook foods that are better options (but not the only option!) just in case. One day I may surprise you and ask for a bite! But I appreciate so much that my parents respect the fact that I literally can’t eat some foods.

The Mighty is asking the following: What’s one thing people might not know about your experience with disability, disease or mental illness, 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 Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

Lead photo source: Thinkstock Images

By now most people have probably heard about the recent video involving 40-year-old rapper, actor and media mogul Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson and his public treatment of a 19-year-old airport worker with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Let me start by saying what he did is absolutely deplorable. With that being said, as an adult diagnosed with ASD, I believe that as a result of this incident we have an opportunity to address a larger issue at hand. Ableism can be defined as the privileging of able-bodiedness, resulting in discrimination or social prejudice against people with disabilities. Ableism characterizes persons as defined by their abilities, and as inferior to the non-disabled.

After watching the video of Jackson harassing the young autistic man several times, I identified five ways that our society, like Jackson, is complicit in acts of ableism.

1. Duration of the video: The length of the video was exactly 25 seconds. Twenty-five seconds. We live in a Snapchat, sound byte, satire-shaped social media system that creates the perfect scenario for ableist attitudes to surface. That’s the problem with ableism; it comes with the privilege to present cropped and edited images of disabled people without their consent. Abelism doesn’t care about the causes and conditions that make people different. Abelism is only concerned with highlighting the many ways that disabled people don’t measure up to stereotypical social norms often defined by abled bodies and minds. How many times have we all succumbed to the social media culture that promotes the type of privilege that doesn’t require us to know the whole story, or better yet the whole person, that we have decided to judge? Ableism is subtle but it is real. The next time you feel the urge to judge someone within seconds of observing them or their behavior, try asking questions instead of assuming. If nothing else, it communicates concern as well as creates opportunities for education and awareness.

2. Dialogue in the video: Actually there is no dialogue in the 25-second video, and that’s the problem. The entire video only contains one voice. That is ableism at its core. Rapper 50 cent is the only one talking in the video as we can visibly see the young man shaking his head, likely suggesting that he did not consent nor was he interested in communicating with the rapper. Ableism is powerful because it presupposes that those who are able-bodied are the only voices needed to have discussions about those with disabilities. I don’t know Mr. Jackson’s educational background, but I am almost certain that he has no background in medicine. His assumption that he could diagnose this young autistic man’s “problem” is a part of the power of ableist culture. Often times, ableism rears its ugly head by silencing the voices of those who actually live with disabilities, because those voices aren’t needed in order for society to make recommendations about how they should behave in order to fit in. “Nothing about us without us” is a mantra subscribed to by many disability advocates for this very reason. How many times has our society assumed to speak for and about disabled persons without actually speaking to or with them?

3. Derogatory language: The video is only 25 seconds, however in those 25 seconds there are exactly three expletives. In 25 seconds, the rapper manages to use three four-letter words in his interaction with a young autistic man trying to do his job. His use of foul language isn’t actually shocking, especially if you have ever heard any of his music. What’s troubling about the language he uses is that he uses one word three times that is more damaging than foul language because it is framing language. Three times in the 25-second video, he refers to the young man as “crazy.” This is troubling and ableist language because while he uses expletives in his attempt to describe what he believed the young man had done (taking drugs), he uses even more insensitive language to describe who he thinks the young man is (“crazy”). An ableist culture feeds on the use of derogatory language because the power to define is the power to assign value. Our society freely uses words like “crazy,” “stupid,” and the R-word as ways to assign a negative value to something or someone we disapprove of and/or dislike.

4. Defining by “deficits”: Autism comes with challenges. Social anxiety is real, and while it can be expressed differently in different people, I feel it can at times present itself as a real “deficit” for those on the autism spectrum. The problem with ableism is that it seeks only to define people with disabilities as the disability itself. Ableism causes us to focus on what appears to be the only thing important about this young man, his autism. He is a person working, living, thriving and contributing to society. He is not just a kid with autism, and therefore he shouldn’t be defined just by what may appear to be a “deficit.” Watching the video of him shaking his head back and forth might suggest that he doesn’t want the attention, he just wants to live his life. Ableism can sometimes make life difficult for persons with disabilities because it brings unwanted attention to the disability and in doing so completely ignores the person.

5. Demonizing those with disabilities: The video also captures one of the most unfortunate consequences of ableist culture, demonizing the disabled. While Mr. Jackson has reportedly issued a public apology, stating it was not his intention to offend the young man, the harsh reality is that it did offend him and I find it is very difficult to insist the intention was to produce a different outcome. Curtis Jackson decided to approach the young man, publicly humiliate him and broadcast the bullying incident for the entire world to view. One of the most damaging elements of bullying and ableism is to make the public believe that the victim deserves the treatment they’ve received. When Mr. Jackson insists that the young man is part of a generation that is “crazy” he makes it appear as though the young man deserved to be publicly humiliated. It is the demonization of the young man as some sort of delinquent that made him believe that it was OK to be disrespectful and demeaning. In many ways, our society and culture cooperates with this behavior by presenting images of disabled people as “burdens” and barriers to the health and happiness of able-bodied people in society. When people with disabilities are viewed as a part of society’s problems, it demonizes them and demonstrates the power of ableist culture and language in the world we live in.

My hope is that while Andrew Farrell and his family continue to heal from this horrible ordeal, we as a society take time to use this as an opportunity not just to demand an apology from 50 Cent, but to become more determined to understand all of the ways that ableism has impacted our culture and to make adjustments to those attitudes by first looking within ourselves.

 A version of this port originally appeared on Autism Pastor.

The Mighty is asking the following: Describe a moment you were met with extreme negativity or adversity related to your disability and/or disease (or a loved one’s) and why you were proud of your response — or how you wish you could’ve responded. 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: Keith Hinkle

My son Jonathan’s first experiences at school were difficult. The kids at school either ignored him or bullied him, and the teachers at this particular school just didn’t work well with students who learned differently. Though he wasn’t diagnosed with autism at the time, we could see he was struggling to keep up with his peers, both socially and academically.

He was smart and loved to learn, so we knew it wasn’t him. We just had him in the wrong school. He was funny and delightfully quirky, so we knew we had him in the wrong social environment.

Luckily, we found a real out-of-the-box school where children engaged in experiential learning. The teachers focused on the “whole” child, their well-being and not just academics. So we eagerly enrolled him for the next school year, feeling excited he’d finally blossom. But he still was anxious and afraid he’d be bullied again, so he just wouldn’t engage.

Jodi Murphy’s son, Jonathan, left, his teacher
Jodi’s son, Jonathan (left), with his teacher.

His teachers came up with a creative idea to see if they could break down his barriers and help him open up. Finally, I had a team on his side who believed in him!

“Every time we see Jonathan, we’d like to give him a bear hug,” his teachers said. “When he comes to class or we see him in the hallway or out on the playground, he’ll get a hug. Would that be OK with you?”

“Let’s give it a try,” I responded, and #ProjectHug was a go!

So did it work?

In his own words, Jonathan said:

“When I first arrived at the school I felt I didn’t fit in. I was very anti-social, introverted and I just didn’t want to do anything. But one of the things that changed me was that every time my teachers saw me they’d say, ‘Jonathan, how ya been, buddy?’ and give me a big bone-crushing hug.

I’d stand still and say, ‘Oh, my God, not again.’ It was uncomfortable, but thanks to all their efforts, I started to get more self-confidence. I started talking to more people. I developed a trust in the teachers and kids at the school.”

Jonathan became more active and involved at school and a few years later earned “Outstanding High School Student of the Year” and the coveted “Stanbridge Award” for being a good role model and leader. He talked about it being the turning point for him during his high school graduation speech. It gave him the confidence to go on to college, perform in theater and become a voice actor. Today, his character voices are in video games, apps, audio stories and even a major California theme park.

Now I’m not saying #ProjectHug would be the thing to do with every child, and I’m sure his teachers would have stopped immediately if it caused Jonathan more anxiety or stress. The point is that for the first time we found a school with teachers who saw nothing but potential. And thanks to their creativity (and hugs) Jonathan soared!

Our family made an interactive children’s book about #ProjectHug — sort of a space adventure to an alien planet (a.k.a. a new school) and you can get it for free at this link.

The Mighty is asking the following: What is a part of your or a loved one’s disease, disability or mental illness that no one is aware of? Why is it time to start talking about it? 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.

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