Sarah Bartkowski’s cat, Charlie Brown

How Cats Helped Me as a Person on the Autism Spectrum

Last October, my family had to make the heartbreaking decision to put down one of our cats. He was 15, and his health had taken a sudden and dramatic decline, but it was still extremely hard. If you’ve ever lost a pet, you know the pain. But it’s impossible to explain to someone who hasn’t experienced it. This cat in particular, Charlie Brown, had been with me since I was 8 years old. And he’d helped me through a lot in those years.

You see, when we adopted him, I was going through what would turn out to be probably the hardest period of my life. I was struggling in school, somewhat academically, but mainly socially. I had very few friends and plenty of people who disliked me.

I hate to use the word “bully,” but I was bullied during this point. I hated going to school more than anything. While I never lied, I’d use any excuse to avoid school. A tiny sore throat? I need to stay home. What if it’s strep? Stubbed my toe? Well, it may be broken, and I should stay home. It felt like whatever I did would make someone upset. I got into trouble constantly, but I’d often have a meltdown when disciplined. I wasn’t diagnosed with Asperger’s at the time, so this just made me look more rebellious. It was a very painful time.

But Charlie helped me in a way humans couldn’t. Just like me, he wasn’t aware of those subtle social cues. He wasn’t aware of the nuances that were so foreign to me. He, and the other cats we had at the time, didn’t understand any of that. They just knew that I loved them. And because of that, they loved me. 

When I was upset, they provided me the support I desperately needed but couldn’t get anywhere else. Charlie, in particular, was a very sensitive cat. He always knew when you were upset, and he’d do whatever it took to make you feel better. Your frustration became his, and he would do everything in his fluffy power to fix it.

I think cats helped me socially as well. From a young age (I’ve had cats in my life since I was born), I understood how important body language is in cats. Cats couldn’t say when they were upset, so I became very good at reading them. I ended up understanding a cat’s body language long before human body language. In fact, I still think of myself as a bit of an expert on a cat’s body language. It took a lot longer to understand human body language, and, at times, I’m still learning. But knowing how important body language is to cats helped me apply it to people.

I think I just relate to cats for a lot of reasons. One being that cats are often misunderstood. They’re not as openly affectionate as dogs, but that doesn’t mean they don’t love you. They just show it in their own time.

They also like the security of a schedule, much like myself. They’re sensitive to loud noises and can get overwhelmed easily. When they do get overstimulated, they can lash out. It’s a familiar scenario to most cat owners: You’re petting your cat, they’re all purry and lovely — and then bam. Your cat clamps down hard on your hand with their teeth. It may seem like they’re simply being mean, but that’s not it. They, like me, get overwhelmed and overstimulated. It’s almost like a kitty meltdown. They can’t tell you to stop, so they react in a way to make sure you do, which is something I did as a child.

I spent a great deal of my childhood pretending to be a cat. There were plenty of times my parents would take me to the mall or the movies and suddenly lose sight of me, only to find me crawling around the floor and meowing. It was so calming to pretend to be a cat. It brought me into a world I understood and felt safe in.

Some people think animals, especially cats, are so complicated and “unpredictable.” I can’t even begin to comprehend that. Cats are so much simpler, and they’re very predictable if you take the time to get to know them. They’re a welcome relief to the confusion and frustration of people. They don’t have ulterior motives, they won’t talk behind your back and they won’t care if you have no human friends.

They also don’t blindly love you like dogs. You need to earn a cat’s love. And when you do, it’s a love like nothing else.

Imagine someone Googling how to help you cope with your (or a loved one’s) diagnosis. Write the article you’d want them to find. If you’d like to participate, please check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

Sarah Bartkowski’s cat, Charlie Brown, is pictured at the top.


children in classroom

When My 9-Year-Old Daughter Told Her Classmates About Her Asperger's

I’m always proud of my daughter no matter what, but what words can you use when she does something you consider so brave that “proud” just doesn’t cut it? I wracked my brain and looked in a thesaurus. I considered using “magnificent,” “dignified,” “impressive,” “glorious” and even “heroic,” but nope, they didn’t come close.

You see, my girl decided to tell her class all about her Asperger’s.

We gave her the option of the teacher doing the presentation. “Nope,” she said. We gave her the option of me doing the presentation. “Nope,” she said, “It’s my Asperger’s. I’m doing it myself.”

So on Friday, I dropped her off at school after the presentation had been emailed to her teacher. I had to wait 30 minutes before going back to the class to support her, and, my goodness me, that was a very long 30 minutes.

How would the class react? Could she cope with the presentation? Would she cry? Would I cry? Would the teacher cry? The time came. I crept into the classroom and sat at the back. My darling girl stood up at the front of the class, and her wonderful teacher (who is akin to Roald Dahl’s Miss Honey) introduced her presentation by saying, “We are all individuals. We are all wonderful. E wants to talk to you about what makes her so special.”

I could tell she was nervous — the hair fiddling and finger clicking gave it away. Her voice trembled slightly, but she did it. The class was silent; their attention rapt. The teacher reiterated certain points, and E held her nerve and spoke clearly with great conviction. My heart swelled with each passing second. And I was determined to not let my tears fall because if she could do it without crying, I could certainly listen without crying.

When the time for questions came, she was on a roll:

“Can you catch it?”

“No, silly, you can’t catch it,” my daughter replied.

“How did you get it?”

“I’ve always had it; we just didn’t know until recently,” she said.

“Will it get worse as you get older?”

“Nah, hopefully I will learn things to help me,” she said.

Standing there in front of a room of her peers must have been terrifying for her. She bared her soul, told them something personal and showed that she was “different.” But she didn’t bat an eye.

Follow this journey on Coloring Outside the Lines.

Imagine someone Googling how to help you cope with your (or a loved one’s) diagnosis. Write the article you’d want them to find. If you’d like to participate, please check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

Lead photo source: Thinkstock Images

dory from finding dory

What 'Finding Dory' Taught Me as Someone on the Autism Spectrum

I’m a huge fan of Ellen DeGeneres, so I was more than excited to see her new movie “Finding Dory” on opening night. I arrived so early that I waited in my car for an extra hour (OK, maybe two hours) before I even entered the theater! I got my snacks and picked my seat, ready to watch. But I had no idea the movie I was about to see would hit me so close to home.

As someone on the autism spectrum, I found I could really relate to Dory. Not because of her notoriously poor memory; in fact, my memory is incredible. No, I could relate to her because of how she felt about herself.

Throughout the movie, Dory is constantly apologizing for being forgetful. Constantly. And I could truly feel for her. She just wishes she could remember things, but she can’t.

So yes, I have an amazing memory. Yet, I still have major deficits. I struggle to understand things socially. Or I need extra help with things that come very easily to others. And I feel so bad about it at times, especially when it affects other people. I’m constantly apologizing, too. There are honestly moments I wish I wasn’t on the autism spectrum.

But I am.

“Finding Dory” teaches people that it’s good to be different. It’s OK to struggle sometimes. And for that reason, I could truly relate to Dory. I often feel like I’m not capable of doing things. But when I saw this movie, I cried. I cried because I realized I wasn’t alone. I cried because I finally realized many people feel like they aren’t good enough. But this movie reminds us that we are.

We just have to remember to keep swimming.

The Mighty is asking the following: Describe a scene or line from a movie, show, or song that’s stuck with you through your experience with disability, disease or mental illness. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

Couple at the park

10 Things I Wish People Knew About Dating Someone on the Autism Spectrum

When I started dating at 18, I had no idea how to talk to women. Many of the people I dated meant well, however, they may not have understood some of the quirks that people on the spectrum like me may have. For example, as a kid I hated being touched. Ten years later as a 28-year-old adult, I embrace affection.

Here are some things you need to know when it comes to dating someone with autism.

10. Just because we may want to be by ourselves at times doesn’t mean we don’t care about you.

Some of us want to unwind during a long day just like anyone else.

9. Eye contact may be difficult for us at times.

When we’re having a conversation and I’m not looking at you right in the eyes, don’t think I’m trying to give you the cold shoulder.

8. Ask me any questions you have.

Although we may have difficulties with communication, we still need you to be as open with us as possible to avoid misunderstandings. Ask us questions early to avoid issues later.

7. If something goes over our head, try to make me understand what you meant.

Sarcasm can sometimes go over our heads, and when it does, please know we truly want to understand.

6. We can date people who aren’t on the autism spectrum.

Often a misconception is that people on the spectrum want to only date others who are on the spectrum. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. We just want to find someone we connect with and can be ourselves with.

5. If you’re shocked I have autism, don’t be.

Some people on the spectrum tend to fall on the line of an “invisible disability.” That means if we’re on a date, you may not see any characteristics of autism on the surface, but it doesn’t mean I’m not on the spectrum. Autism is a spectrum disorder.

4. If you go online before our date and find out I have autism, don’t jump to conclusions.

See #5. Autism is a spectrum. I once went on a date, and within the first five minutes, she was already talking about how “Rain Man” was her favorite movie … interesting.

3. Help us understand what you’re comfortable with when it comes to being intimate.

We aren’t mind readers so tell us when we may be going too fast or to slow. We will respect you even more for being honest with us, as people on the spectrum tend to be some of the most authentic people you will ever meet.

2. Give us time to process small or big-time decisions.

After we’ve been together for a while and decisions may arise, whether it be something small like trying a new restaurant or something bigger such as getting married or moving in together, understand that transitions can often be difficult at first for us to comprehend. This isn’t different for any human being on this planet. Sometimes transitions can tend to make us feel overloaded. Don’t feel discouraged. If it works out and we both care for each other, we will make it work.

1. Love is love. No matter the person.

Love has no race, age, gender, religion, sexuality and disability. It’s the same with autism.

Love is love no matter any differences we have in our lives.

Love me for the person I am, and I’ll do the same with you.

This post first appeared on

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? Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

Lead photo source: Thinkstock Images

Kathy Hooven’s son, Ryan

What I Learned After My Son With Autism Went to an 8th-Grade Dance Alone

I am so naive. I pride myself in educating others about autism as a parent of a child with autism, and yet I still have so much to learn.

I am neurotypical. I don’t have autism. I may have an understanding of what it means to accept and love a different view of the world, but I am not, nor will I ever be, a real part of that world. I will always be an outsider looking in. Just like my son, Ryan, will never quite fully be a natural-born citizen of the neurotypical world.

But that doesn’t mean we will ever give up trying to understand each other’s unique view of the world we both were born into.

For hours leading up to Ryan heading out the door to attend his 8th-grade graduation dance, I was an anxious hot mess. He was going by himself, not with a date and not with a group. He was walking into a gymnasium full of pubescent turmoil alone. He is braver than any 14-year-old boy (or girl) I know.

My mind and my heart raced all day. Would he spend all night alone? Would kids talk to him? Would he feel lonely? My husband told me I needed to give Ryan space, and I knew he was right. After I watched my teenage boy walk into his 8th-grade graduation dance alone, high-fiving kids and smiling as he was greeted by classmates, I was relieved my anxiety was all for nothing. He was fine.

Until hours later when he wasn’t fine.

Just minutes after Ryan exited the car for the dance, I sent the picture above of my handsome boy to a girlfriend who knew I was a hot mess all day. Along with the photo, I actually texted these words to her: “My alone is not his alone.”

I could not have ever texted more ignorant, careless words.

My son’s autism doesn’t make lonely suck any less for him. Lonely still hurts. Dancing with yourself is still terribly painful. Wanting to fit in and not having the tools to do that can be catastrophic for a teenager, autism or no autism.

As much as I love sharing the details of our journey with you, some things I must keep private out of respect for my boy. Suffice it to say, after he returned home from the dance, I was proven wrong with my ignorant words: “My alone is not his alone.”

Alone is alone. Lonely is lonely. Heartache is heartache. Period.

And when you want a friend and need a friend and you find yourself alone on the dance floor, it hurts like hell. My son’s autism isn’t a buffer for that pain or any pain.

So, to my beautiful boy, I am terribly sorry for my ignorance. I am sorry I was so wrong. And like I promised you, as I held all 125 pounds of you in my arms, I will do everything in my power to help others see who they’re missing. To help them understand your world all while trying to help you understand theirs.

I hope some day there will be enough acceptance and understanding and enough education and kindness that in time our worlds will be one and we can celebrate all the beautiful differences that make this one world so absolutely perfect.

Follow this journey on The Awenesty of Autism.

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? Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

To the Mother Afraid to Ask Questions About My Son

To the mother watching my son,

I see you over there, watching with a somewhat quizzical look, afraid to ask questions because you don’t want to offend me, and trying really hard to hide that your eyes keep shifting back to my son. I know that look because many years ago, before my son came into my life and I began to understand what autism was and wasn’t, I had that look too.

I was scared of children who were “different”…I didn’t know what to say to them, how to act and I definitely did not know what to say to a parent. I may have been guilty of saying “I’m sorry” once or twice, something I now deeply regret as it has been said to me on occasion and I now understand what a horrible phrase that can be. So please let me tell you about my son and let me help you learn how to enter his world — because I promise you once you are in, it is for life, and it is a pretty great place to be.

He is different — not less, not weird, not more special than your child, just different. I like to compare this to different ice cream flavors. We are all different flavors, really — each bringing different elements into the world and all ultimately bringing happiness and joy in our own ways. Yes, he has autism, and no, I do not know why. There are days I wish I did, but ultimately that is not important to me. What is important to me is making sure he lives and experiences life to his fullest potential, whatever that may be.

As you watch him, you will see that sometimes he spins in circles, a ritualistic behavior that I have come to realize calms him when he is feeling overwhelmed. And often, loud noises, especially televisions, are too much for his sensory system, and he might yell until it is turned off. But please know this is not my child demanding to have his way; rather, this is his way of trying to stop the over-stimulation that could quite possibly be causing him physical pain.

The author's son, walking on a track,

He might not say much to you at first, in fact he might not acknowledge you at all — but do not mistake that for not listening, because believe me, that is far from the truth. My boy listens and hears everything going on around him, often times referring back to things said from days before.

And even though he might not give you the acknowledgement in the traditional form you are looking for, he will remember. He will remember that you spoke to him. And it may not be the next time, but eventually he will speak back to you — when he is ready. Please do not rush him, and please be patient enough to wait for him because he is worth it.

When my boy is happy, a certain warmth and love emanate from his entire being, and when he laughs that pure and uninhibited laugh, it is with his whole body, something that is amazing to see and impossible to not get caught up in. When you become one of “his people,” you will find that his infectious spirit stays with you even you are apart. I really cannot explain it — I can just feel it even now as I type this while he is spending his day at school. Yes, I am his mother, so I might sound a little biased, but trust me, “his people” love him just as much as he loves them.

I know that often times things we are not familiar with can cause fear and uncertainty. I was once just like you, so I recognize the look on your face and the questions in your eyes. And for that reason, I am reaching out to you to say it is OK to ask me questions, and no, you will not offend me. What will offend me is if you turn away and do not try to open your heart to an incredible child. He is worth it, as is every child and adult on the spectrum. Take the time to get to know him and to find a way into his world. And believe me — you will not regret it.

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? Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

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