Ashley's daughter, Olive.

If you had told me two months ago I would be writing today about how my daughter has autism, I would say that couldn’t be true. I didn’t see it two months ago.

I still didn’t see it in April when her developmental pediatrician pointed out the signs as he wrote in his book and watched her play. But when he ended his interview with how he felt certain my daughter was on the spectrum, I felt myself become numb. Suddenly, all the sound disappeared from the room and I could hear my heart beating in my ears.

Then I found myself becoming quietly angry with him while he casually pointed out how she wasn’t making eye contact with us — how she kept crashing toy cars and knocking over block towers but couldn’t replicate a block tower herself. How she knew all of her shapes, colors and every picture on every flash card but couldn’t respond appropriately to simple directions. How she repeated phrases over and over again to communicate but couldn’t answer a yes-or-no question. She couldn’t hold a back-and-forth conversation. She never asked questions. She never used pronouns. She flapped her hands and walks and runs haphazardly.

What bothered me the most about this diagnosis was not the 15 hours a week of early intervention therapy, having to fill out the mountains of paperwork to enroll her and begin her IEP for school, meeting with liaisons and case workers, or even that we didn’t know what the future might hold for her. It was that suddenly the very things I loved about my daughter, all the things I felt made her unique and beautiful, were now “symptoms” of a “disorder.”

Ashley and her two daughters.

The pediatrician wasn’t seeing her how I did. He didn’t see that, although she didn’t or couldn’t replicate his three-block structure, she can build whole Lego cities more intricate and creative than anything I would think to build, and certainly more creative than anything pictured in the directions.

He didn’t see that although she became easily frustrated, she is so spirited in a way I never was. I’ve always reveled in how she is so unlike myself. I was so shy and had trouble making friends when I was younger.

She might not say “Hi” and properly introduce herself to other children or ask them their names, but the doctor couldn’t see the pure joy on her face when she runs up to them and tries to make their acquaintance non-verbally by hopping up and down and smiling and squealing 2 inches from their faces. I love that she sees the world in her own way and seems oblivious to the fact that she operates on a different wavelength than all the other kids around her. Some kids seem to fear her, some watch her as if they think she is a curiosity and others are game to join her.

He didn’t see that although she doesn’t make eye contact with us very much, when her eyes do find mine, her whole face lights up and she laughs like it is the funniest thing in the whole world. He didn’t see how she grabs my face, brings my face to hers and squeals as if she’s bringing me into her world with her two tiny hands.

I fought mentally against my daughter’s autism spectrum disorder diagnosis because I hated the idea of stifling her uniqueness with labels. It wasn’t until three days after the visit to the pediatrician — when we were in the line at Michaels craft store and I was trying to pick up the materials for her tutu skirt for her 3rd birthday party — that I began to understand why we needed this diagnosis. In the checkout line, she became lost in yet another meltdown, seemingly out of nowhere, and I had to hold her in my arms while she kicked and hit me and tried to throw herself on the ground. I couldn’t console her and I couldn’t calm her down so I had to wait patiently for the moment to pass, while on the inside I was panicking. I was fighting back tears, while I felt everyone’s eyes, from the cashiers to the other people in line, staring and whispering.

It’s taken me a long time to get to where I am in accepting the initial diagnosis, and I know we still have a long road ahead, both in learning how to be her best advocate and in navigating this new world post-diagnosis. I still find myself constantly analyzing her behavior.

The more I analyze, the more I am finding I don’t really care anymore. The diagnosis is important because it ensures we will learn how to give her the tools to be successful so she can carve out the life she wants for herself, just like any other parent with a child on or off the spectrum. And although I have no idea what the future will bring, I do know that she will have the life she wants for herself, whatever life that will look like. Because she is more than the sum of her “symptoms,” and no diagnosis will change her or define her.

This story previously appeared on Scary Mommy. Follow this journey on Misfits and Misadventures


The knowledge that “different is brilliant” is one of the most liberating and positive feelings our family has experienced since our daughter was diagnosed with autism at 2 years old. Iris barely communicated, socialized or even looked at us. She was obsessive, had sensory issues, hardly ever slept and found other children deeply disturbing. I had to fight through the darkness, wanting to conform, struggling in a world our daughter didn’t fit into and surrounded by people who didn’t understand her.

Now, four years on, everything has changed, and it all started with one crucial piece of the puzzle: learning to follow Iris, abandoning the idea of trying to be ‘normal’ and embracing her differences.

After many therapies, we found there was one place where Iris was always free and happy, and that was out in nature. We tried equine therapy at a Horse Boy center, and although a love of horses wasn’t there at that time, it was evident she had an intense interest in the forest, the light and colors that surrounded us. She was totally engaged as I rode with her through the avenue of trees, her fingers outstretched and moving in the breeze, her body relaxed against mine in the saddle. We discovered with Iris, the more time we spent outdoors, the better.

Later that year, we discovered Iris’ love of painting and began leaving her table and painting kit out in the kitchen or garden to use whenever she needed it. Over a year, she created more than 50 extraordinary impressionist-style paintings that caught the attention of art collectors worldwide. Iris became a famous child artists, inspiring families to look past their child’s diagnosis and to see their potential, shining a light on autism. To me, the most exquisite part is how her demeanor changes as she paints. She is more open and started to talk. Thula the cat poses with a copy of Arabella Carter-Johnson's new book "Iris Grace."

In 2014, we brought home a Maine Coon cat called Thula, who became our second breakthrough. Thula showed me the way, proving time and time again how different was truly brilliant. Unlike any cat I have ever known, she takes baths with Iris, settles her down in the evenings and even rides along on our bike rides. But I like to think the bond Iris and Thula have isn’t a phenomenon that can’t be replicated. Many children with disabilities can benefit from having a pet in their lives. Sure, that pet may not be a Thula – a swimming, biking, boating super-nanny cat – but they will provide so much joy and ultimately help the child progress.

I have asked myself many times if any child could be like Iris, whether every child has hidden passions and skills waiting to be developed, encouraged and set free. I believe it’s true. We home educate Iris because it was what suited her – a flexible, organic approach focusing on her own interests. She is free to move and play, and I develop lesson plans where the motivation is intrinsic within the activity. She is self-motivated and keen to learn.

I have shared our story in my first book, “Iris Grace.” It’s a celebration of how “different is brilliant” and of the achievements of our little girl and her faithful best buddy. It documents the journey from the darker days, through her diagnosis to us learning how to connect with her and discovering her voice. I wanted to raise awareness for autism and what it is like to live with autism, but also to show people that there can be a future, and a bright one. I believe that there is always a key – it is about following the lead of your child.

Now I am embarking on a new and very exciting project called Kids Must Move with two pioneering authors, Rupert Isaacson and Kristine Barnett, who have inspired me in the past. It’s an online course that enables parents and teachers to effectively teach children on the autistic spectrum (or any child, for that matter) in a stress-free way, using movement and nature and following the child’s interests.

When Rupert explained the “Movement Method” his team had been developing for the past 10 years, it was a revelation to me. Their methods echoed mine, and I found all the things I know work with Iris were in this course. At last, I knew the science behind why what I was doing was working so well with her. After finishing the course myself, I wanted to join Rupert and Kristine’s team and be a part of this incredible new movement in autism that we believe will change so many lives.

I will be running the U.K. Movement Method Center from my home in Leicestershire, England. We will be offering training to parents, teachers, workshops, activity days, talks and outreach to schools.

We operate on the principle that children on the spectrum and children with neurological differences can learn, succeed and thrive. They can grow up to have jobs, careers and love; relegating them to the margins of society robs us of some of our best human resources. We embrace who these children are, and do not try to coerce them into being something they are not. We believe in what’s within each child, and in working with their strengths and interests in an environment that suits them. We follow them.

Dear Dave Ramsey,

We stopped by Ramsey Solutions recently while we were in Nashville for the Teach Them Diligently Conference. You see, my child with autism is a big fan. Logan listens to your radio show on a daily basis via YouTube on his Xbox One. I don’t know how familiar you are with autism. When my son gets interested in something, he gets hyper-focused on it. It started a few years ago when I required him to take Financial Peace for Teens as his economic course in high school.

My son with autism love rules. You give him rules to live a financially sound life. For him, it’s cut and dry. Stay out of debt, be generous while being a good steward of what God has entrusted you and pay for everything with cash. It’s simple and wise counsel that he’ll be able to live by with great success.

We decided to stop by to see the radio show as soon as I discovered it was an option. I wasn’t sure how crowded it would be or if he would be able to handle not being able to meet you if that wasn’t an option. I decided to take a chance knowing full well we may have to leave if it was too much for him. Since it was only 30 minutes from the Gaylord Opryland where we were staying, I was willing to take said chance.

We arrived 45 minutes early. I wanted Logan to be able to see everything he wanted in case we would have to leave early due to his sensory issues. It’s my job to set him up to experience things as best he can with the limitations he has.

First, your building has the nicest bathrooms we have ever had the fortune to visit. Seriously, even my typical girl checked it out more than once. I also appreciated the low lighting and ambiance that helped keep the sensory input to a minimum for my son. Yes, things like that really make a difference. We also look for places like that in the unlikely event that we need to make a quick exit to calm him.

What I didn’t expect was how incredibly caring and nice your staff would be to make our visit a success. The receptionist answered our questions promptly. We were able to look through the bookstore at our leisure. There were cookies available (we didn’t partake because we’re on a gluten-free diet) as well as a sweet lady who made us coffee and tea. 

Then the lobby filled up quickly with people who I presumed had been there for a class. They all had name tags and bought books for you to sign. Logan wanted to sit on the couch to watch you up close, but it was simply too much. The couch as well as the tables had filled up. The lobby was abuzz with chatter.

We retreated to the bookstore where there was safety, calm and a place to sit away from the crowd. Thank you for the two big screens broadcasting your show so my boy could still see it. Thank you for the comfortable seats by the window. Thank you for the sweet lady who checked in on us to make sure everything was OK. Thank you for having an area to retreat away from the crowd. You might not have planned it that way, but I believe God most certainly did.

When you came out on the first break, I thought we were goners. See, Logan really wanted to meet you. He really wanted an autograph. He had questions to ask you. But it was all too much. I about cried when a very nice lady from the aforementioned class let us in line in front of her. I managed to keep him calm in line by rubbing his back. I silently prayed that our turn would come before you had to go back to your show.

Our turn did come before you had to return to your show. At that moment, I saw my boy swallow his fears, step forward, shake your hand then pose for a picture. As he hastily retreated to the bookstore to compose himself, you asked him a question that I had to answer for him. I’m sure I looked like an overprotective mother who speaks for her child. But at that moment, my child couldn’t speak because he was over the moon to meet his hero. It was all too much for him to process at once. So much so that he never got an autograph. He wasn’t able to hang on until the second break so we left accordingly.

Thank you, Dave Ramsey, for meeting my son. Thank you for shaking his hand. Thank you for attempting to engage him in a conversation. Thank you for posing for a picture with him then not making a big deal out of it when he jumped ship immediately.  

It might have seemed odd to you, but you handled it with grace. My son may not be able to do everything he dreams of in his life. He’s limited by his autism in some ways. Our family will treasure that memory for the rest of our lives. Thank you from the bottom of this mama’s heart.

Follow this journey here.

As a person on the autism spectrum, my emotions work a bit like a light switch. I feel things intensely and quickly. It is important that I am able to calm myself down and take a break as soon as I notice I am getting too stimulated (which is another topic).

To calm myself down, I use my metaphorical toolbox. Inside my toolbox are strategies,
tips and tricks I can use when I need to settle down. I have a difficult time knowing which strategy to use, especially in the heat of the moment. As a result, I decided to make a graphic that fits on my phone, iPad and computer so I always have my list with me and it is easily accessible.

Here is what is on my list:

The author's "When I Need a Break, I Can" list
Graphic source: Erin McKinney

1. Listen to my music.

I have a playlist I made several years ago that has instrumental music on it. It helps me calm down. I especially use this playlist at night when I am trying to go to sleep. This is also one I can use in combination with other things on my list.

2. Go for a walk.

This is a good one because you can take a short walk, a long walk or however long you need to calm down. Often I do this while I listen to my music or use imagery.

3. Play a game or do a puzzle.

This makes my brain work and concentrate on something constructive instead of what got me upset or what is stuck in my head.

4. Use imagery.

This is something I worked on making several years ago, and I still use it. I chose my favorite place on earth and recreated it in my head. I used each of my five senses to remember every detail about this place. Now, when I get overwhelmed, I can go to this place in my head. It is pictured on my graphic so I have a visual reminder.

5. Eat a crunchy snack.

Honestly, I don’t remember why the crunchy part is important. But I try to do that. Things I often choose to eat include grapes, graham crackers, pretzels or apple slices.

6. Take a nap.

I love taking naps and have for many years now. Even if I don’t end up falling asleep, lying down for 15 to 20 minutes and trying to fall asleep is better than doing something destructive. Most of the time, I do fall asleep and wake up feeling much better. This allows me to have a fresh start on the rest of my day.

7. Go to a quiet place.

This is obvious, but if you are out and about at a restaurant or somewhere social, it is a good reminder to go find a quiet place. Examples of quiet places could be the restroom, your car or outside. I included a picture of Mt. Rainier to remind me of this one because it is the view from one of my favorite quiet places.

8. Use belly breathing.

I learned this one recently at a conference. “Sesame Street” (hence the appearance of Frazzelmo on my graphic) has a great video on it. This is a good one because you can do it anywhere and in any position, sitting or standing.

9. Spin, rock or flap safely.

These are all stims I find enjoyable and typically do when I am happy. Sometimes, I can rock too hard, especially when I am upset, and that is why I had to include the word “safely.”

10. Talk to a safe person.

Don’t talk to just any person. A lot of people wouldn’t care or wouldn’t know how to help if I told them I was having a hard time and needed a break. I am fortunate to have several people I trust and can talk to. All of my safe people know at least part of the things in my toolbox or know that I have a toolbox with things in it I can try.

Of course, there are many other things, even things on my list I didn’t include. The reason I did not include them is because some of them can’t be done everywhere. I tried to pick things I can do in more than one place. (I pride myself on being able to find a place to nap just about anywhere.)

If you are autistic or if you have a loved one who is, I hope this list gives you an idea of some different techniques and that the graphic gives you an idea of something you could create to always have with you. My toolbox helps me function in a world that is not designed for or run by individuals with autism. I hope you find things that work for you and that you find a way to remember and apply them in daily life.

Follow this journey on

Illustration via Thinkstock Images

Dear mom of a child with autism,

I know you might be tired — tired from lack of sleep, worry and frequent meltdowns. You drink so much coffee, your blood is 80 percent caffeine. No one seems to understand your child or what you go through every day together. Almost daily it seems someone looks expectantly at you to gauge your reaction, as if to say “Surely you can do a better job,” because they think your child is throwing a tantrum over a toy.

You question yourself and your mothering abilities. If you work outside the home still, you may question working. Daycare systems sometimes lack the training to properly care for a child with autism. You deal with a lack of consistency in your child’s services at school. Some of your coworkers totally understand your situation, and others judge it, so you never know where you stand. You think that if you talk about all these feelings, people will think poorly of you, so tuck away the feelings and try to hide them from the outside world.

I know how you feel, because I feel it too.

Here’s the thing, though. You may feel exhausted, rattled and even useless sometimes, but you are a rock star. No one else knows how to calm your child down like you do. You are the master of the paperwork, the queen of IEPs and the expert negotiator. When it comes to advocating for your child, you work tirelessly to campaign for fair treatment and understanding. You take care of all the big stuff, but you also kiss the boo-boos, play with dinosaurs and dolls, and learn about your child’s favorite television shows and books.

You make a mean macaroni and cheese. You can get pre-tied shoes on your kids’ feet in record time. You find treasures in the dollar bin and can turn almost anything into a reward. You can spout out “first, then” statements like no one’s business and know the difference between a tantrum and a meltdown. If anyone asks, you can tell them where to find what exists in the community for children with autism.

Your children love you, and they know you love them. They know because, in all the ways that count, you show them.

Finally, remember your successes. Today you may not have found victory, but don’t feel defeated yet. Rejoice in all the victories, big and small, you have achieved with your child already. Remember that somewhere in the future, you will find more triumphs.

You’re a beautiful mother with a gorgeous, magnificent, dazzling child who simply sees the world differently than anyone else. From one mom of a child with autism to another, I encourage you to keep at it. You’ve got this.

Follow this journey on EmbracingTheSpectrum.

Image via Thinkstock Images

College taught me many things: How to self-advocate, how to spread awareness and maybe, most importantly, that if you have a passion for something, you need to go for it no matter the costs.

At the same time, college also unfortunately taught me there are still a great deal of ignorant people out there who simply think of the black and white and avoid the grey completely.

One problem I see as a huge indicator of this is the whole concept of “outgrowing” your autism. When I was first diagnosed, my psychiatrist told my parents that autism was a lifelong diagnosis, while at the same time, other doctors told them there was a possibility that certain individuals would outgrow the symptoms that led to the diagnosis.

I think the whole belief of this puts negative annotations towards our community. Saying someone has “outgrown their autism” means someone can be inclined to say someone was “cured” of something naturally and diminishes the need for legislation reform and funding.

In either case, I think we need to avoid those debates as they just cause clutter overall. I feel more and more that I fall in the ever-growing “grey” section of people. Sure, I graduated from college and am in graduate school, but I’ve had two decades of multiple therapies and learned over time to take care and progress within myself. I’m also clearly not the typical “normal” that some people look for. I have eccentric tendencies that make me unique.

There is a spectrum. If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met just that — one person with autism. Some people will be able to become stronger in areas, but I’ve never believed in the concept that someone can ever outgrow an autism diagnosis.

Today, people see me and say, “You have autism? I would have ever known.” Growing up, my disability was evident due to my lack of speech. I’m one of the many unique stories of people on the autism spectrum as an adult today because even though I didn’t have speech, I now give talks around the country as a motivational speaker.

Each story of someone with autism is going to be unique, and you can honestly say that for anyone out there — disability or not.

This post first appeared on

Lead photo source: Thinkstock Images

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