little boy with autism covering his ears at the beach

To the mom or dad of a child on the autism spectrum,

The road we are traveling can feel tumultuous at times — rocky, unpaved. Honestly though, the rocky path isn’t so bad.

I began this journey more than seven years ago. At first, it resembled the same paved road traveled by other parents. Then, one day, it didn’t. The pavement disappeared, heavy rains turned the dirt muddy, and the fog made it hard to see where I was. I fell down almost every day.

I stumbled to the ground a few times just yesterday. Then, I picked myself up and painted a mud mask on my son, Nicholas. I told him he was a lion in the rainforest. He gave a happy “roar” and marched courageously through the muddy path alongside me. His smile sparked enough strength to keep me going.

I did not choose this path; this path chose me. I am not the same person I was before I traveled this road, and I’m not sorry it happened. That’s right. I said, I’m not sorry.

Imagine that everyone you know is a gold miner. Your family raised you with gold fever. Your friends gloat endlessly about their gold riches. Your entire community thrives on gold treasure. You spend your life learning the tricks of the gold trade. After a lifetime of preparation, you begin your quest for gold.

Months of hard work pay off when you mine something that looks interesting. Barely able to contain your excitement, you rush home to share it with everyone you know. Your family asks, “How heavy is it?” You say, “It’s not very heavy.” Your friends ask, “When you melt the metal, is it enough to make a brick?” You respond, “It doesn’t melt, and it’s not metal.” Your neighbors ask, “Is it white gold or yellow gold?” You answer, “It’s not gold.”

You’ve never seen anything like it. Its sparkle excites you. Its uniqueness is captivating. You know what you’ve found is spectacular, but it doesn’t meet anyone else’s standards. So you cherish it quietly.

One day, something phenomenal happens. A stranger sees the treasure you’ve hidden away. They say, “It’s a diamond, and it’s beautiful.” You had no idea what a diamond was, but you knew it was the most amazing thing you’d ever seen. It was more precious to you than gold, and you knew that from the moment you saw it. You came upon your diamond unexpectedly, and now you never want to let it go.

Your diamond is magnificent. Please don’t ever let anyone convince you otherwise. Your tumultuous journey is not in vain. Its purpose is to prepare you for what lies ahead. And it doesn’t mean you will always be on this path alone. It just means you’ll build your tribe slowly, with time and patience.

I know what you’re wondering. It’s a question I’ve asked at least a hundred times. Does it get easier? It might not. Instead, you get stronger. You learn to recognize greatness where other people miss it. You figure out that most people learn to love in spite of things, but you teach yourself to love in anticipation of things. Usually, unconventional things. Few people are capable of this unless they’ve traveled our path.

If you’re like me, you’ll find that your flame burns hotter than most everyone else. Your mama/papa bear roar creeps out prematurely every now and then. This is because your emotions run unfiltered. You’ve learned to love deeper. You’ve learned to fight harder. You know what matters most. Because of this rocky path, your passion has become instinctive. It’s not a bad thing.

It’s OK to struggle. It’s OK to be afraid. It’s OK to get things wrong. It’s entirely OK to be unsure of what you’re doing most of the time. I remind myself of this every day. It’s also what I tell Nicholas. Although, I’m pretty sure he figured this out long before I did.

This journey is all about learning to master the struggles of life. It’s about teaching ourselves to convert frustrations into passions. It’s about figuring out how to struggle with our dignity in tact, so that we can teach our kids to do the same. On this path, we struggle with purpose. And the best part is that every beautiful diamond we find along the way is ours to treasure.

Follow this journey on Mama Bear Thoughts.


Every year as part of the IEP process, we, as Caroline’s parents, are asked to write a future planning statement. This is just a couple of sentences speaking to our aspirations for Caroline. I look at the future planning statement as an opportunity to tell the IEP committee we, in no uncertain terms, have exceedingly high expectations for Caroline, and thus for the members of her IEP committee.

Caroline puts in the hours. She attends school for 31 hours a week and then receives an additional eight to 12 hours of therapy on top of that — which means most weeks she works more than 40 hours. I can count on one hand the number of times Caroline has not been diligent and engaged during therapy. Given the hours Caroline spends learning whether her voice needs to be on or off for a particular sound, developing a motor plan to put on her shoes and gaining the hand strength necessary for pre-writing skills, I think she deserves my confidence that she will achieve great things in her life. I have high expectations for Caroline.

Anyone who works as hard as she does earns success, and that will not be different for Caroline. I will not let anyone tell her, her hard work should be less valued than that of any of her peers. Thus Caroline’s future planning statement reflects not our hopes and aspirations for Caroline, but our expectations for her. She deserves nothing less than for her parents, family, teachers, therapists and friends to have the highest of expectations of her, because anything less would be devaluing all of her hard work.

Caroline’s future planning statement:

Caroline will ultimately be a well-adjusted, contributing member of her community. To us, this means Caroline will obtain a college education that will allow her to establish herself as a professional. To do this, Caroline must continue to improve her communication skills, gain a greater degree of self-regulation and be able to develop meaningful relationships with peers. In the short term, Caroline must become fully potty-trained, be able to follow routines with minimal assistance, and develop the reading and mathematical skills and knowledge necessary for future academic success.

It might take a little longer to develop some of the foundational skills necessary for success, but with Caroline’s work ethic, her potential will know no limits. In other words, Caroline will one day take over the world, because we as her parents expect nothing less of her.

Follow this journey on Failure to Thrive or Ability to Overcome?

Recent years have seen a vast change in the conversation about the autism spectrum, as it is now being led by a variety of autistic people themselves – the only real way of understanding a condition that has no absolutes.

As someone on the spectrum, it has been enlightening to hear the experiences of people worldwide and see the similarities, however vague, that shed light on a condition I’m still understanding. However, despite all the positivity this has created, there is one common absence from many of these stories.

Characteristically struggling to communicate inner emotion, stories of day-to-day happiness are often a rare find in stories written by autistics. The public press uses autistic savants as a benchmark for “good autism” and too often assumes everyone else has a permanent uphill struggle to deal with, ignoring the fact that so many of us are perfectly happy with the lives we lead, irrespective of what others consider “low-” or “high-functioning.”

While I support the message of hope within the autistic community and compassion from the general public, is this paradigm we are creating of fighting a permanent uphill battle the way to achieve our goal?

That goal, in my view, is to create an autistic community that is not excluded for their differences, but celebrated for the gifts they bring, and whose various difficulties are both understood and accounted for.

It may be an idealistic vision, but it is one worth aiming for. It will, however, require integrating into education schemes the daily, admittedly more “unremarkable” stories. Stories that document the success of everyone on the autism spectrum, including those whose autistic qualities are nearly imperceptible to the neurotypical, but are still unique in a misunderstood way.

That publicly held mental image of autism in itself allows for a fascinating thought. If the happiness of autistics from all across the spectrum in as much variety as it allows can be made publicly associated with the condition, it could end the days of stigma. It’s this stigma surrounding autism that has trapped it into such a detrimental narrative from which it is difficult to escape.

I hope members of the autism community will lead the way globally in this shift in the way we think of the autism spectrum, and one day, perhaps all mental and physical health conditions, too.

The actual answer to what makes autistic people happy is, of course, not a single, standard answer; there are no “standards” to work from or to in autism, nor any way to pin down “this is how to be happy.” Its very existence as a complex spectrum of so many variations leads to an neurological ID as personal as a fingerprint. Think of life as a card game as we all play our best cards at the best times, when the opportunity arises, in order to stay in the continuous stream of cards being laid down. We use good cards to compensate for bad ones that we can’t play.

I think of autism as a wild card in the game; it’s one of only a few characteristics (or in this case, a set) that is and can be whatever we choose to make it. A negative stigma on autism creates negative feelings about it; we act on negative feelings, creating negative actions; negative actions creates negative results.

We must use positivity and hope to create positive feelings, positive actions and positive results. What those results are, I cannot say beyond my own.

But, for anyone who did want to know what positive results, success and happiness look like to an autistic person; in this age of easy labeling, it shouldn’t be too hard to spot us, to find us. Leaving conjecture and assumption behind, as we must all eventually do, what’s the best way to find out someone’s reality? Find them, and ask them yourself, of course.

“Before you judge a man, walk a mile in his shoes. After that, who cares? He’s a mile away and you have his shoes.” — Billy Connolly

Image via Thinkstock.

I don’t mind if you say “I’m sorry,” when you find out my 4-year-old daughter is on the autism spectrum. I actually I appreciate it

Many times I have heard and read about how parents of children on the autism spectrum absolutely hate it when someone who has just learned his/her child has autism says. “I’m sorry.” I don’t feel the same way. I’m actually grateful when someone has a polite or empathetic comment to make. Some people don’t know what to say, and instead of being quiet they say things like, “I saw ‘Rain Man,’” “She can talk, she’s not autistic,” “She looks so normal,” and other things I really don’t like to hear, but a sincere “I’m sorry” is not something that bothers me. I do, however, understand that the phrase “I’m sorry” may be viewed as a sign of pity, and our children’s lives are not to be pitied. They’re different, but wonderful lives.

But I don’t mind hearing “I’m sorry,” because I feel the same way… I’m sorry she will have to live in a society that is not prepared to deal with difference. I’m sorry she will have to live in a country where she will be seen as handicapped only because she sees the world in a different way. I’m sorry she has to spend several hours a week going to therapy. I’m sorry she has to miss classes to go to speech therapy twice a week. I’m sorry she can’t enjoy games with her friends because she does’t understand symbolic play the same way other children do. I’m sorry she can’t enjoy playing in the swings because she has proprioceptive issues. I’m sorry she has strong issues with food and textures that don´t allow her to experience the pleasure of eating; she is afraid to try new foods, she hates mushy food and may never experience my joy of eating a warm bowl of freshly mashed potatoes. I’m most sorry about this particular issue because she is not receiving all the nutrients and vitamins she needs from her extremely limited diet, and she has to take vitamin supplements, which she hates.

I’m sorry I had to take her out of her nursery school where she had friends and take her to a new place more suitable for her needs. I’m sorry she will have to go to a different school than the one we wanted her to attend because she needs a more personalized education. I’m sorry she and her sister might not be able to attend the same school just because her sister is neurotypical and she’s not. 

There are so many things in her life I’m sorry about, but there are also so many things I’m not sorry about, things I’ve learned from her that make me happy and proud of who she is and who she’s made me become.

She’s made me realize I have more patience than I new. I learned to cook fruits and vegetables in fun ways she likes and are healthy for her so she doesn’t miss out on the pleasures of eating. I’ve discovered I have very little shame when it comes to making her laugh. I’ve done silly, funny, ridiculous things just to make her smile; before she came along I would’ve never done these things in public. She’s made me find physical strength I never new I had so I can carry her in my arms even when I think I can no longer resist the weight of her 45 pounds, just because she loves it. I’m not sorry for how much she loves birds and how she has made me look past my absolute hatred of them and be able to walk into an aviary and learn names and sounds different birds make.

I’m not sorry how she makes me laugh until I pee in my pants, for how much her sister loves her, for how happy she has made our lives, for how proud she makes us every day when she conquers her fears and tries something new, for how much she adores her father and call him “my prince.”

For this and so much more, I’m not sorry.

Image via Thinkstock.

Not everyone knows what it’s like living with autism. Thirteen years ago, I found out why I’m different. An estimated one in 68 people around the world are on the autism spectrum, and I can empathize with many autistics facing challenges and obstacles.

At age of 25, my life challenges are increasing because of social pressure in society. Likewise, disability rights are overlooked. People of marginalized and stigmatized backgrounds are continuing to be voiceless and socially isolated.

I grew up with traumatic experiences where I got bullied, insulted and excluded. I have developed language structure problems. Please bear with my grammar in this article because this is the only way I express myself. Every day, people struggle to understand what I mean, what I do, or what I want. That is a typical life of being autistic.

Many times when I’ve tried to express myself, I either offended and scared people away. At this moment, I have no idea what I did wrong. It upsets me a lot when people do these things to me, even my own family and friends. I’ve felt depressed and socially isolated. I’ve felt terrible over people who are not on the autism spectrum who couldn’t try hard enough to express themselves after my own behavior offended and scared them away. It makes me feel like I am doing everything wrong.

I grew up missing out a lot of life opportunities that I always wanted to enjoy, such as having a consistent group of friends, having a job and a relationship. Earlier in my life I missed out on a lot of communication and social skills. Today I am still abused, attacked, bullied and consistently being punished because I am not good at communicating.

I tend to get lost in my mind. At home I sometimes don’t have the energy to find something to do because my mind feels trapped and too focused on the things I really want. Psychologists are there to support people on the spectrum, but it does not improve social awareness and acceptance from the society. So we may continue to isolate ourselves. Consistent unemployment is society’s fault.

People on the autism spectrum often feel voiceless and unheard, and are unintentionally (or intentionally) left out. This pressure causes anxiety and depression in my life.

I really want to empathize with you all. I want to make sure we take actions to improve autistic individuals’ well-being and promote social inclusion and acceptance. I may appear offensive, aggressive or lost, but that does not define me.

Image via Thinkstock.

To the family in the waiting room,

Today my little man Brayden, who has autism, continually invaded your personal space, said “excuse me” approximately 10,485 times, and played out some of his favorite YouTube videos live and in living color for you. I find those things some of Brayden’s most endearing qualities. In the past, however, most people have been friendly enough at first, but have eventually ignored him or looked annoyed and I usually have to divert his attention elsewhere.

But today was different. Today was special. Today meant the world to me and you’ll probably never know. You and the young girls with you all interacted with my son. You never flinched when he invaded your personal space or put his hands on you without warning. You never looked annoyed and you never ignored him. Something you said to me made me realize you knew my little guy is “different,” yet you said it subtly enough that you didn’t “out” his differences to the rest of the waiting room. You and your girls played along with all the orders he gave while he was acting out his YouTube videos. None of you made me feel that he was in any way bothering you. You gave him your time. You gave him your patience. He even called one of you “friend.”

Now here’s what you gave me: a restored faith in humanity and a sense of relief. I did not have to constantly pull him away from you. I didn’t have to sit on the edge of my seat. I didn’t have to apologize or explain anything to you; that in itself is worth more to me than you will ever know.

My son is fun-loving, energetic, beautiful, intelligent, silly, sweet, and has an amazing imagination. You and your family saw all of that today, and embraced it. You didn’t see his repetitiveness and his lack of spatial awareness as a problem. The looks on your faces showed love. Your body language spoke volumes. You were relaxed, smiled often, took time out of what you were doing together to involve him (and even let him run the show), and complimented him on his intelligence.

I cannot begin to express enough gratitude for your sincerity today. He may not have seen it, but I did. All he knew was that he made several new friends today — and so did I. All I could muster up to say to you before you left was a simple, “Thank you,” but I wish I could’ve said so much more. Thank you just isn’t enough. Thank you for the love you showed not just my son today, but also to me because of your kindness to him. Thank you for showing me that I don’t always owe the world an explanation, and that I never need to apologize for anything. Thank you for welcoming my child to be your friend today.

I pray you reap what you have sown and are blessed for your kindness. The world would be a better place if there were more people like you in it. I only wish you could see this, so you would know you made my day today. Thank you from the bottom of my heart!

Real People. Real Stories.

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