When My Elementary School Principal Told My Mom I’d Never 'Amount to Anything'

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I shudder each time I hear a parent talk about some professional who told them their autistic child will never amount to anything. I’m not quite sure what gives these professionals the right to say that to any parent. By professionals I mean teachers, principals, doctors, psychologists, anyone in authority.

No one has the right to tell any parent what they believe a child can or cannot accomplish in their lifetime. I have seen parents take those words to heart and actually believe them, because they came from a professional. Dear parent, take heart and listen up! I’m living proof of why you should never listen to such negative words.

I fell in love with horses at the age of 4. I was obsessed with them. When I was in fifth grade, I begged my mom for riding lessons at a nearby stable. The only problem was that the group lessons were every Friday afternoon starting at 3 p.m. That would mean I’d have to get out of school by 2 p.m. in order to get to the stable on time.

Not diagnosed with autism until age 50, all throughout my school years I was viewed as the “weird” kid, and no one knew what to do with me.

My mom went to talk to the elementary school principal to inquire about me getting out one hour earlier each Friday for the next eight weeks. She took me with her to go talk to him. So there I stood, gingerly peering out from behind my mom as she asked if I could be released from school the one hour earlier each Friday. He calmly smiled and replied, “Sure! Anita’s never going to amount to anything anyway, so it doesn’t matter.” I can remember the rage my mom was in for weeks after that statement. She didn’t believe that for one minute, and simply continued to encourage me to do my best at whatever I chose to do.

As I now have been working the past 28 years as a Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist, having graduated from Columbia University with my Master’s in Nurse Anesthesia, I can still see that man saying that to my mom. I also became an internationally published military aviation photojournalist, an accomplished equestrienne, and now an internationally recognized autism advocate, author, national speaker, and blogger.

So the next time anyone tells you that your child will never amount to anything, or will never do X, Y, or Z, simply smile at their ignorance. Go home and be your child’s cheerleading squad, their emotional support, and their source of encouragement to be all they can.

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A Cliffnote Confession From My Spot on the Spectrum

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As a traveling musician, I hear a lot of things from a lot of people after a concert. Often it’s about the music, the message, my story, their story… ultimately it’s about how my story connects with their own.

People have lined up to talk for hours along this latest tour, and most of the talk has been encouraging.

Many want to discuss autism, and I’m thrilled to do so – particularly if our talking will help produce understanding for those who know little, and encouragement for those who (by personal experience) know too much too well.

A while back I had a rather (shall we say) “interesting” conversation with a concert attendee. She was in line to get a CD and an autograph. I’d noticed her straining posture and intense focus as she waited her turn. She was clearly watching me – examining my every move, studying my every word, and she seemed puzzled. She seemed extremely puzzled.

When our moment to meet finally arrived she startled me with these words: “Wow! I would never know there’s something wrong with you! You just don’t look like there’s something wrong with you! I’d never have guessed there’s anything wrong with you!”

She repeated various forms, fashions, and facets of that phrase throughout our brief chat.

Honestly, I didn’t quite know what to do or say in response. I wondered if perhaps she expected me to twitch, or twinge, or spontaneously stim on the spot. (Truth be told I was stimming on the spot as my wiggling toes attempted to work their way through the floor of that foyer – a concealed coping method I developed as a child, one that helps me not outwardly flap and flail with the awkward gesticulations that can sometimes bring ridicule from the watching world).

What I finally said in response was: “Uh… thanks…um …I think.”

I then proceeded to try and enlighten her a bit about life in my autistic shoes. The conversation ended positively – though I’m pretty sure there was at least one more “Wow! Who’d’ve thought there’s anything wrong with you?” that made its way from her well-meaning mouth.

I reference that event because I am finding a trend in my own experience as well as in the experiences of others who live life on the “higher functioning” side of the autism spectrum – a trend of misunderstanding.

Dr. Mike Emlet (of CCEF), in talking with my counselor about my case wanted her to know how difficult it can be for those who live on the supposed “upper echelon” of the autism spectrum to find real understanding from our fellow man. Boy, Mike wasn’t just whistlin’ Dixie, and I have a near novelette of tales I could tell from my own experience with this difficulty.

Perhaps it’s hard for folks like me to find understanding because of broad sweeping stereotypical assumptions about how autism outwardly looks. Then, couple those broad sweeping assumptions with what I call the “mist of appearances” – the covering and camouflaging ability that often shrouds the disability for many “high functioning” folks (particularly female folks), and you have a foolproof formula for misunderstanding.

Several years ago I had a correspondence with a professional who works with children with disabilities, many who are on the spectrum. I had posed a couple of questions to her looking for some insight on a particular issue. The response I received was disheartening. Rather than answering any of my questions, I was told there is no such thing as “high-functioning” autism because “autism is not autism without real disability.” She then sent me to a website that would attempt to prove her point.  (Side note: it didn’t.)

Sadly, I have run across this opinion on many occasions since and, as one who lives with this disorder every moment of every day, I am always stupefied by it.

It would seem that an assumption is made (at least in my circumstances) that because I appear pretty “normal” – because I can look you in the eye (a trained response I practiced painfully in group settings as a very young child), speak somewhat soundly, reason rather rationally, and carry on a fairly fluent conversation (things that I have worked my tail off to accomplish and things that take more exhausting effort than I can adequately explain) –  I can’t have a “real” disability, most assuredly not the real disability of autism.

In spite of neurologists, general practitioners, psychologists, psychiatrists, and diagnosticians from the Autism Society all standing behind my official autistic “label” I’ve had people poo poo the whole idea of my being autistic, because I don’t look like their picture of autism.  I don’t meet their mold. I don’t fit their formula. I don’t connect with their conjectured criteria.

I fear their perceived picture is false, and I write this article because I believe it may be time to clarify that image of autism – or at least attempt to funnel out some of the fog.

I write because I am encountering a growing number of people diagnosed with “higher functioning” autism who are, as Liane Willey so brilliantly coined, “pretending to be normal” and who later falter under the façade. Many of us seem to be stuck on some societally structured stage, caroling the outward chorus of coping for the crowds, only to withdraw to our private “green room” where we find ourselves singing the solo of autistic sorrow – isolated and all alone once the public curtain falls. After the “show” we are crashing behind closed doors with the dark depth of our disability – and since few see it, few believe it. 

Friend, if you are reading this, please know those of us who live with this neurological condition in its supposed “higher functioning” form really do face many of the same challenges as those precious souls with more “obviously seen” autism do.

Regardless of our spot on the spectrum, all people with ASD have various social struggles, communicative quandaries, internal neurological manifestations, and external neurological aggravations. At times we wrestle to relate with others, and may find it difficult to dialogue amidst the confusion of conversation.  Many of us are physically undone by the onslaught of sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch as the five senses attempt to travel through the “frayed wire” of our atypical nervous system. We can be unexpectedly overwhelmed by the unplanned instant replay of multiple memories flowing out of our deeply filmographic minds. (It would seem that for some of us there is a pictorial Pandora’s box of our entire lives existing within our brains.) The struggle to properly filter the incoming chaos of the five senses while simultaneously seeking to properly funnel the internal bombardment of Pandora’s pictures can befuddle us and send us into extreme shutdown.

Believe it or not, that “obvious” disability you see in someone at the store, or at your school, or in your church is, at many moments, me (yes, Lori Sealy) behind closed doors. When I leave that concert setting, after singing my songs and sharing stories with all of those lovely listeners (the ones who can’t imagine anything is “wrong” with me) I will crash. I may go catatonic in my car. I may wilt against a wall. I may break in the bathroom. It will happen. It has happened for decades – you just didn’t know it because I was scared to talk about it and ashamed to let it show.

Those head hits you see happening in your loved one who’s been (perhaps uncompassionately) labeled with the “lower functioning” moniker? – been there (since I was a child), done that (throughout my young adulthood), still do it (even as I meander through middle age). I’ve banged my head in hopes of halting the hurt. It’s like a pressure release valve from the physiological fire storm.

The petite mal moments, seizure-like movements, repetitive rhythmic rockings, and forms of frustrating mutism you see exhibited by that precious soul who struggles so severely? – you’ll find them equally true of me when I slip out of your sight.

Those searing stimuli sensations that so many on the spectrum fight through and faint under? – I war with them too. I hear your hair move in the wind (no, really, I do!), and it crinkles and tinkles in my brain. In the core of my being I feel you chewing your food at another table at the far end of the restaurant, and it makes it hard for me to swallow. I am inundated with physical sensations from every sight I see – actually feeling each object that my eyes behold as the visual and tactile wires of my nervous system mysteriously criss cross. A simple touch, hug, or handshake can cause the marrow of my bones to burn. Every ounce of every inch of my body is continually battling this. It is undoing. It is unrelenting.

After a concert one soul said, “Wow!  I would never know there’s something wrong with you.” In an email another uttered: “There’s no such thing as high-functioning autism because autism isn’t autism without real disability.” 

Their words can make me wonder: Is there something “wrong” with me? Do I have a real “disability” amidst all of the “super powers” of my coping ability? Could the “high functioning” autistic banner just be a bunch of bunk?

Silly semantics and awful assumptions aside, the truth is I live with autism.  Yes, they call it “high functioning” autism but they still call it autism. See it or not, there truly is a lot of real disability that dwells inside of me, and inside all those on the spectrum. Some of us just hide the disability fairly well – and perhaps part of the hiding for many of us comes because of the assuming from some of you.

Dear reader, please don’t assume that “high functioning” is synonymous with “fine functioning.”  Some of us work harder than you can ever fathom to get through every minute of every moment.

Please don’t tell your “higher-functioning” friend – “Hey, at least you don’t have it so bad!”  The truth is, all autism has challenges, and those well-meaning words may simply cause your friend to crawl further into his or her coping cave (a terribly lonely place). Please trust me, our challenges can be hard and horrible much of the time, and this disability is often daunting.

There is a reason those who live with autism are said to be more likely to struggle with suicide ideation than those who don’t – a struggle I’ve known all too intimately. A struggle that flows from the fact that some aspects of autism can be awful. (Please know I write this not as a plea for a pity party, I have been met with much mercy in spite of my condition, and for that I give thanks. I write it simply as a fact – a fact that needs to be known.)

My earnest prayer is that this feeble cliff-note confession of my sometimes unseen   disability will be used to spark you to want to know more and understand more about this “high functioning” spot on the spectrum – as well as all spots on the spectrum. All of these spots matter. From that increased understanding may we learn to love more intentionally, live less assumptively, and labor more effectively. 

May my concert conversations continue, and may your own banter begin.

Follow this journey on LoriSealy.com.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.
If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255

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A Response to That Viral 'Plan' to Stop Public Meltdowns, From an Adult on the Spectrum

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Let me start off by saying I’m probably easily offended. And I tend to take things personally when I am. However, I feel this time I’m allowed to be offended. I’m allowed to take it personally because it’s a very personal issue, and the joke wasn’t funny. The joke was offensive to me, especially as someone on the autism spectrum.

facebook post about public meltdowns

The text reads:

After listening to a kid scream in Kroger for what felt like hours and seeing the poor mother try her best to keep it together I had a random thought.

There should be a secret signal parents give when they can’t take anymore so a random stranger can mean mug the kid and tell it to shut up. there are three good reasons for this:

1.) The kid will be so shocked they will shut up.

2.) It will reinforce stranger danger.

3.) It will show them, from an early age, that while your parents love you and put up with your shit the rest of the world doesn’t care about you (or your feelings), no matter how cute you are.

I don’t want to judge you as a person. I don’t know you. But I certainly have a first impression based on what I’ve read. My impression is that maybe you don’t know what it’s like to have a meltdown in public. Maybe you don’t understand the situation. Perhaps you were too tired that day to think about it, so I will explain what may have been going on.

I wouldn’t wish a meltdown on anybody.  

It’s not fun for me or the people around me. I try to contain it, but sometimes I just can’t. Imagine being extremely exhausted, not just because it’s been a tough day, but because that’s how you feel at the end of every day.

You don’t have the energy to go anywhere, but you have to, because that’s what your parent needs to do. Imagine hearing the squeaking of the bad wheel on the cart. It’s painful for you, but you are trying to put up with it. Then you walk into a store with extra bright lights. Your eyes are extra sensitive to them, and it hurts to keep them open. But you have to watch where you are going.  

Maybe it’s hard to keep walking, and your feet might hurt because you have low muscle tone. You walk past the soaps and detergent isle, and you can barely breathe because of the mixture of scents in the perfumes. What if you were experiencing all of this, and you were not able to communicate clearly that you have a headache? Some children are nonverbal. And even if they are not, they still have a difficult time expressing themselves because, well, they are kids.

I’m not asking you to apologize. I’m not accusing you of being a horrible person. I’m simply trying to help you understand that what you posted is not funny.  And I want you to understand why.

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When My Son’s Special Interest Affects His Mental Health

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Sometimes being a mum to a child with additional needs can feel like being at the funfair. There are moment of immense joy and excitement, thrills and laughter. Those are moments behind the memories we treasure forever, the moments that give us strength. But then there are also moments of fear and anxiety, self-doubt and even worry.

Some days I am the smiling mum waving proudly as my kids ride the carousel. Some days I am the driver in the bumper cars, knocking obstacles out of their way. And some days, like today, I am sat behind them on a rollercoaster with no control over what’s happening, wondering how we are going to get through this. This is the situation I have found myself in.

You see, my son’s special interest has decided to take us on an unexpected rollercoaster ride into the unknown. No one talks about this. It’s become all-consuming and life-changing.

I have always encouraged and celebrated my son’s special interests. They are what makes him unique, and they are very much a part of who he is. I have never seen them as a threat before. They have always been a way into his world for me. They have allowed me to share precious moments of connection with him, and they have always been a way of engaging him with the world around him.

But over the last few weeks, his all-consuming love for animals has opened the doors to obsession. It has quickly seeped into every aspect of his life, filling him with fear and anxiety.

Why do humans eat animals? Why is there such cruelty in the world? How can we let this happen?

His obsession and anxieties have stopped him interacting with people, made him confused and angry and taken away his ability to function in school.

How could I let this happen? How did I not see the warning signs?

I feel like I am the top of that rollercoaster, useless and scared. How can I help him see that his obsession is making him feel so sad? His love for animals has become something I now fear. He won’t eat, he can’t talk about anything else, and I feel like he is losing himself. The special interest I respected and admired has become an obsession that has affected his mental health drastically.

Services around mental health and autism are chronically underfunded and not often talked about openly, which often leaves families like mine feeling helpless and alone. I know there are many parents like us in the same position — scared, overwhelmed and worried for the future.

I know I have to ride this rollercoaster with him. And I know that I somehow have to find the strength to fight for services to help him feel better. I will do all that because I love my son. My children are my world, and I will never give up no matter how insecure and alone I may feel.

My son’s mental health is important, and it should be taken by seriously by the government and policy makers. Because there are thousands of families like mine who are put on waiting lists and are left struggling to do the best for their child. Struggling to help them with their mental health, feeling alone and isolated and often battling with their own mental health issues as well.

And I know deep down that I can’t beat myself up for not seeing this coming. All I can do is my best.

So for now, I will hold on tight and keep going. As scared as I may be, I will never give up, I will never leave him to face any of this alone. Because I am his mum, his safe place, his home.

We’re on this rollercoaster ride together, my darling boy. Hold on tight, buddy. I’ve got you.

Follow this journey on A Slice Of Autism.

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Making Friends as Someone With Hearing Loss Who’s on the Autism Spectrum

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I have learned over the years there are different kinds of friendships. There are people who say they are your friends, but they might not talk to you or get along with you. And there are others who contact you to get together. I am not saying I don’t have friends, but making and maintaining friends is really difficult for me. With hearing loss and being on the autism spectrum, listening to conversations and reading body language can be difficult.

I missed out on learning communication and social skills when I was young. This was supposed to help me understand the social environment and improve my ability to communicate. Though everyone is different, people tend to have a lack of empathy toward those who are perceived as more different than others. They tend to get uncomfortable quickly because of the assumptions they make. Unfortunately, I experienced this my whole life. I struggled to make and keep friends because I the people I met didn’t understand me. It’s mostly the times I would ask people to hang out, and I expected them to say hello and ask me to hang out or chat with me. I waited and waited. Then I realized they were too busy with something else. I may be appear standoffish in conversations, but I find it offensive when people say I do. It feels like it’s criticizing the way I am.

Because of hearing loss challenges, I tend to miss out on a lot of verbal parts of conversations. And being on the autism spectrum, I can miss out on nonverbal signals. They conflict with each other. It makes it confusing for my friends and the people I meet because my language is different. I learned to live in a different way, but sometimes people expect everyone to be the same.

If I learn how to communicate and read social situations with people who aren’t autistic, they should be available and accepting of me. Working with counselors and psychologists has not improved my situation. I have been doing this for seven years, soon to be eight years. Learning theories does not make life easier for me on the practical side. I want to learn the skills from friends and people who get along with me and try to understand me, not from professionals.

After I spoke to several people who have autism spectrum disorder, they agreed with me that making friends can be so difficult. We have needs and should be able to find friends and have relationships. I want to have friends and a relationship. Unfortunately, autistics can struggle with this opportunity in a society where there is a lack of empathy toward those of us who want to have friends and relationships. We won’t have this opportunity unless our differences are accepted.

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When a Boy Got Out of His Seat During an Autism-Friendly Performance of ‘The Lion King’

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Growing up, I was a huge fan of “The Lion King.” Now as an adult, I still love watching the film with my younger cousins and mentees. Then recently, I heard that an autism-friendly performance of “The Lion King” was happening on Broadway! I bought tickets right away and was ready for the nostalgia to begin.

Thanks to the Theatre Development Fund and the Autism Theatre Initiative, every season they have several of these autism-friendly performances for our families to enjoy.

The day of the performance came and I was ecstatic. As the performance began, all the families seemed to be thoroughly enjoying themselves. Right before the end of the first act, the actors were performing the classic song “Hakuna Matata” when I noticed a young boy stand up out of his chair and began to sing along.

There this boy was, flapping his arms and singing, and I was thinking the worst was about to happen. I instantly became concerned for the boy. That any minute, there would be a stranger making a comment in his direction.

But what happened next left me speechless…

Absolutely nothing.

No judgment. No criticism. Just a boy singing “Hakuna Matata” with a big smile on his face.

As the song concluded after the first act ended, and the lights came back on, I noticed a woman next to the boy with tears still running down her eyes. A smile just as big as the boy’s was on her face.

The audience understood that the boy was having an amazing time at the theater.

These are the types of moments that take my breath away.

This was a moment where there was no judgment from anyone around them, just people enjoying something together as a family.

When I was growing up on the autism spectrum, I often struggled with challenges in the theater due to my sensory issues. But even though the loud noises tended to bother me at times, one of my key interests was in theater. I was able to enjoy countless moments of pure joy with my family, and so was this mom with her son.

I cannot thank the Theatre Development Fund and the Autism Theatre Initiative for continuing to make these moments possible for our community. We need more people to lead by their example in their local communities to make all forms of entertainment possible for our loved ones in an autism-friendly setting.

The performance that day was incredible, but for me it was the audience that stole the show. Thank you to our community for making that moment possible.

A version of this blog originally appeared on Kerrymagro.com.

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