Erin Clemens is a 27-year-old on the autism spectrum and author of the book “I Have Asperger’s”.


Dr. Shafali Jeste, M.D. is a behavioral child neurologist specializing in autism and related neurodevelopmental disorders. She is an associate professor in psychiatry and neurology at the UCLA School of Medicine, and a lead investigator with the UCLA Center for Autism Research and Treatment.



Yesterday was decoration tear down day, which is always a bit of a downer, so my husband and I cranked some classic rock music as we painstakingly made Christmas disappear. Hearing the screaming wail of Axl Rose helped me swiftly pack Bing Crosby up until next December.

One of the last decorations I took off the tree was our son Ryan’s first Christmas ornament. And it brought about a wave of nostalgia — but also, more importantly, clarity.

young boy at the beach

For years, I would look at old photos of Ryan and see them in one of two ways: “Before Autism” or “After Autism.” Yet today, for what felt like the first time, I looked at this photo and only saw my beautiful baby boy. A boy for whom, in 2001 (years “Before Autism”), I dreamed a bright future filled with happiness, love, good health and acceptance for whomever he would one day become.

None of those dreams changed “After Autism.”

Sure, upon hearing “the A word” for the first time, I believed the dreams I once held for my son would now be different, and in some ways they may be — but the dreams that changed in my head were never his dreams; they were mine. In all the ways that matter — really, truly matter — my dreams and his dreams didn’t change “After Autism.”

So as I packed up Ryan’s first Christmas ornament from 2001 safely in the ornament box with the lyrics of “Sweet Child O’ Mine” playing loudly in the kitchen, I smiled happily knowing my dreams for Ryan in 2017 have as little to do with autism as they did in 2001. I still dream for him to be happy, healthy, loved and accepted.

Yes, there may be challenges I didn’t anticipate that first Christmas all those years ago, but I knew then, just as I know now, that I would do anything and everything to help make Ryan’s dreams come true. Autism didn’t change that.

I would like to think this moment of clarity will remain with me throughout the new year and into the new years yet to come. I hope going forward I will no longer look at photos of Ryan and see “Before Autism” or “After Autism,” that I will only see the baby, the toddler, the adolescent, the teenager and, one day, the man who was — and is — happily living his dream of being loved and accepted. And recognizing that regardless of age or time, the beautiful smile shining brightly from each and every photo was directed at me, the person he trusts most to always see him, not autism.

Images via Contributor.

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When you become a parent there’s no manual; there’s nothing that can truly prepare you to care for another human. When I became a special needs parent, suddenly there were all these “experts” — people I’d never met before, and according to them, they knew my child better than I did.

I still don’t like the label of “special needs mom.” It can come with looks of pity or curiosity. It seems to separate your family even further from others. It’s been four years since I first heard the word autism. I heard it again a few months after, this time in a diagnosis for my oldest, who was almost 9 years old at the time.

I’ve tried to find support, or maybe just people who could relate to my family, but it became apparent to me that I didn’t share the same views as some others.

I don’t see my children as “flawed”!

I don’t see them as “broken”!

I see no reason to look for a “cure”; being autistic isn’t a disease.

I see them as kids in need of support, in need of accommodation. Kids who deserve understanding and recognition for their talents.

I celebrate their strengths, and I celebrate their accomplishments.

Then, I’m smacked in the face with what society — or “experts” — believe of my children.

Today, I sat through an evaluation that lasted well over an hour with all these questions that seemed to aim to put my kids into a smaller box, focusing on what they can’t do or if they react differently than their peers.

I left feeling sad — not for myself, but for my child and how the world appears to view them. It bothers me still as I lie awake at 2 a.m.

“Does the child color in the lines with few mistakes?”

“No! He writes numbers,” I answered. He looked up at me puzzled.

“Has he not been taught?”

“He has, but he’d rather draw numbers, and now he’s discovering math, and these numbers can do more than he first realized. It’s very exciting for him and myself. I encourage his strengths.”

Does it really matter that my child would rather write numbers than color the picture you put in front of him?

I think it’s time we stop trying to put these children into a box that might make others feel more comfortable.

It’s time for acceptance!

No more apologizing for these differences!

No apologizing for coloring outside the lines.

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Shauna Phoon’s series, ‘The Faces of Autism’ shows the diversity of people on the autism spectrum.

Read the full story.

This past semester, I have been a special education para in an elementary school. Let’s just say, no day has been ordinary. My students and I have had our good days, our silly days, and our “You’re not in trouble, but I’m gonna need you to rethink that action real quick” days. But as I look back at the last semester, I can honestly say I truly value the time I had with each of my students.

One particular young man, whom I will name “A” for privacy reasons, comes to mind when I think back. A has autism, and he was my special afternoon playmate, as I would always take him to our sensory break room during his math time. The other teachers and paras told me he would be a true joy, and my goodness, he was. Some days were better than others; some days we made up stories about Skittle land, what would happen if we jumped into video game worlds, and we always tried to come up with the scariest stories we could.

I’ll never forget our first true breakthrough, however. As I picked up A from class and started to take him to the break room, I could tell something wasn’t OK. After a few minutes in silence, he told me a new refrigerator was being installed in his house that day. A is not one who enjoys change, and it really bothered him, knowing his fridge would be different by the time he got home from school. We talked through the pros and cons of the change, and even imagined what we thought the new one would look like. It may sound silly to some perhaps, but to us, it was a truly meaningful conversation about a relevant issue in A’s life. From then on, we were pals. He was the highlight of my afternoon. His freckled smile and contagious giggle could light up anyone’s spirits. Sure, some days didn’t go so well in the break room. Sometimes we needed to spend some time in the “quiet cave” and just not talk to each other. But I think that was proof of the genuine friendship we had. All friends have rough patches, and we were the best of friends.

This was my last week as a para. I have accepted a position that is truly in my best interest for my career goals and could not pass up the opportunity. But that doesn’t mean it didn’t hurt saying goodbye to A.

A few days ago, I was wearing my Autism Avenue T-shirt, and he asked me what it said. I read it to him, and his face lit up. “I have autism!” he exclaimed. I told him I knew that, and I bought the T-shirt because I absolutely love my friends with autism. His response is something I will never forget: “Well, I’m glad I have autism then.”

Yes, this is the moment I’m crying in a coffee shop, typing this story. Because I’m also glad A has autism. It’s the spice that makes him exactly who he is. The truth is, I can’t imagine him without it, and I’m beyond grateful he understands it is nothing to be ashamed of. The confidence in his voice made me know he would be OK without me around. And while I will miss watching him dance, watching him stare at the lights on the wall, or tell his stories… he will be OK. I didn’t have to tell him he’s unstoppable — he already knew. He just needed a friend to talk refrigerators, video games, and Skittles with, and I am beyond grateful for the small amount of time I got to be that person.

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