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When My Daughter With Autism Met a Princess Just Like Her

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A few years ago when my daughter was diagnosed with autism, I went down the wormhole of Instagram searching for someone who would understand. I didn’t know a single person on the spectrum, and all of my friends had typically developing children, so I was desperate to connect with anyone who could say, “I get it,” instead of the “I can’t imagines” that were being hurled my way.

And then I stumbled upon a beauty queen. A title holder in the Miss America Organization, to be exact. A woman with a successful career, steady boyfriend and a more active social life than I ever could manage.

She quickly became an inspiration for me because she did all that and more — with autism.

I wrote her a message that went something like this:

“Help me. I’m overwhelmed. I’m scared. Please. I need to understand my daughter.”

I was a mother risking it all on a stranger, essentially begging her to give me the secret sauce to not just surviving, but thriving. Asking what we all want to know when we’re faced with a crisis: Will we be OK?

She replied to my email that day, and over the next two years Caelin and I would become online friends. I watched her colorful life from states away, and she witnessed me transform from a scared, uncertain, grieving mother to one who incorporated autism into our everyday lives. We didn’t have much dialogue during this time, but we were there for each other in a way only two people connected by a diagnosis could be.

She was my model of hope, and I had no idea my child was the same for her.

Caelin Nieto, Miss Los Angeles County

Last week Caelin reached out to me asking to Skype with Campbell, and after some back and forth messaging we figured out my family was vacationing 20 minutes from her hometown.

I told Campbell we were going to meet a princess. I explained all of the amazing things she’s done, and that the reason she gets to travel the world, wear crowns and speak on stage is because she has a gift called autism.

This is the first time I’ve introduced that word to my daughter. Campbell doesn’t know she’s different yet. I’ve been internally fearing that “coming out” conversation for years. How will I tell her? What will I tell her?

But using Caelin as a bookmark for autism was the most beautiful gift. She does all of these things because she was given an asset to walk this world with. Being on the spectrum isn’t scary, it’s a superpower.

You don’t become royalty by being like everyone else.

Caelin hugs Campbell

We met Caelin at the beach, and when Campbell saw her from a distance she ran into her arms, hugging her until she lost breath. I’ve never seen my daughter do this with a stranger, but something tells me Caelin was never that to her. I think she knew she was running into the arms of someone so familiar and safe.

After they finished embracing, Caelin handed my girl a gift that would change us all — her crown. Watching this passing of the torch was the most beautiful moment of my life. I’ve been searching for years for someone who understood my daughter and there she was: kneeling in the grass, hugging her. Anointing her with a jeweled reminder that anything is possible.

Campbell wearing Caelin's crown.

We spent the afternoon playing the sand and making memories. As Campbell buried treasure for Caelin to find, I slipped in all the questions I so desperately wanted answers for: “How can I best help her? Were you bullied? What do sensory breakdowns feel like? What was your diagnosis story? Does everyone accept it?”

Each of her replies wrapped themselves around me like the comfort of wool. We were walking mirrored lives. I am raising the little girl she once was.

Two strangers, 20 years apart, with one incredible thing in common. We stood in the sand together and cried.

The spectrum is so wide — each person so different — that finding a pathway to success or someone to look up to is incredibly difficult. Girls like Caelin and Campbell are the unicorns, often blending in so much that they can carry on without saying a word. Which is why Caelin — who was diagnosed at 20 and chose to publicly share her story thereafter — was our hero. It is not lost on me that if we both stayed silent about our true selves, we never would’ve found each other.

I can’t even imagine life without this beauty.

Miss Los Angeles Meets Girl with Autism

As our day came to a close, my daughter began to cry. I imagine it’s because there’s no greater feeling in this world than to meet someone who “gets” you — and for a few hours in sunny San Diego, she was understood. How do you let go of that good, good love?

The answer is: you don’t.

Caelin is a member of our family now. Her crown sits in Campbell’s room and shines almost as bright as her spirit. It serves as a beacon of hope for all of us; a reminder of the day everything finally became OK.

I’ve never been more proud of my daughter’s superpower.

The world may suggest that those with disabilities and differences aren’t good enough, but I beg to differ. Look at these girls. They are the faces of autism. They are redefining what true beauty really is. And the wonderful news is, we don’t need diamonds to do that.

If you were born different, hold your head high. You’ve always worn the most valuable crown.

Caelin and Campbell walking on the beach

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