Two Strangers with One Incredible Thing in Common: Autism

A few years ago, when my daughter was diagnosed with autism, I went down the wormhole of Instagram searching for someone who could 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 drowning. 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 to not just surviving but thriving.

Asking what we all want to know when we’re faced with unexpected news: Will we be okay?

That stranger replied to my email, and over the next two years Caelin Nieto and I would become online “friends.”

I watched her colorful life from states away, and she witnessed me transform from a grieving mother to one who incorporated autism into our everyday lives without fear.

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; I had no idea my child was serving the same for her.

Over the summer, Caelin reached out asking to Skype with my daughter, and it was by no coincidence that we figured out that very week my family was vacationing twenty minutes from her hometown.

I explained to my daughter that we were going to meet a real-life princess. One who gets to travel the world, wear crowns, and speak on stage because she was given an incredible gift called autism.

That was the first time I’d introduced that word to my daughter. But using Caelin as a bookmark for autism was the most beautiful gift.

She does all these things, my sweet girl, 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.

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 react this way with a stranger, but something tells me Caelin was never that to her. I think she knew she was finally running toward familiarity.

After they finished embracing, Caelin handed my girl a gift that would change us all—her crown.

Watching the passing of this 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, anointing her with a jeweled reminder that anything is possible.

We spent the afternoon playing the sand and making memories, and 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, twenty years apart, with one incredible thing in common: Autism.

We stood together in the sand and cried.

The spectrum is so wide—each person so different—that finding someone to look up to is incredibly difficult. 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. 

As our day came to an end, my daughter began to cry. I imagine it’s because there’s no greater feeling than to be gotten, and for a few hours in sunny San Diego, she was fully seen.

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 our family; a reminder of the day that we all became okay.

I’ve never been prouder of my daughter’s superpower.

The world may suggest that those with disabilities and differences aren’t enough, but I beg to differ. Look at these girls. They are the faces of autism.

They are redefining what true beauty is.

And the wonderful news is, they don’t need diamonds to do that.

Written by, Stephanie Hanrahan

Stephanie Hanrahan is wife to a husband with chronic illness, mother to special needs kiddos, and a woman who often unravels then finds her footing again. Learn why she made her private journal public on Instagram, Facebook, and her blog Tinkles Her Pants, where she leaks nothing but the truth.

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Finding Cooper's Voice is a safe, humorous, caring and honest place where you can celebrate the unique challenges of parenting a special needs child. Because you're never alone in the struggles you face. And once you find your people, your allies, your village....all the challenges and struggles will seem just a little bit easier. Welcome to my page!


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