Have you ever had a moment where someone really “got” you? Finding that moment is incredibly difficult for those with special needs, and Tinkles Her Pants mommy blogger Stephanie Hanrahan, whose daughter has autism, shares a beautiful story of how beauty pageant queen Caelin Nieto helped her and connected with her daughter.
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 could ever manage. [Caelin Nieto] quickly became an inspiration for me because she did all that and more. And she did it 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 sauce to not just surviving, but thriving. Asking what we all want to know when we’re faced with a crisis: Will we be okay?
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.
In the summer of 2019, Caelin reached out to me asking to Skype with Campbell, and it is by no coincidence that 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.
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.
That was the first time I introduced that word to my daughter. Campbell didn’t know she was different yet. I had 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.
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 safe and familiar.
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.
We spent the afternoon playing in 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?
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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, high functioning girls being the elite among that. They 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—quickly became 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 imagine life without this beauty.
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 be understood, 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 that everything finally became okay.
I’ve never been more proud 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 really is. And the wonderful news is they don’t need diamonds to do that.
If you were born different, hold your head high. You’ve always worn the most valuable crown.
This essay was originally published in January 2020.
Stephanie Hanrahan was just your seemingly average housewife until she grew tired of pretending and took an axe to her white picket fence (making her private journal public). Learn how she traded her pretending for a panty liner on Instagram, Facebook, and her blog Tinkles Her Pants, where she chronicles her journey as wife to a husband with chronic illness, mother to special needs kiddos, and a woman who often unravels then finds her footing again.
Photo courtesy of Jennifer Baumann Photography