“I knew his teacher was already married, so it struck me as odd,” was Stephanie Hanrahan’s first reaction when she came across a photo of her son’s teacher holding a sign that read, “She Said Yes!” The confusion, however, soon turned into tears after she learned the story behind it.
Stephanie, a mother of two from Dallas, Texas, often receives compliments from outsiders for her “perfect” family photos. But unbeknownst to others lies the truth—her husband, Shawn, 34, has a failing heart, and her two children, Campbell, 5, and Eli, 3, have autism. Meanwhile, her own story is just as complicated, ranging from anxiety to infertility and abuse.
In an email interview with The Epoch Times, Stephanie, who documents her parenting journey on her blog, Tinkles Her Pants, shared how she found her footing with the help from her children’s teachers.
From Grieving to Finding Blessings
Something was different about Campbell when she was 1 year old, and the only person to realize this was Stephanie.
While the little girl “could speak in complete sentences, count by fives and tens, and make every letter sound,” she would have some really big reactions to trivial things, Stephanie recounted.
“I brought up my suspicions to my pediatrician, but everyone shooed me away, assuming Campbell was too smart and social to have autism,” Stephanie said.
Then doctors confirmed Stephanie’s hunch two years later when Campbell lost all willingness to interact with her peers. However, this didn’t make it easier for Stephanie to accept the news.
“I went through a deep period of grief,” Stephanie recalled. She worried if Campbell would marry or live independently. Moreover, at that time, Stephanie didn’t know of anyone who had autism.
Stephanie took a long time to accept the diagnosis and then treated the news as having “learned something new” about her child. She shared: “Once I was able to let the image I had in my head go, I was able to see that autism was an invitation to an incredibly beautiful life.”
Not long after, the doting mother found herself grieving again when her son, Eli, was diagnosed with autism at age 2 after she noticed he had delayed speech and other symptoms. However, Stephanie quickly picked herself up and changed her perspective.
“I began to see beauty I never knew existed,” Stephanie said. “I thought autism would kill me, but it was an invitation to live again. I have met people with so much kindness and grace that I wouldn’t have crossed paths with before.”
Stephanie soon started to accept that her children were “just packaged differently.” However, as a mother, she was worried when her children started to attend preschool. Afraid that her little girl would be judged, she recalled describing Campbell’s personality to her teachers without mentioning the word “autism.”
But it turned out that her worries were for naught. Before Campbell started kindergarten, her school principal and teachers already had a system in place to help Campbell grow socially and emotionally.
While Campbell was thriving in school, it was a slightly different situation for Eli. Stephanie had to enroll Eli in a developmental preschool after seeing that he couldn’t adjust to the system in Campbell’s school.
However, it turned out to be the right decision, as Eli made significant improvements at the new school, which hires teachers who are specifically trained in autism. It was also here that Stephanie befriended Eli’s teacher, Taryn Logan, who had her “bawling” with a photo of “She Said Yes!” that was shared on Facebook.
The “Superhero” Teacher
After Taryn graduated from Texas A&M University in December of 2018 with a certification to teach Health Education and Special Education in the state of Texas, she was worried about finding a job. She knew that schools usually did not hire in the middle of the year and the state of Texas does not require public schools to teach health education.
When Taryn couldn’t find a job in health teaching, she decided to look for jobs in the special-needs community. Taryn had had a stint eight years ago at an elementary school when children with special needs sparked her passion in this area. So, when she saw a job offer at Eli’s preschool, she jumped at the opportunity.
Despite unattractive factors such as lower pay and having to deal with lots of stress and no breaks, “I went with my gut and said yes to this job,” Taryn told the Epoch Times.
Taryn’s sister-in-law was especially proud of the step she had taken, which was to pursue her passion despite all the challenges. To help Taryn announce her new job to their family and friends, she came up with the idea of an impromptu photoshoot for Taryn. This included holding a “She said yes!” sign even though she was already married.
Taryn explained the reason for the special sign, saying: “I was reminded that this is what I said yes to: to finding myself in the service of the special needs population.”
This is also what touched Stephanie.
“These teachers are incredible,” Stephanie said. “I didn’t choose to have special needs children, but they did. They willingly walk into a room everyday knowing the challenges that await and consider it to be a blessing.”
Stephanie added that she is thankful to these “superhero” teachers for “choosing this profession” and her children. “The only reason I can breathe and begin again as a woman is because for a few hours a day you relieve me as a mother,” Stephanie shared.
Whilst Stephanie is grateful to teachers like Taryn, Taryn instead sees parents who have children with special needs as her “heroes.”
“I get their people for 8 hours a day, they have them their whole life,” Taryn said.
Taryn explained that though helping students to achieve their personal goals can be a rewarding process, the job can also be quite taxing. She shared how she was “overcome with emotions” when her students suffered from seizures or when she saw how life was unfair for them. However, she was able to keep going because of the role her faith and co-workers played. Taryn also credited the support system to keeping her afloat.
But ultimately, Taryn considers it a “privilege to teach them” as the “joy produced is so much greater” despite what the job entails.
As the saying goes, it takes a village to raise a child; parents and teachers also need to come together to educate and impart the necessary skills to help their children thrive in this fast-paced society.
For Stephanie, she sticks by what Diane Dokko Kim, an author and a special-needs parent, once said, “The skills your children need to go out into the world are out in the world.”
Thus Stephanie, whose children have social challenges, lives by the motto to “expose them to everything.” She said, “We’ve put them in every sport, club, school, festival and activity under the sun.”
Stephanie even once arranged for Campbell to meet Caelin Nieto, a title holder in the Miss America organization who has autism. During the meeting, Stephanie saw how both the girls connected with each other. Caelin even gifted Campbell her Miss Los Angeles crown.
Describing the moment, Stephanie said: “This passing of the torch was one of the most beautiful moments of my life. Two girls, twenty years apart, with one incredible thing in common: autism.”
While having skills are important, Stephanie hopes for nothing more than for her children to be “givers and receivers of kindness.”
To outsiders who don’t know about their diagnosis, Stephanie’s children would be viewed as weird or rude as they have “great difficulty in following social norms.” However, it would be a different story for those who have physical disabilities.
Hence, Stephanie hopes to shift the perception of those who are neurotypical “toward kindness and inclusivity.”
“If we all lived by that mantra, learning from and loving those who differ from us, imagine what a wonderful world this would be.”
Taryn, who is now a program assistant at My Possibilities, a non-profit organization that provides higher-education learning to adults with special needs, agrees too.
She encourages everyone to put themselves in the shoes of people with special needs and give them some time by asking them about their day, making them feel “noticed.”
“If you ever get the chance to make one of them smile, be prepared to feel the extraordinary joy that comes along with it,” Taryn shared.
No Longer Alone
Though life has been difficult for Stephanie after knowing that her children have autism, she has discovered that “there is a silver lining to special needs parenting and it’s that you get the opportunity to change.”
However, one would not be able to fathom the feeling that Stephanie first had after receiving her children’s diagnosis. But now that she has overcome some of those difficult days, she advises parents who have children with special needs to let out their feelings.
“Give yourself an appropriate amount of time to grieve, and then get back up again. Your circumstance isn’t going to change, but your perception of it can.”
Stephanie also shared the importance of finding your community. “Find people who have the same circumstance or feelings and cling to them for dear life,” Stephanie explained. “They will save you.”
She added that the important step is to “reach out and share your story.”
“I think you’ll be surprised by the number of people hiding in plain sight who are just waiting for someone to speak so they can too,” she said.