A Woman On An Airplane Questioned My Kid's Autism

by Stephanie Hanrahan
Originally Published: 
A little girl with autism walking while holding her parent's hands with a purple color filter
SDI Productions/Getty

Recently I was waiting to pre-board a plane with my two young children when another passenger grabbed my shoulder. She told me I needed to wait for family boarding, to which I responded it was indeed our turn to go.

“How‘d you manage that?” she asked.

“We have different circumstances.”

“Lucky you,” she replied with an eye roll.

Yes, lucky me. My children have autism and the one time it’s envied is when we get to enter an airplane first.

It wasn’t the time to teach someone about invisible disabilities—I’m sure she just thought we were cheating the system—but this small moment reminded me that the outside world often can’t identify my children as autistic, and sometimes that’s a downfall.

Because we do in fact have “different circumstances.” And when that’s known, we’re met with understanding—as in the case of the airline. All it took was me mentioning my children had special needs and we were chauffeured into front row seats, no questions asked.

Courtesy of Stephanie Hanrahan

But when it’s not known—when my children look “normal” but have brutal breakdowns, or blurt out words that make no sense, or ignore a peer trying to play with them—they’re considered weird, rude even. Which is exactly why it’s so important to share.

I’d rather my kids be known and loved for who they are rather than hidden and misunderstood.

I got this wrong for many years. When my oldest was diagnosed, I went into hiding. The world convinced me that being different meant being less than, and that if I shared her truth, it would automatically equal judgment. So I would explain her quirks to teachers, and classmates, and friends, but never use the actual word autism.

What a shame that I let my beautiful girl only be halfway seen.

Because the truth is, when I finally spoke up and stopped being small, I was met with an overwhelming amount of acceptance.

Autism is just one of the many amazing facets of my children, and if I want them to be accepted—truly accepted—people needed to know every crevice of them. It is my job as their mother to teach the world of their incredible worth. Gone are the days of cookie-cutter kids and white picket fence perfection. If we want to be loved, we have to be real.

And that same sentiment needed to be applied to me too.

My “different circumstances” aren’t visible to eye either, nor are my husbands. In fact, my entire family blends in pretty easily, so for many years I was committed to keeping our cracks concealed and only posting our prettiest parts.

The day my daughter was diagnosed with autism, I opened a private Instagram account just for me. I was in such deep grief and needed a place to release it, so I used the space as a journal—a place to pour my not-so-pretty into—and never intended to make it public.

But a year ago, when I posted our most recent family photos on my main account, people’s comments over how “perfect” my family was completely gutted me. They were seeing a curated photo, but no one knew the entire picture of our lives—or our struggle.

Courtesy of Stephanie Hanrahan

So I decided to release my real self, and that private Instagram, to the world.

Now, when you see a picture of family, you know the story behind it. Autism, yes, but also a husband with a failing heart and a wife who has been the survivor of abuse, anxiety, miscarriage, and more.

Now, by breaking the silence and shouting our truth, we are understood.

That woman who questioned us wasn’t at fault. There’s no scarlet A burned on my children’s foreheads. They fall pretty high on the spectrum, so if you don’t know what you’re looking for, it’s often easy to just assume the worst. So that is why we must always keep in mind that behind a picture—or a person—is often a battle we cannot see.

Everyone has an invisible disability—anxiety, depression, binge eating, low self-esteem, people-pleasing, shame, addiction, comparison, doubt—so the best I can suggest is that we err on the side of kindness and always be honest about our “different circumstances.”

And when you’re ready, release it. Let your real self be seen—to one person, or the entire world.

Because there is no greater gift than being accepted exactly as you are.

We are Scary Mommies, millions of unique women, united by motherhood. We are scary, and we are proud. But Scary Mommies are more than “just” mothers; we are partners (and ex-partners,) daughters, sisters, friends… and we need a space to talk about things other than the kids. So check out our Scary Mommy It’s Personal Facebook page. And if your kids are out of diapers and daycare, our Scary Mommy Tweens & Teens Facebook pageis here to help parents survive the tween and teen years (aka, the scariest of them all.)

This article was originally published on