When Brooke was three, we enrolled her in the preschool that her sister had been attending for the last two years. We loved it and were excited for her to join her big sister.

The school, located in the basement of a local church, was as cute as they come and, to me, was exactly what preschool was ‘supposed’ to be. It was a family operation – run by two sisters and their mother, all of whom had clearly found their calling. They loved the kids as much as the kids so obviously loved them. But as I would soon learn, my version of what things were ‘supposed’ to be was very often radically different from what my daughter actually needed.

While they adored her, and she them, they just couldn’t provide the kind of environment that she so desperately needed at the time. Despite the fact that we’d found the perfect place for her, we all cried the day that we told them that we were leaving.

On Brooke’s last day, they presented her with a scrapbook containing photos of her with various teachers and classmates. They made sure to capture her at her favorite activities: sitting in the sand box and peeling felt from the felt board. In the last photo, her classmates are waving goodbye and the text reads, “We’ll miss you very much!”

Ten years later, Brooke reads through the scrapbook almost daily. Her mind, steel trap that it is, has never forgotten those people who loved her so many years ago.

And yet, as sweet as all of it is, I have always struggled with looking at the scrapbook with her. It wasn’t an easy time for us, nor, more importantly, for her. She spent so much time frustrated by her inability to be understood and overwhelmed by the world’s sensory onslaught. Even though she spoke, the effort to create a narrative with only previously memorized chunks of cartoon dialogue and books was enormous. Especially when it was nearly always in vain. I knew she’d stopped trying when one of the room mothers asked me, after spending an enormous amount of time in the classroom, if she had ever spoken at all.

But above all, I found it difficult because my sweet, beautiful girl just looked so different in the photos. What I saw in her face, or didn’t see, made my heart ache for her.

Last night, everything changed. For the millionth time, once I was able to recognize the fact that I was making assumptions based on my own experiences, I was able to follow my daughter’s lead and break open what I thought I saw, what I thought I knew.


{image is a photo of Brooke between the two wonderful ladies who ran the school.}

All because I asked a question. One that she couldn’t have answered back then, nor even a couple of years ago, but one she can answer now:

Honey, how did you feel when that picture was taken?

I never would have asked before. Not just because I didn’t think she could answer, but because I thought I knew the answer.

Scared, sad, overwhelmed, lost, unengaged. Those were the words that I had assigned to her expression, to her body language, to what I thought I saw.

“Happy,” she said.

I was stunned. “Happy?” I asked. “Really?”

“Yup,” she said, “and that was why they loved me so much and because they’d miss me very much.”

(Brooke often uses “that was why”for “because.”)

She was happy because she knew she was loved.


{image is a photo of Brooke with her classroom teacher. Her expression is the same.}

As we turned the pages, I asked the same question. “How did you feel when that picture was taken?” At each and every shot, she said, “Happy.”


{image is a photo of Brooke posed with her classmates. They are smiling and animated. She has her hand up to her mouth and, through my neurotypical filter, looks either sad or afraid or both.}

“I loved Halloween!” she said when we got to the page where the kids were showing off their homemade Halloween hats. I pointed to the picture. “You loved THIS?” I asked.


{image is a photo of Brooke posed for a picture with her classmates. They are wearing Halloween hats and smiling. Her face looks almost expressionless.}

“Yup!” she shouted. “But snack time was my favorite!”

I turned the page. There she was at the snack table with the other kids.


{image is a photo of Brooke at the table eating her snack with the other kids. Her hands are up at her chest.}

She lifted her hands to her chest, mimicking her pose in the photo. Until that moment, I’d never noticed where her hands were in the picture. It just wasn’t part of the data that my brain had collected. I’d looked only at her face.

“My hands were like this,” she said, now bouncing them just beneath her chin, “and that was why I was happy.”

(see above: why = because)

It hurt to look at those pictures because I’d been viewing them through a neurotypical filter. I’d been making assumptions about my kid’s demeanor and behavior based upon what I thought they were ‘supposed’ to be. That was about as useful as choosing a preschool based on what I thought one was ‘supposed’ to look like.

I recently saw Judy Endow’s brilliant visual for Four Simple Strategies for Supporting Autistic Behavior. (Click here to see the visual along with a full description of the image.) Among the strategies was this:


When it comes to autistic individuals, try to refrain from assigning motive and meaning to behavior based on what the behavior would mean were you engaged in it.

Just a few days after reading that, there I was, doing exactly that until my kid snapped me out of it.

Brooke doesn’t just experience the world differently than I do, she expresses her experience of it differently as well. While I thought I got that, clearly this mama needed a reminder.


8 thoughts on “happy

  1. Sending this out to all my friends….I founded a university autism clinic in 2000. Retired now, but you continue to educate me. Sending it on. Thank you.

  2. I want to just like this and understand it and get it — the positivity and inclusiveness on your blog is wonderful. But this time I just feel uncomfortable because all I can think about is my own kid. I’m years behind you in parenting and am struggling to understand. My 4-year-old autistic daughter has a very similar look on her face much of the time. When she tells me she loves school and it makes her happy, I don’t believe her! I want to and I hope it’s true, but she’s somehow picked up this frequent and intrusive questioning, always asking me if I’m happy, especially if I’m “obviously” not happy (like if I’ve just said, “I’m feeling angry because …”) So it makes me wonder if she knows happy is a good thing and thus repeatedly asks if I’m happy until I get there, and so she also is just announcing happiness when she’s in fact stressed. I don’t know. It’s just confusing.

  3. This has really helped me today. At her request I recently took my teen daughter to Buckingham Palace and she was miserable all day long with mismatched body language and facial expressions but she still wanted to stay, which made me feel disappointed and upset that she’d be so rude. At the end of the day she told me it was one of the best days she’d ever had and was happy. Until today I couldn’t figure out the mismatch. Thank you.

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