Caitlin McFarland is just a typical girl. She likes to go shopping or get a makeover with a new hairstyle and make-up. She likes to go the fair, go on rides and watch the rodeo, go to the mall. She likes to spend time with her friends and give hugs and clean the house. With her shy smile and long blond hair she looks typical.
Caitlin also is one of the bravest people you may ever meet.
Caitlin is 20 years old, still attending the Olympic Peninsula Academy. She has Asperger's syndrome and a mental illness.
Instead of feeling sorry for herself or hiding her challenges, she has written a book about them, "Having Asperger's and a Mental Illness and Disability."
Asperger's syndrome is part of the larger autism spectrum disorder. People with Asperger's have impaired non-
verbal communication skills; they have a difficult time "reading" others' faces and gestures.
They seem slow to others because they must stop and think about what they see or hear before they can respond.
Caitlin wrote her book to help others understand what it is like to have autism or Asperger's.
"For me, having autism, lots of times I just feel like crying because I don't understand things and I feel so scared inside. There are times I just don't know what I'm supposed to do and some places I will just leave because the people seem like they don't want me there."
She remembers the hurts
Caitlin's book delves into the hurt she felt during her life from ignorant or unkind people who make her feel stupid, that she doesn't belong or that she is too old to still be in school.
Those hurts stay in her mind and she has a good memory.
"All the time at church I get judged. People shouldn't judge," Caitlin writes in her book.
"I know I am different and people do not understand me when I tell them that my school and (the) people there are my life. Because out there people are like 'You need to be graduated,' or 'You don't need to be in school.' Then they make fun of me."
Caitlin remembers one man who was selling wooden carvings at the Clallam County Fair. He told her she should be out of school. "He hurt me and made me cry. Why do most people have to talk to me that way?" she asks.
Caitlin had a hard time when she first started school. "When you're young, it's hard, so hard because you're reading and handwriting and not understanding most things.
"You are always in special education classes and they call your mom and your mom comes to the school and finds you with a desk shoved up against you and you are always scared. Because you don't know why the teachers are mean to you and the kids, too, and you are always blamed for things."
And the happy times
Caitlin finds the program at Olympic Peninsula Academy easier because the classes are small and her mom is there all day. She has many friends there and is planning on returning as a teacher's aide after graduating this June. She already enjoys helping the young children. Her gentleness and soft voice make it easy for the young children to respond to her.
Despite the hurtful comments and difficulties she faces, Caitlin prefers to remember the people who accept her and are her friends. People such as her teacher, Michelle, who Caitlin considers to be her friend and adopted sister.
"I have always given people in my life gifts: a lot store-bought or something I made, and I will write them cards or notes and give them to them. And I love to always give people hugs.
"I'm also one to put happy things into people and I've been told if people hate me, they are missing out on happiness. I do like to listen to my heart.
"The ones I love and care for mean a lot to me and I love to give hugs."
Caitlin's favorite classes in school are writing and drama. She has performed in several school plays and Night of Excellence shows at the OPA. She really enjoys acting and can memorize her lines quickly. She has performed at The Buzz several times and likes being on stage.
"So many people came up to me and said I was good and they told me to keep writing songs.
"I also love to perform and talk in front of people. I'm not afraid of it.
"Having a disability and a mental illness can also be a big challenge in life."
Caitlin's upbeat take on life and her generosity of spirit make her book an uplifting way to understand what life is like for someone who is different. Caitlin sells copies of her self-published book for $15. You can contact Caitlin for a copy by e-mailing her mother at firstname.lastname@example.org.
"I guess what I am trying to say is that life is not about giving up and I know I can make it." Meanwhile, Caitlin worries that she may never see her friends after they part.
"I want to remember the last thing I gave them was a hug."
Reach Dana Casey at email@example.com.
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