“I always knew that I was different from other kids,” says Anna Caroline Strickland. 

“[My mom] likes to tell this story when one day in kindergarten I got in the car from school, and I was like ‘Mom am I handicapped or something?’ because a little girl had said that to me on the playground.

She was like, ‘Well, you have CP [cerebral palsy]’ – and I knew that but, I mean, I was too little to actually know what it was called – ‘but you can do anything you want to do, anything you set your mind to, you can do it.’ She’s always instilled that thought in me and my sister. …”

Today, Strickland has proven she can do anything she sets her mind to, and she uses her unique perspective on differences to help others. As a speech language pathologist, she works every day to give kids who need a little more of a leg up in speech and feeding the help that they need. 

At less than one year old, Strickland’s parents were surprised by her pediatrician’s diagnosis of CP. “My mom and dad have advocated for me since I was a little girl,” says Strickland. 

“… [My mom] immediately started crying and then she went home and she looked up all this stuff about CP. And then my mom and dad started to find me somewhere I could receive PT [physical therapy] and OT [occupational therapy] and they landed at Easterseals.” 

Throughout her life, Strickland’s parents have pushed her to work hard and to take care of herself. She says she has learned everything she knows about advocating from watching her parents stand up for her and her needs. 

Her positive outlook and magnetic spirit are infectious, so being a cheerleader for her students and their families comes naturally to her. And because she has most likely experienced the same or similar challenges as they have, her empathy helps her mentor.  

“Some of my [therapy] kids have asked me in the past, ‘Why do you walk like that?’ and I’m like, ‘Its just the way I was born and the way God made me. … I am just like everybody else, I just have a diagnosis. Some people may not have a diagnosis and be ‘normal’ – whatever that means,” laughs Strickland. 

LRF: How do you feel about the word “disability?”

I personally am not sensitive whatsoever to that because I’ve heard it most of my life. I am very careful with the words that I use to describe other people, but for me, it's not really a thing.  

LRF What advice do you have for parents of kids with special abilities? 

You are doing an awesome job. Every parent who has a child with special needs is doing everything they can do for them. … Any parent that's raising a child with special needs is one of God's many, many angels. I know that they're doing everything that they possibly can do for their child to make their child as comfortable as possible and are being the best advocate.

LRF: What advice do you have for parents on how to talk to their kids about special needs?

Getting down on their level and trying to talk about kids with special needs is very crucial. Don't try to have this big, long conversation with them because they'll tune out in about five minutes. 

Love everybody … don’t leave anybody out because they're in a wheelchair or they talk differently from you or they are non-verbal. Don't leave those kids out because they're still kids and they’re still like you. 

Just because they are in a wheelchair, it doesn't make them any less than you are standing up and walking around. I think just getting across that point to them that loving everybody is so important. Treating everybody the same is so important. Loving everybody and treating everybody with respect is so important.

Heather Honaker is circus ringleader for three kids 4 and under — two typical, one not, but they all think they are special. You can follow along as the messiness unfolds around her family by reading the Typically Not Typical blog. If you know of any Extraordinary people you’d like to see featured, email heatherphonaker@gmail.com.