The only limitations we face are those we place on ourselves – and others.

Is it just a coincidence that I was born the same year that Eunice Kennedy Shriver, founder of the Special Olympics, started Camp Shriver for special needs children at her own Maryland farm, Timberlawn?  I don’t think so. No one could predict how much I would benefit from that moment and all that it would signify when, at 33, I became a mother to Andrew, Kelly, and Megan – triplets with autism.

The Dalai Lama believes that, if you change your mind, you can change the world. Eunice Kennedy Shriver embodies that for me. She helped lead us out of a time when the potential of individuals with intellectual disabilities was overlooked not only by the general population but also the medical community, and life expectancy was so short that specialized adult care wasn’t even deemed necessary.

And she did it by changing mindsets, starting with her own.  Shriver’s sister Rosemary developed at a slower pace than her siblings, and her learning disability was incorrectly classified as “mental retardation” at the time. After their father consented for her to undergo a prefrontal lobotomy at age 23, the formerly vivacious and active Rosemary was left partially paralyzed and without the ability to speak. As Shriver once said, “If I never met Rosemary, never knew anything about handicapped children, how would I have ever found out?” In other words, who or what would have opened her mind to the plight and the potential of individuals with disabilities?

Unlocking the growth mindset

While the dictionary defines mindset as “an established set of attitudes held by someone,” world-renowned Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck argues against the notion that mindsets are necessarily “fixed.” Her research uncovered another possibility – a “growth mindset” that gives us the ability to change, grow, be resilient, and achieve greater success. Shriver’s experience with Rosemary didn’t just open her mind; it inspired her to change the mindsets of others.

While Shriver had the means and opportunity to affect a mindset shift on a global scale, my own aunt, Sue Radabaugh, did the same in her local community in Cincinnati. And it’s in large part due to Shriver’s work that my aunt had the platform to make the impact she did.

My aunt had her first real contact with children with disabilities when she was a college student and Red Cross water safety instructor at the Stepping Stones Day Camp in 1965. She was so impressed with the children’s abilities and response to instruction that she changed her major from science to physical education and went on to get a master’s degree in special education.

Since that experience, my aunt has been driven by the conviction that the worst disability is limiting our expectations of ourselves or others. And she has worked tirelessly over the past 44 years with several nonprofit organizations serving children and adults with disabilities to help them discover and develop their potential and help others see the vast potential they possess.  

Turning coincidences into connections

I was devastated when my children were diagnosed with autism at two years old.  But they needed me, and I had no choice but to change my own mindset about what would limit them as individuals and us as a family. We started a charity, IMPACT Autism, so we could make a difference for other families affected by autism. Most recently, we funded IMPACT Innovation, a new program for adults with autism at the University of Cincinnati College of Education, Criminal Justice, & Human Services. We chose Dr. Christina Carnahan to lead the program, who worked at the Stepping Stones Day Camp earlier in her life when my aunt was the Executive Director. Another coincidence? I think it’s all connected.  

I couldn’t have done any of these things without the groundwork created by Eunice Kennedy Shriver, a woman I never even met, my own aunt Sue Radabaugh, Dr. Christina Carnahan, and so many others who made a lasting impact on a community that my children and I are now a part of.  The ability to change and grow and affect the change and growth of others is something I hold very dear and try to carry with me both in my personal life as a mother and in my professional life.

Mastering your own mind

I firmly believe that, no matter who you are, you have the power to create change in yourself, in your family, in your community – even in the world. You may be inspired or forced by circumstance, but, either way, it starts with you.

As Carol Dweck says, “you’re in charge of your own mind.”  So what can you do to be the master of your mind?  

Pay attention. Every moment matters.
Open up. Don’t be limited by what you think you know, and don’t shut down every time you get hurt. Every experience is another opportunity to learn and grow.
Be brave. Don’t let new or different scare you; embrace all that it presents.
Take care. Prioritize kindness. Nurturing the wellbeing of others is the best way to create your own.
The mindset with which you approach your life and work matters. If you change your mind, you can change the outcome.

So don’t view your own or anyone’s potential with a fixed mindset.  If given the opportunity, every single one of us, including individuals with disabilities, can and will grow and develop in new and unexpected ways. That’s the gift that Eunice Kennedy Shriver, my aunt, Dr. Christina Carnahan, and so many others have given my children and others like them.  And for that I am eternally grateful.

Diana O'Brien