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Carlee McLaughlin: 1970-2010

Autistic Photographer


I met Carlee during my daily dog walks around the neighborhood. She was pacing nervously up and down the sidewalk, I offered my help, and she refused. But with time, she learned to trust me and slowly allowed me into her life, her home, and her heart.

Carlee had Asperger’s syndrome and was both burdened and blessed with living in a special world. Although she was challenged, it never stopped her from pursuing her dreams and striving for her independence. She insisted on living on her own. She rejoiced in her freedom and embraced her privacy. She did it against so many odds, and I was really proud of her for it.

Carlee McLaughlin
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Courtesy Photo

Carlee McLaughlin

Born at St. John’s Hospital in Santa Monica on September l4, 1970, Carlee was diagnosed with “early infantile autism” when she was 14 months old. The first school she attended, at 18 months, was at the UCLA Rehab Center—a program for children with cerebral palsy. It was the only school that would accept a child that young. At three years, she was John Kelly’s first student at the Brentwood Center for Educational Therapy, later attending the Marianne Frostig School and Park Century School.

During her high school years, Carlee attended the Landmark School for dyslexia. She then went to Leslie College, and attended the Threshold Program in Boston for approximately two years. Later, she lived at the Independent Center in Culver City, a program to develop independent living skills. She then lived on her own in Pacific Palisades and worked at Gelson’s supermarket as a boxer for three years.

About 11 years ago, Carlee moved to Santa Barbara and lived at Sanctuary House, then later lived independently while continuing to attend the Sanctuary House and Arlington Center programs. A year and a half ago, she moved into the apartment on Anapamu Street where I met her.

Her friends and family all knew what a great appreciation Carlee had for life. She demonstrated it the most by remembering and honoring everyone’s birthday. She memorized all the dates and would never forget to phone and celebrate everyone on their special day. She loved her own birthday! After a beautiful dinner with family and friends on September 14, I’ll never forget going to her home with her and her mother and waiting for 8:47 p.m. to strike so we could hug, laugh, and sing one last time a joyous happy birthday to her.

Carlee and I shared a deep love for children and animals. She rode horses and had a beautiful cat that she adored. At times when I was visiting her, she would look over at her kitty and turn to me with a sparkle in her eye. She would smile and say “sweeeeeeet.” I walked by Carlee’s home every day, and I would look up at her window. I knew when she was home because her kitty would be on the window looking out at me. If she wasn’t home, the kitty would hide in the closet waiting for her return.

Carlee believed in angels. She read about them, studied them, and liked to talk about them. She marveled in their mysterious, wonderful, kind world. She believed in the magic, the love, and the goodness that they symbolized in her life. Hence her precious cat’s name: Angel.

She liked routine in her daily life. Up and out for a walk every morning to her favorite breakfast place, Anderson’s Bakery on State Street. Then on to Paradise Found and Borders in search of metaphysics, astrology, and other mystical books, as well as self-help books. She practiced yoga. She took thousands of photographs. Once a week, she would ride at Hearts Therapeutic Equestrian Center. In the evenings, Carlee stayed home in the apartment she loved, where she could sit and write in her journal, read, watch a movie, and be with her cat.

She passed away from heart failure unexpectedly on Tuesday morning, October 19. Carlee joins her sister, Lauren McLaughlin—whom she adored, and who also died, so tragically, at an early age. Carlee is survived by her beloved mother, Christine McLaughlin; father, Raymond McLaughlin; brother, Blake McLaughlin; nephews, Remington and Montgomery; and grandparents Jackie and Jay McMahon.

Carlee never ran a corporation, reinvented the wheel, or climbed a mountain. Carlee was a hero just for being who she was, a special person who saw only the good in all people. She blessed everyone’s life who knew her. Touched by an angel, I was blessed by Carlee, too. Rest in peace, my friend. I will never forget you.

In Carlee’s honor, please go to her FaceBook page and become part of Carlee’s Angels by posting something good you have done. Or you may donate to Angels Attic (in Santa Monica), Heifer International, or Hearts Therapeutic Equestrian Center.

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