Young mother perseveres to graduate from Rutgers while navigating her baby’s autism journey

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Students coming to college later in life often describe this process as a journey. But few have traveled as far – geographically or emotionally – as Cassie Botnick.

“I started in community college in 2010, then I left and moved to California, then I came back, then I moved to Thailand, then to the Virgin Islands, then to Florida, then to Fiji, then to St. Kitts,” says Monmouth County 29-age. “Then I got pregnant and moved back to New Jersey.”

And that was the real start of an even longer journey, a trek that took her from carefree dive instructor to single parent, online media star and autism advocate.

“It’s been a journey,” she admits.

Courtesy of Cassie Botnick


It all started when, after returning home in 2019, Botnick re-enrolled at Brookdale Community College three weeks after giving birth, she earned her associate degree. Then, through the Rutgers University Statewide Program, she went after her bachelor’s degree. “I thought I was going to be home now with a baby anyway, so why not?” she said laughing.

Attending online classes during the pandemic, Botnick has made her baby girl, Luna, a regular, albeit virtual, part of her Rutgers career.

“She would be in my class on Zoom with her baby in her lap, and she would still be participating more than anyone,” says Robin Gaby Fisher, who just retired as coordinator of the Rutgers journalism program. “She’s an incredible young woman – ambitious, adventurous, smart. She’s a special young woman and a terrific writer.

Much of this writing was about Luna, who was already starring in Botnick’s popular film online blogvideos and multiple social media accounts including ICT Tac and instagram. At first, Botnick’s posts mostly recounted the daily ups and downs of being a loving single mother and busy student.

This changed shortly after Luna’s first birthday, when Botnick noticed unusual tics and behavioral quirks. “She had no words, she was doing repetitive motions like flapping her arms – even at 13 months I could see she was different,” she says.

Instead of ignoring her, Botnick made an appointment with her pediatrician. He suspected autism – a diagnosis officially confirmed six months later.

“The sooner you know that, the better off you are,” Botnick says calmly now. “Knowing that my daughter has autism helps me be a better parent. Instead of being frustrated, I just remind myself that her brain is wired differently, she processes things differently.

“A diagnosis at this age is very unusual,” notes Kate E. Fiske, associate clinical professor at Rutgers Graduate School of Applied and Professional Psychology. “For a parent to catch these signs early on – that’s very impressive. And important. These years are crucial and early diagnosis can really change the trajectory.”

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After such news, some parents may have dropped out of school for a while, or even disappeared. Instead, Botnick increased her workload and the visibility of her small family. Now, the former world traveler is on a different kind of journey with her daughter — a trip she’s titled ‘Traveling the Lunaverse’ and which is chronicled on her increasingly popular social media sites (her account TikTok alone has over 600,000 followers).

Refreshingly honest, Botnick’s posts range from sunny advice for other parents (“Five things that bring joy to my autistic toddler”) to serious updates on Luna’s health. A recent and thought-provoking development? Rapid “micro-crises” lasting a few seconds. Botnick had first noticed Luna having these tiny contractions and pulled out her phone to film them. After seeing them, a neurologist ordered MRIs – which revealed a growth on Luna’s brain.

This led to more tests and months of anxiety. (Last good news — it’s a cyst, not a tumor.) Botnick handled the roller coaster of worry with emotional support from family, occasional get-togethers with friends, and lots of positive attitudes. “It’s who I am as a person,” she says. “The stress for the future will just overwhelm you. I have to be positive, for myself and my daughter.

Parents of autistic children are more stressed than virtually any group of parents, Fiske says. “You can give so much of yourself that you can feel there’s nothing left for yourself. That’s why it’s important to take the time to do the things you want, to give yourself joy .

Botnick finds joy in his social media stories, hoping they will uplift others.

“I’ve always been very open and honest online, and I think that’s helped people feel less alone, to realize there’s nothing wrong with talking,” she says. “My goal after graduation is to start traveling again and raise Luna around the world, sharing our journeys with others. Honestly, I think our adventure together has just begun.

“I know she’s going to end up being kind of a travel journalist, traveling the world with this little one,” Fisher predicts.

But first, her mother has to get on stage and earn that degree. Botnick is ready. And Luna too.

“She’s been with me since I first applied to Rutgers, when she was in my belly,” Botnick says. “She’s been there every step of the way with me, and when I go up to get that degree, I want her to walk with me. I’ve already ordered a matching little hat and dress from her.

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