Autism is not static. That's why we often recoil from functioning labels.
Executive function alters daily, subject to circumstances.
Just because many of us can drive a car, cook meals,
and appear as though we are active in the world,
doesn't mean that we don't face substantial challenges.
Michelle D Riksman
Photographing in Nature, Gardening for Nurture, Writing to Express, and Living in awe would be an accurate interpretation of me. I’m Michelle, the owner and founder of AWE - Autistic Women Everywhere - sharing our lives in words, pictures, & patterns - exploring our diagnosis stories. The idea for this website arose during 2019 while holidaying at Wisemans Ferry in NSW Australia. As the autumn leaves fell from the trees, the idea fell into my mind just as seamlessly. Not only was I excited by the value of the Autistic Women Everywhere concept, I was also blown away by the acronym for two reasons. One: AWE sounded like Autism. How befitting. And secondly, AWE, the actual word itself, describes how I encounter life. I was born to parents, Ellen and Hank Riksman, in Lake Macquarie NSW Australia in 1976.
As I sit here writing my diagnosis story today, I can sense my own resistance to being identified as belonging to the “disabled community,” and I recognise that, to some extent, I have adopted the mainstream prejudice against those with a disability. My opposition to the word “disabled” primarily stems from not wanting to be pitied or judged for the part of me that I happen to love the most. You see, autism can be an invisible difference, and I wasn’t officially diagnosed with autism until 2015, at age thirty-eight years. I consider autism as a different way of perceiving the world within me and around me. Autism is a normal, everyday state of being for those of us who are autistic. No-one can cause autism in another person. Autism is not an affliction or something to be feared, nor is it something to be cured. Being autistic does not automatically mean we lack intellectual ability, In fact, the reverse is more often true. Being autistic does not mean we are inferior to another, or superior to another. Autism is a neurological difference, an intrinsic part of an individual, and although functioning levels can vary greatly, only autistic people are on the autism spectrum.
Does this mean that I am only a little bit autistic? No. Autism is not static. That’s why we often recoil from functioning labels. Executive function alters daily, subject to circumstances. Just because many of us can drive a car, cook meals, and appear as though we are active in the world, doesn’t mean that we don’t face substantial life challenges. I process information differently from non-autistic people. I learn differently. For half of my life, give or take, I hadn’t considered myself as a puzzle, even though my differences had always been florid. In hindsight, my sensory problems were apparent from a baby, and my social issues were evident from my first day of school. The only puzzle was the world around me. The school environment was where it was first revealed to me that I wasn’t a part of the larger social world. I was a sensitive child who daydreamed frequently and who was bullied a lot.
Moreover, I felt a sense of bewilderment and trepidation as I perceived that everyone spoke in a foreign language and operated via a secret code. In many ways, it felt like being lost in a foreign country. The world seemed alien to me. Such confusion and anxieties around the sensory and social realm followed me into my adult life. This world is designed for the way non-autistic people receive data, which means that I primarily retreat from the world to avoid facing the challenges that I would otherwise face due to my differences. In brief, other pervasive difficulties of mine lie with executive functioning, working memory, problem-solving, decision making, comprehension, direction, awareness, and emotional regulation. All of these difficulties are not helped by the fact that the world is getting louder.
How did my diagnosis come about? It is becoming more common for a woman to come to the realisation that she is on the autism spectrum through the diagnostic process of her child, grandchild, and so forth. Other circumstances that can lead to an autism diagnosis are bereavements and other tragedies and significant life changes, as was the case for me. My late diagnosis of autism was confirmed during a period of immense grief after my mother, with whom I shared a special bond, died. I now know that people on the autism spectrum grieve differently. When mum passed away, I encountered this emotional hardship first hand. My barriers to social interaction became more apparent when I was overwhelmed with so much emotion. There is a misconception that those on the autism spectrum cannot or do not feel. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, people on the autism spectrum feel so profoundly that we are often overwhelmed by our emotions and cannot function through them. It became apparent to me that I was not behaving in a way that others expected a grieving person to act. In public, I was presenting as disconnected and withdrawn, belying the emotional turmoil within me. These factors, combined with the significant depression which accompanied my grief, eventually led to my diagnosis of autism. I now understand these outward presentations of disconnection and withdrawal contribute towards the general misconception within the non-autistic community that those on the autism spectrum do not feel.
Fortunately, for me, over this vulnerable period in my life, I had a supportive and loving partner who allowed me to grieve my way. This leads me to another misconception that those on the autism spectrum cannot or don’t want to have romantic connections. I am married and have been in a stable, happy, and committed relationship with the same person for over twenty years. My partner recently said to me: “Though there can be challenges in reaching you, you are not unreachable. I liken it to mining for gold. It’s so worth it. It’s so worthwhile having my relationship with you. I wouldn’t trade it for quids”.
My diagnosis has enabled me to have a helicopter view of the reasons behind many of my lifelong differences. To mention just a few here, some of these are repetitive behaviours, going mute involuntarily, being literal, applying ways to avoid eye contact that others may not be aware of, and confusion and mental weariness in social groups. Some may be surprised to know that, for me, it takes varying degrees of effort to engage with others, hence my constant need for downtime even after minor social interactions. I have since realised why I have always detested shopping centres, as well, and why I work hard at creating a low sensory environment for myself. Being home allows me to control my surroundings most effectively.
Autism answered and continues to answer every historic question I have ever had and validates every feeling I have ever felt. My inability to shift focus quickly or multi-task is also explained, The positive aspect of this particular challenge is my capacity to spend long periods engaged in my special interests, which are photography, gardening, and writing. My photography is displayed through my business, which is called Simple Miracle Photography. The business name befits my appreciation for the refreshing simplicity of life, which arises from my fascination with macro photography. I use a macro lens to examine Mother Nature up close. My interest in gardening ideally provides for this type of exploration, which gives me hours of enjoyment outdoors on my own property. My garden was especially healing throughout my grieving process. It enabled me to grow through my pain. I have learned so much about myself. So much so, I have been moved to write about my experiences. Find my book entitled inner riches - an autistic woman’s story of love & motherloss here. It charts my unique journey through grief as a woman on the autism spectrum. I have found refuge in writing for as long as I can remember. It allows me to make sense of my emotions and free the intensity of my feelings. Writing is invigorating, a perfect way through which I can express my gratitude for my life and for the people I love.
When I first made the connection that I was autistic, primarily through sources of reading material, it felt like an epiphany. I was astonished, almost speechless, to finally understand my life in its entirety. Even so, personal validation wasn’t enough. Though I felt incredibly reinforced by gaining the knowledge that autism had been operating in my life since the beginning, I did not feel adequately reassured until I received an official diagnosis from a suitably qualified clinician. It was paramount that I sought a practiced clinical psychologist who had extensive experience with autism in women. That person was Ms. Lydia Meem, founder of Autism Understanding.
Since my observation and experience of the world are unique, a confirmation of autism helped me to fully appreciate how much I have had to tolerate throughout my life due to my difference. Most importantly, such confirmation has allowed me to feel more supported, which is crucial to my well-being. Now that I live with a feeling of stability and strength, I find that I can now share my vulnerability more freely because I understand where it comes from. In this way, an autism diagnosis has better prepared me for the future.
As I move forward, I am eager to be one of many examples to dispel stereotypical myths and alter misconceptions of what it means to be an autistic woman. I hope to be part of the change in attitudes toward people who are different, to shine a light on our positive attributes. Positives I would not enjoy were it not for my difference. To be in this position feels like a personal achievement. This brings me back to the concept of AWE. AWE has been developed to showcase and to share the creativity, special interests, and stories of autistic women everywhere. In doing so, I wish to not only keep autistic women connected, but to make us more visible to the non-autistic community, to generate more understanding overall, and to express our diversity. The autistic community, as with the non-autistic population, is varied. In the end, all human beings, autistic or not, crave connection, and life is for living, together.
“You shot out like a bullet” maintained my mother of my birth. I couldn’t wait to start living! Watching the ABC, reading, going for country drives, eating hot Indian food, and watching B grade thrillers are joys of mine. But over and above all, I am grateful for all that I have, for whom I still have in my life, and for all that I remember of my loved ones.