Michelle Dorothy Riksman, Daughter & Spouse
Author, Gardener, Photographic Artist, Founder of AWE
Autism is not static. Executive function alters daily, subject to circumstances. That's why we often recoil from functioning labels. 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. In many respects, autism is an invisible difference, especially in women. And, by the way, everyone is NOT on the spectrum. Please accept that, if not anything else.
Michelle Dorothy Riksman - Founder of AWE
Photographing in nature, gardening for nurture, writing to express, and living in awe would accurately portray me. Cat lady might fare well into the bargain, too. I'm Michelle, the owner and founder of AWE - Autistic Women Everywhere - sharing our lived experience of autism worldwide. The concept for the AWE initiative arose while holidaying at Wisemans Ferry in NSW, Australia, in 2019. As seamlessly as the autumn leaves fell from the trees, the idea fell into my mind. Not only was I excited by the value of the Autistic Women Everywhere concept, but I was also thrilled by the acronym for two reasons. One: AWE sounded like it was short for autism. How befitting. And secondly, AWE, the actual word itself, described how I encounter life.
I was born to parents, Ellen and Hank Riksman, in Lake Macquarie, NSW, Australia, in 1976. "You shot out like a bullet," maintained my mother of my birth. I couldn't wait to start living! Joys of mine are reading, hot Indian food, B grade thrillers, country drives, and talking to my spouse over morning coffee. 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.
The moment I made the connection that I was autistic, primarily through sources of reading material, you could have knocked me over with a feather. I had a profound epiphany, yet I immediately disliked the word "disabled." Equally, the term "Autism Spectrum Disorder" as a descriptor for myself went against the grain. The aversion primarily stemmed 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 didn't know that there could be another name to describe me other than Michelle Dorothy Riksman.
I felt incredibly reinforced to finally be on the path to self-understanding, yet personal validation wasn't enough. I did not feel adequately reassured until I received an official diagnosis from a suitably qualified clinician. For me, 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.
On Thursday, the 19th of February, 2015, at 1.30 pm, I received an official diagnosis of autism. I was thirty-eight years old. When my clinician's words landed on me, I dropped onto the couch and arched forward, letting out a lung full of air with immense relief. Every autistic female deserves to hear the words I did that day: "You'll never need to ask that question again."
Autism answered every historical question I had ever had and validated every feeling I had ever felt. I finally understood why childhood, adolescence, young adulthood, and continuing maturity had never changed any of my differences. The valuable confirmation that I am someone with a different neurotype began a deep integration of my life from all perspectives. Seeking official confirmation of autism at that stage of my life meant finally having some semblance of a box to fit into, which, for me, was most validating.
When I drove away from my appointment with my clinician that day, the song "Footloose" by Kenny Loggins magnified how personally empowered I felt. It was as though I was making a new entrance into life with a better understanding of my unique perception of the world. Though a foreign feeling, I considered how I might be able to practise self-leniency and self-compassion for the first time in my life.
My diagnosis explained my keen interest in researching, reading, and learning. It helped me understand why being alone has always been the ultimate restorative for me and the best environment to achieve my goals. I finally understood that autism is the reason behind my need to self-teach, using my own methods, which had enabled me to flourish on my terms. I recognised that I had implemented various coping strategies to meet my needs for many years.
Does this mean that I'm only a little bit autistic? Not necessarily. Autism is not static. Executive function alters daily, subject to circumstances. That's why we often recoil from functioning labels. 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 ALL 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 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, direction, awareness, and emotional regulation. All of these difficulties are not helped by the fact that the world is getting louder.
It is becoming more common for women to come to the realisation that they are on the autism spectrum through the diagnostic process of their child or grandchild. Other circumstances that can lead to an autism diagnosis are bereavement, 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 firsthand. 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. 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. I presented as disconnected and withdrawn in public, belying the emotional turmoil within me. 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. These factors, combined with the significant depression which accompanied my grief, eventually led to my diagnosis of autism.
Fortunately, over this vulnerable period in my life, I had a supportive and loving partner who allowed me to grieve my way, leading 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 nearly twenty-five years. Sonia 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 worthwhile having my relationship with you. I wouldn't trade it for quids".
My autism 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 repetitive behaviours are 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 am incompatible with 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 explained the disparity in my abilities and my inability to shift focus quickly or manage two things simultaneously. The positive aspect of these challenges is my capacity to spend long periods engaged in my special interests, which are photography, gardening, writing, and, of course, operating the AWE initiative. My photography is displayed through www.simplemiraclephotography.com.au, a name befitting my appreciation for life's refreshing simplicity, which arises from my fascination with macro photography. I use a macro lens to examine Mother Nature up close. My keen 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 helped 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 to express my gratitude for my life and the people I love.
After receiving my autism diagnosis, I contemplated how autism could be described as an information-processing difference. It dawned on me that, in my earlier endeavours of researching and finding information about children, adolescents, young adults, and women on the spectrum, the most intimate resource of all is, and will always be my own life. Since my observation and experience of the world are unique, a confirmation of autism helped me 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. To feel supported is crucial to my well-being. Now that I live with stability and strength, I have the courage to share my vulnerability more freely because I understand its foundation. In this way, an autism diagnosis has better prepared me for the future.
As I move forward, I am eager to be one example 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. Being in this position feels like a personal achievement.
AWE has been developed for women of all ages to share our lived experience of autism worldwide. AWE is an initiative funded only by my compassion for autistic women. Why? Because, ultimately, I feel that autistic women are invisible. Through sharing, I wish to keep autistic women connected and make us more visible to the non-autistic community, generate more understanding overall, and express our magnificent diversity.
Michelle Dorothy Riksman - Founder of AWE
Connect with Michelle @ Simple Miracle Photography