This is the 42nd interview in my series Interviewing Late-Identified Autistics. Michelle is a late-identified autistic. My questions are in bold and Michelle’s responses follow in regular typeface.
What name do you use and, if you want to share it, what pronouns do you use?
Michelle Markman, She/Her
How old were you when you learned you were autistic?
27 years old
How did you learn you are autistic?
I was diagnosed in college at age 27.
How did you decide whether to self-identify or diagnose?
It was not a choice. I was using disability services at my university, and they said I could not continue to use services unless I had a disability assessment.
How did you feel when you learned you were autistic?
I didn’t believe it and then I went through all the stages of grief. I really had to mourn my neurotypical identity and accept the “new” (or rather, "real") version of myself.
How do any of your identities (ex. gender, race, religion, sexuality, etc.) impact your late identification as autistic?
I am female and I had a brother with AuDHD and intense behavioral issues. I was always the “good girl.” While I had developmental challenges as well, I always strived to be the “good” child.
How did your friends and family respond when you told them you are autistic?
That’s complicated. My mom was surprised that I was given the same diagnosis as my brother, minus the ADHD, but 21 years later. I did not show up in the world the same way he did, nor have I had the same challenges he has, and, in many ways, I have overcome my adversities much more rapidly than he has. However, with other adversities, I have struggled more deeply than he has, so we are all different on this wonderful rainbow spectrum that is neurodiversity.
Did you seek out therapy, coaching, or other forms of structured support for autism?
Yes, I've had years and years of therapy and, while it’s helpful for deep depression and for mental health maintenance, it has not helped me catapult my success like coaching. Coaching is a game changer for me as far as success, income, financial management, quality of my life, relationships, and fulfillment of my hopes and dreams.
How has learning you are autistic impacted your life?
I reframed my entire life history. I was finally able to stop questioning what was wrong with me and why people didn’t like me and now I know it was just my neurotype. It wasn’t anything I was doing or saying, it was just that I was autistic that was off-putting to people. It was a huge weight lifted off me.
I also have past diagnoses of anxiety, depression, and bipolar II. Since getting my autism diagnosis and really understanding myself better, I have been able to reframe my life and put self-care in place of bipolar medications. I am not actually bipolar. It was a misdiagnosis. I am autistic, and I still struggle with anxiety and depression, though it’s a thousand times better knowing how to better manage it.
Your Current Life
How have you modified or adapted your life since learning you’re autistic?
Gosh, so many things. I won’t leave the house without noise-canceling headphones. I don’t feel bad about taking extra breaks.
In what ways does being autistic enhance your life?
I have hyper-empathy, so I really feel for others, but it’s a double-edged sword. I feel it has allowed me to connect more deeply with other neurodivergent folks. I love my special skills like pattern recognition, conflict mediation, coaching, and development. I have the gift of looking at a person or an organization and pinpointing areas of struggle to address to make the person’s life easier or the organization function more seamlessly. I am a creative problem solver and an out-of-the-box thinker. I am always ideating and that is a lot of fun.
What are some of the challenges you face in being autistic?
I find being in public stressful. I often feel like I am on display and that people notice that I am different. Over the years, I have come to appreciate this and I don’t mind as much. I find crowds overwhelming and generally avoid them. I dislike grocery, big box, and department stores they are too large, loud, and bright. I don’t do well with verbal instructions, so I don’t bother accepting them anymore. If you want me to do something in more than 5 steps, write it down.
I study human behavior as one of my special interests. It is the reason I have a bachelor’s degree in psychology.
I will just touch on a few key notes here.
Communication styles: neurotypicals allude to what they mean they speak indirectly and use body language and tonality to get their point across. Neurotypicals love to speak in a warm, overly friendly language that's all about feeling good, so they prefer to be lied to rather than be made to feel bad. When a neurotypical wants to relate, they will share an anecdote about themselves, and the ideal response is to validate them and tell them how interesting they are.
Neurodivergents say what they mean (if they try to allude to things, they may be prone to confusing others). Their body language and tone may not “match” their messaging, but it doesn’t matter. You have to know what language you are speaking, and if you are speaking with a neurodivergent, speak neurodivergent. If a neurodivergent tells you something about themselves, they expect you to respond with a similar anecdote about yourself. This shows that you relate to them. It’s not about switching the conversation to be about you, it’s about relating through common experience. Neurodivergent people are always trying to relate to each other by sharing common experiences.
Do you experience any other mental or physical differences (including disabilities, other neurodiversity’s, etc.) that impact you? How have these influenced your autistic journey?
I have received various diagnoses over the years (anxiety, depression, bipolar II, autism, chronic pain, graves’ disease), but I don’t identify with many of them except autism and neurodiversity. I find that if we become tied to labels, we can take on characteristics of that label and lose sight of our true selves. There is so much stigma around neurodiversity and some of the worst of it is around autism, but it’s not accurate. We have to change that narrative. I know so many amazing, creative, whole humans who are autistic and it shouldn’t be a bad word. There is no shame in having a neurodistinct brain. It is a gift. I hope one day the rest of the world can see that.
If you work, what do you do for work? How does your autistic identity impact your work?
I am a busy woman! I am an operations manager for a window treatment company, and I am a neurodivergent coach I specialize in relationships in business. My work is very focused on excellence in customer experience, which is about relationships. My coaching is very relationship-focused. Many autistics lack healthy relationships and attachments and I find that by cultivating those first with my clients, it scaffolds their ability to create them with others. I am so passionate about helping people that I have dedicated my life to it.
Is there anyone else in your family who is neurodiverse, autistic, or otherwise?
Both my brother and I have the same diagnosis except my brother has ADHD too, which is trending right now. I’m kind of jealous. He was diagnosed in elementary school I was not diagnosed until 27.
What helps you prevent or cope with moments of overwhelm?
Overwhelm can so easily be triggered and I find that knowing your triggers can go a long way. For me, getting outdoors and earthing or grounding (putting your feet or body on the earth) make a huge difference. I also like to use my noise-canceling headphones in noisy environments and take frequent breaks when I am doing a task that I find laborious.
What skills or strategies have helped you to work with your autistic mind?
I find that using calendars, alarms and timers really helps me to stay on track. I also find taking strategic breaks from a busy schedule helps me when I am starting to feel like burnout is coming.
What accessibility/support have you sought since learning you’re autistic?
In college, I used the extra time for tests and a private testing space, and I used a smart pen to record lectures, but I never listened to them or studied.
What support do you wish was easier to access?
There is support accessible for high support needs individuals. I don’t know of any support for low support needs individuals.
How have you self-advocated for your needs?
I speak out for what I need, ask for instructions in writing or write down instructions as I get them at work, and I take notes when I am coaching to help me remember key points.
How does your autistic identity impact your friendships?
I am very honest about my autism with my friends, so they are aware of it, and I feel they respect and love me. One thing that has always been challenging is relationship degradation. Most neurodivergents don’t have it. We like or love someone the same forever. That doesn’t change over time. This is not the same for neurotypicals and that is hard and confusing for me, but it was much worse before I knew about it.
How does your autistic identity impact your romantic relationships?
It made finding a partner more challenging. I dated probably 200 people before I met my husband and no, I am not exaggerating. I refused to give up on love. I am happily married, so it all worked out. I do find that it can be hard to advocate for myself sometimes in marriage and it can be hard for me to communicate after a long day of business and entrepreneurship. Most days, I just want to come home and have quiet I think. That can be hard on my husband who wants to talk about his day with me.
What is your experience with medical systems? Are there ways you feel they can be improved for autistic individuals?
It can be very challenging to navigate the medical system. Something we like to do is find out what the problem is and what the solution is and share it with doctors. DO NOT DO THIS! Doctors hate to be told what to do. Keep your best interest in mind and tell them all your symptoms. Yes, you can research which ones to say to guide them to the diagnosis you are sure you need, but whatever you do, don’t self-diagnose. They hate that. You don’t want to give away that you know your body better than they do since they went to medical school for 7 years (doesn't living in my body for almost 40 give me more street credit than medical school?). I have had major issues with getting an accurate diagnosis. Communication can be challenging. I always recommend that a person take an advocate with them to important doctor’s appointments to take notes, ask questions and intervene if there is confusion or if the patient is not being listened to. The advocate can be a friend or relative.
I think more education needs to happen in regard to how neurodivergent (specifically autistic people) communicate, and healthcare providers need to be informed of how to interact, treat, and care for us.
How did being an undiagnosed autistic child impact your childhood?
I felt like an alien after the 1st grade. It was obvious I was different, but I didn’t know why. I chose psychology as my college major to figure out what made me different.
In what ways did you camouflage or mask?
Along the way, I learned how to interact with others, how to accommodate others, how not to stand out, how to make people happy, and how to be “easy” so people would not get upset. I learned how to de-escalate others and how to deal with crisis situations from a young age.
How has your identification as autistic changed how you view your childhood or earlier periods of adulthood?
I think it changed everything. For the first time, I had a real understanding of why so many people treated me as “other,” different, and weird. It all made so much more sense.
Talking to Others About Autism
How do you describe autism to people who are not familiar with it?
Autism is nothing that you think it is. Autism is not a stigma; it is not anything you think it is. You would be best served to throw out the window what you think autism is.
What do you wish others knew about autism?
Autism can be isolating. I wish others knew what it was like to always be responsible for others' thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. That’s what masking is like. It’s constantly putting other people’s thoughts, needs, wants, interests, desires, and comfort above your own, and it’s exhausting.
What is your advice for someone who thinks they might be autistic?
Self-diagnose or get a formal diagnosis. Accommodations aren’t really a thing for low support needs individuals (unless you pay for them yourself) so unless you are deeply struggling at work or school, I don’t see a point in formal diagnosis. I personally believe self-diagnosis is valid, and probably safer, depending on where you live.
Are there any resources (books, articles, videos, etc.) you would recommend for people who just learned they’re autistic?
I highly recommend reading anything you can get your hands on written by an autistic author. There is so much literature written by medical and mental health professionals that completely misses the autistic experience. I much prefer to read books by autistic authors.
Unmasking Autism, Neurosculpting by Lisa Wimberger, Safe People: How to find Relationships by Dr. Henry Cloud, Your Money or Your Life by Vicki Robins and Joe Dominguez, and The Dance of Anger by Harriet Lerner. I have a lot more recommendations; ask if you want!
Are there any resources (books, articles, videos, etc.) you would recommend for people who are exploring if they might be autistic?
I love Purple Ella. I think she has a wonderful way of explaining things. I also recommend my website, https://www.michellemarkman.com.
Are there any fictional autistic characters that miss the mark on depicting autism? Can you give one example and explain why?
All of them miss the mark. I want to see an actual movie about an actual autistic person played by an actual autistic person. That might be somewhat accurate. I am so tired of seeing these unrelatable autistic characters, though I did really like the Netflix series about the autistic Korean lawyer, Extraordinary Attorney Woo. Her journey is basically unrelatable. I am a cuddly autist and one of the biggest stigmas against us is that autistic people don’t like touch and physicality. I am hugely physical. I love to move, exercise, dance, cuddle, be touched, and be touched by others. Physical touch is one of my top love languages. Another great book about this is Love Languages by Gary Chapman.
Are you involved in any forms of autistic activism?
Yes, I speak out for the neurodiversity movement on social media, podcasts, and wherever else I can. I do try to make it accessible and “easy to swallow.” So many people are burned out on activism in today’s current climate and there are so many important issues we can advocate for (namely, saving our home planet).
Are there any autistic activists, autistic entrepreneurs, or autism groups you would like others to know about?
Myself! I am an autistic entrepreneur and coach. I have a business called ND Coach which is dedicated to helping neurodivergent people to step into their personal power, cultivate meaningful relationships, and create the life that they can love.
Connecting with You
Do you have any works, websites, or other creative ventures you would like to share with others?
I am currently writing a book as well.
Thank you for reading. I’m looking for more late-identified autistics to complete interviews just like this one. I’ll send you the questions and you can complete them on your own time. Please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you are interested.