Mikhaela Ackerman: Paving the way for others on the Autism Spectrum

Mikhaela Ackerman

Either go out the back door and no one will ever know what you’ve been through and live a normal life, or go out the front door and pave the way for others.

By Ron Sandison

What were some early signs you were on the autism spectrum?

When I was 10 days old I began crying inconsolably. I woke every 1-2 hours and did not develop language normally or meet developmental milestones. I had low muscle tone, poor appetite, issues with texture, and sleep issues.

I had sensory sensitivity and preferred solitary play and activity. I stimmed, toe walked and spun.

I was diagnosed with autism at age 5.

What sensory issues did you experience?

I have experienced sensory overload my entire life. One of the earliest issues when I was a baby I couldn’t tolerate having my feet dangle from the car seat.

I always have a floating feeling when I’m sleeping as if I could float out of the bed. This made me resistant to go to sleep. Along with nightmares I experience from the sensory overload I have during the day.

Lights and sounds are all very intense for me. I have light sensitivity and I have no ability to filter out background noise, causing me to hear everything at the same volume no matter how far away it is. It is difficult to do simple things like go to the grocery stores.

I would meltdown because I did not know how to communicate what I was feeling. I knew something was wrong but I did not have the self-awareness to describe it at that point. Touch was also extremely difficult, even slight touches felt painful.

You were nonverbal until age 5. How did therapies help you learn to communicate verbally?

Speech therapy helped me, as well as my mom creating a running dialogue of what she was doing. For example, if she were going to the store she would say all the steps out loud: “I’m going to the store so first I need my shoes. Now I need my keys…”

This helped me not only develop language but have a better sense of what order things should occur since I’ve struggled with having a sense of time.

I also had PT, OT, sensory integration and equine assisted therapies.

As a teenager what were some of your favorite activities and interests?

I was very involved in theater as a teenager. I loved it because I was able to play any role as I am easily able to copy mannerisms people show me. Because I grew up mirroring to learn social cues and behavior, it was second nature for me to mirror a character. I enjoyed being someone else on stage.

I was great as a straight man in comedies because I have a trouble understanding jokes, so it was unlikely for me to break up on stage.

I enjoyed anime, manga, reading, and writing. Many of my weekends were spent recharging at home because the socialization of school during the week took a lot out of me. I would say that this time to be alone and recoup was very important for me.

Mikhaela Ackerman

What has been your greatest challenges having autism?

For me, the most challenging parts of autism are sensory overload, reading facial expressions, and nonverbal language. I’m unable to recognize people’s faces in my long-term memory, which causes a lot of difficulty and stress in my everyday life. If I see a face I know or am looking for right in front of me, I know who it is. However, if someone is in an unexpected place or I am trying to find him or her in a crowd it’s nearly impossible.

Despite having memorized an exorbitant amount of social information, nonverbal cues still often elude me. This is very hard when it comes to romantic relationships, eye contact, or social cues in the workplace. Transitioning to adulthood was also difficult because all the social rules as a child I learned changed and nonverbal cues can have very different meanings as adults.

How did your parents encourage you to interact socially?

My parents treated me like a normal kid. Anything that wasn’t “normal” was made to feel normal. For example, we had therapy nets installed in the playroom so while it was therapy it also felt like I was still having a fun childhood.

My mom was very patient. She helped me learn social cues and behaviors at my own pace. We did situation games and she even had different people come to the door so I could practice how to interact in different scenarios (for example, what do you do when it’s s friend at the door vs. if it’s a stranger?)

My mom created fun activities for me and other kids when I was young. For example, she brought bubbles and chalk to recess to help me join in. This was great because I loved when she would come and felt comfortable with her there but it also gave me the opportunity to interact with other children.

What college did you attend? How did your parents help you prepare you for college?

I attended High Point University (HPU) and later law school. HPU was incredible because it is a smaller school and each student is assigned a peer mentor upon arrival to help you transition.

Before college started, my mom and I went to campus while classes were out so I could locate the different buildings in a low-pressure setting. This way, I was prepared and knew where to go.

What advice would you give to young adults with autism who desire to attend college?

I wrote a transition guide for college that you can find here.

Overall, I really enjoyed college because the strict social groups of high school and elementary school were broken. Everyone is coming into their own person and other people are not as judgmental. It’s a great exploration time personally and academically.

Individuals who desire to attend college should create new routines around their class schedules. Don’t be afraid to branch out.

Colleges have many clubs that students can join based on interests, which is a good way to make friends. Making friends in college is different since you don’t see the same people every day so I would make a point to schedule social time into my routine. I did activities I enjoyed and felt comfortable with which then eventually made me feel comfortable with the people I was doing those activities with, leading to friendships.

Make sure you also find personal alone time; if you are living on campus this can be difficult. I found quiet spaces such as the library or hammocks around campus to be great refuges when I was overwhelmed by social interaction.

If you are able, getting a single dorm is a great option or an apartment style living space so that you and your roommate have separate rooms.

How did you choose your major in college? And what did you receive your degrees in?

I was a political science major. I had wanted to go to law school since middle school so I had that in mind. I’ve also always loved history, reading, and writing and political science encompasses all of that. I really enjoyed the research I got to do and I was even able to present at college research conferences. Government also always was an interest of mine so I enjoyed studying it.

What did you like best about college?

I liked that the social groups were not as strict as high school or middle school. Everyone seemed to be able to be themselves more and less judgmental. I also loved being able to take such a variety of different classes.

What inspired you to create your blog site Edge of the Playground?

I have always known that I wanted to use my voice to give back in some way. I know I am extremely blessed in my life and want to help others. I do not think anyone should ever feel left behind.

I went to college and law school knowing I wanted to use my education for this purpose, but didn’t know how. I had a graduation speaker who told us that after his health battles, the doctor told him he had two choices: either go out the back door and no one will ever know what you’ve been through and live a normal life, or go out the front door and pave the way for others.

Both choices are valid. The front door changes your life forever. It was then I knew I had to go out the front door. So, that’s what the blog was.

A few years later I launched it, openly autistic for the first time. I began telling my story. I saw such a need for autistic voices and autism adult resources. I hope I can continue to provide that in some small way.

What resources can young adults with autism discover at Edge of the Playground?

I blog about transition tips to adulthood and independent living. You can find both writing and info graphics on these topics. I also appear as a guest on podcasts, and teach yoga to neurodiverse people.

What skills have helped you to transition from college to the workplace?

I definitely learned adult social skills along the way. The frustrating thing is we learn all these rules but then the social rules change once you are an adult. It’s been a learning curve.

Learning to be open and honest with people is key. Time management and executive functioning skills were also extremely important.

You can read more about my tips for managing executive function here.

What do you do for a career? What gifts do you bring to the workplace having autism?

I work in corporate compliance/risk management. My mind is very detailed and that is helpful for recognizing patterns and learning things quickly. I am also not easily distracted by social nuances because I don’t pick up on them.

What has been your greatest struggle in the workplace?

Learning the social skills of the workplace and also how to both socialize and work. I’m not a multi-tasker by nature so finding this balance and how to become comfortable with small talk took awhile, but eventually I did.

I am also in an open office. I have written strategies for those types of environments here.


What are some tips you give for socializing in the workplace?

Be yourself.

It’s important to get work done but it is also nice to get to know people. I find that it’s great to talk about your weekend or other things about your life.

Give people bits of information without the full story. This gives them the chance to participate in the conversation by taking interest and asking more and avoids over sharing.

Keep conversations light and take interest in your coworkers.. For example, if you see someone has a picture of a child on their desk, maybe ask about that. This helps you both get to know each other and become friendlier.

Dynamics are different based on the type of job, the team, the type of office and lots of other factors so these are just general things I have noticed in the corporate environment.

See more below on a video I made regarding workplace tips.

What advice would you give to an individual with autism who wants to share his diagnosis with his co-workers?

I think most people are accepting and do what they can do to help. If you ever need accommodations I would approach your manager or HR. Even neurotypcial people need workplace accommodation sometimes and there are resources out there to help.

What three tips you give on dating & relationships?

1. Be yourself. Don’t mask or try to be someone you aren’t just to please a romantic partner. They need to accept all of you as you are. Be open about what you want in life and your values from the start. Do not compromise on your core values.

2. Find out what you enjoy first and build friendships in those activities. You are more likely to find someone you have common ground with if you are surrounding yourself with people who like the same things you do and care about you.

3. We all express love differently. Open communication is important. Make sure they are aware of your needs and also make efforts to show love in ways that they need (for example, perhaps they feel loved through words, so you can make sure to give verbal affection).

Please share a humorous story from your life.

I need to experience objects with all senses before it becomes permanent and real to me. So, as a child I often licked most everything because I wanted to taste it. I was once sent home for licking the walls at school. To which my mother replied, “What difference did that make? After all, she wasn’t licking the other children, was she?”

What are some topics covered in Edge of the Playground?

The book launched was October 1st, 2019. Edge of the Playground is my personal story of autism told from both my perspective and my mom’s. We coauthored the book because we feel it is valuable to have both points of view in one space. It gives roadmaps and strategies we have found useful and also shares our personal journeys and insights.

The Edge of the Playground

You can purchase on Amazon in both Kindle and paperback.

What are some of your goals in life and also how do you plan to achieve them?

I hope to one day become more involved in lobbying and drafting legislation to bridge the gap in services, housing, and employment for autistic adults.

I plan to continue working through Edge of the Playground to achieve that and educating through my speaking events.

Bio

Mikhaela Ackerman is an adult on the autism spectrum. She was diagnosed with ASD at 5 years old and nonverbal until that age. Mikhaela writes from her own experiences, giving a glimpse into her world. She founded a blog “Edge of the Playground” in February 2018 to help individuals on the autism spectrum with life transitions and their families.

Mikhaela is a contributing author on The Mighty, Mental Health Talk and many more. She regularly appears for speaking events at various autism events. Mikhaela earned her Juris Doctorate in law in 2016. Mikhaela loves yoga, reading, travelling, and breaking stereotypes. Link to her website: www.edgeoftheplayground.com

Follow Michaela on Facebook.

Subscribe to her YouTube channel.

Edge of the Playground on Amazon. (Note the Art of Autism gets a percentage if you purchase books through the link on the sidebar).

Ron Sandison

Ron Sandison works full time in the medical field and is a professor of theology at Destiny School of Ministry. He is an advisory board member of Autism Society Faith Initiative of Autism Society of America. Sandison has a Master of Divinity from Oral Roberts University and is the author of A Parent’s Guide to Autism: Practical Advice. Biblical Wisdom published by Charisma House. He has memorized over 10,000 Scriptures including 22 complete books of the New Testament and over 5,000 quotes.

He frequently guest speaks at colleges, conferences, autism centers, and churches. Ron and his wife, Kristen, reside in Rochester Hills, MI, with a baby daughter, Makayla Marie born on March 20, 2016. You can contact Ron at his website www.spectruminclusion.com or email him at sandison456@hotmail.com

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