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    • Welcome to today’s interview.  I’m delighted to chat both with Mikhaela and her mom, Mary Lynn, about autism and the challenges for children with autism making the transition to adulthood.

      Mikhaela was diagnosed with autism and had minimal language before the age of four.  Through the loving support of her family, Mikhaela went on to graduate from law school.

      She is a frequent speaker to groups on how autistics can successfully make the transition to adulthood.  Mikhaela also advocates for legislation to improve the lives of autistics and their families.

      Before we begin, I should remind everyone of an interesting twist to our conversation:

      Due to scheduling issues, we are extending the timeframe for our interview exchanges.  Our interview begins on Friday afternoon and the conversation will continue throughout the weekend.

      To avoid missing out on any of the conversation, please make sure to click the blue FOLLOW button at the top of this thread.

      So let’s get started.

      Mary Lynn, as a parent what did you find most helpful in meeting the needs of your daughter?

    • Mary Lynn:

      Thank you so much for having me on the panel. I found that patience and flexibility were some of the most important parts in raising Mikhaela, as with any child. I created choices within limits (for example, "it's time for bed, would you like to walk, hop, jump, or skip to bed?"). We always assumed competence, allowing Mikhaela to try first and accommodate second allowing her to rise.

      I also suggest using many different modalities until you find what works. Not all strategies work for all children. Arm yourself with all the knowledge you can. Attend educational meetings, find local resources and networks. Also use teachable moments every chance you can--and get the teachers to do the same.

      Use a running dialogue by describing out loud what you are doing with each daily task to help develop processing for your child. Get a good assessment so you have a roadmap on best strategies.

      Most importantly, never lose faith and always believe in your child and in yourself. Amazing Grace, faith is key.

      Attached is a chart of some of my favorite strategies Mikhaela and I used while she was growing up to find independence and quality of life. Keep in mind every autistic person is different and may prefer other strategies.

    • A lot of great ideas that you’ve shared and I love the info graphic as it provides a framework around routines, explicit instruction, sensory needs, social skills development and coping strategies when meltdowns are imminent.

      Mary Lynn, what are you most proud of Mikhaela?

    • Mary Lynn:

      I am most proud of Mikhaela's courage, relentless spirit, and tenacity. She never gives up and always has the courage to try in a world that is overwhelming for her. I would not be any less proud if her accomplishments or independence level were different. I am proud of her simply for being herself.

    • Mary Lynn, not every child gets to hear such words from a parent, even when the feelings are there. Thank you for sharing such moving words.

      To our audience reading this conversation. We are chatting this weekend with Autism advocate Mikhaela Ackerman, joined for the first half of our panel by her mom, Mary Lynn.

      Mikhaela is a frequent speaker to groups on how autistics can successfully make the transition to adulthood.  Mikhaela hosts the popular blog, Edge of the Playground, is a contributor to The Mighty Site, and runs a very active Facebook group for transitioning adults and their families.

      So let’s turn our conversation now to Mikhaela.

      Your family has played a huge part in helping you to become an independent adult.  A lot of families with autistic children have a tough time with that transition to independence process: letting their child take chances—or even fail—is scary.  I also know that learning how to drive a car can be difficult for many autistic young adults. Can you talk about the family, sensory and learning challenges that autistics face with getting a driver’s license?  What was your experience like?

    • Mikhaela:

      Thank you so much for having me on the panel this weekend.

      Driving is certianly a stressful experience. To give some background on sensory overload, as an autistic person I have hyper senses. What I mean by that is I am unable to filter out background noise or regulate other senses. I can hear the fork scraping a plate on a table beside me at a restaurant at the same volume as the person near to me that is speaking. For this reason, I often cannot hear my name in crowded places and have anxiety in locations that have a lot of input like grocery stores. I am extremely light sensitive both during the day and night.

      Because of these sensory challenges, I had to learn how to accommodate while driving. When driving I can hear the tires of each car on the road which makes it hard to concentrate and often leads to stress. I drown this out by playing music which allows me to better focus. I also focus best when I do not have passengers because that requires me to process conversations as well as process my surroundings. This is why I do not listen to podcasts while driving because processing speech and the road is too much for me.

      With light sensitivity, I avoid driving at night. During the day I am able to wear sunglasses to fix the problem, however at night there does not seem to be much of a solution. Headlights and streetlights are extremely painful for me and feel like I'm looking directly into the sun, making it hard to see. I try to not drive in the rain at night because of the glare and the processing of the windshield wiper going back and forth is often too distracting.

      I also struggle greatly with spatial relations and directions. I honestly was most fearful of my lack of spatial relations when learning to drive. I cannot judge distances well, and have difficulty backing up in straight lines. Parking was a nightmare. To compensate, I practiced on country roads where there wasn't a lot of traffic and parking lots. My current car has a back up camera which judges distances for me. While driving I have learned to give extra follow space and also memorized the nonverbal language of the road, for example how to tell from the way a car is driving if it is about to cut you off or pull out. The road has its own nonverbal language.

      To accommodate my weakness in directions, I always have a GPS with me. I also often print out physical directions from mapquest in case the GPS fails and I try to ride with someone if I don't know where I'm going. I use Google maps to pull satellite images of my destination before I leave if it somewhere new so that I know what to look for. I look at both the final destination and what is beside of it so that when I'm driving I can look for landmarks to ensure I'm in the right place. I also use this feature to check the parking situation. If I see it is a place with no parking lot I Google Map a parking lot location nearby ahead of time so I am not stress-fully trying to find one, or I find a way to carpool.

      My biggest recommendation to those who are autistic learning how to drive is find little ways like this to accommodate yourself. Avoid rush hours, take back roads, and plan routes ahead of time. When learning to drive try to get a non-family member to help teach you as this can make the process easier for both you and your family. It was a non-family member that was able to teach me how to merge on the highway. Because he was a trusted friend but not my parent, we were both able to be calmer about the learning process and more objective.

      Driving is definitely a learning curve for anyone. But know yourself and your needs and you can find ways to make it easier. If anxiety proves to be too much, I always also recommend carpooling and other methods of transportation when available.

      It took me two tries to get my license. I passed the writing portion no problem, but was the spatial relations of parking, backing up, etc. that made it difficult to pass. I did however, obtain it, the key is to never give up and always keep finding ways to find alternative solutions to compensate for your weaknesses while playing to your strengths.

    • I think the sensory challenges are often hard for neurotypicals such as myself to fully appreciate. I imagine the equivalent of the television blaring at full volume all the time and blindingly bright lights in every room, but I’m not even sure that’s close.

      I experienced for the first time today one of those gas station pump tv screens and for me, it was just annoying.

      Let’s switch gears and talk about relationships.

      How should autistic adults advocate for themselves in a dating relationship?  And when does it make sense to reveal your disability to a partner?

    • Mikhaela:

      I have never dated another autistic person, only neurotypicals this has been my overall experience. Communication is important in any relationship. I used to not disclose until I trusted the person, however now I disclose early on to gauge someone's true nature. You can tell a lot about someone in how they treat you or respond once they know about this part of yourself.

      For example, I have had some people very clearly tell me it's okay for them to date me because I'm not "too disabled" for them. Others have been seemingly supportive only for me to later find out they actually discount my feelings and don't truly understand my needs, writing me off as quirky. It is important to never doubt your intuition. Even though as an autistic person I have trouble with nonverbal communication, my gut instincts usually prove to be correct. Unfortunately, a lot of people try to manipulate autistic people and I have had these people come to me under the guise of a romantic relationship. They use parts of autism that they know I'm self conscious about to validate their behavior and get away with certain things, saying I am misunderstanding. I have written more about how to recognize controlling behavior down below:

      With that said, I think its important to disclose whenever you are comfortable to do so. I have done both ways, earlier on and later on. Both have advantages and disadvantages. Just know if the person really cares for you, it will be a non issue.

      Dating in general is difficult for me. Most of dating involves flirtatious non verbal communication that I am unable to pick up on. As a result, I miss most flirting cues and miss out on the opportunities to meet potential romantic partners, shutting them down without even realizing it. To compensate for this I tend to be more straight forward. If I am interested in someone I will do my best to be a little flirtatious, but mostly I will just be myself. I try to be upfront as possible if I think there could be romantic interest. I do often think I am luckier in a way being a woman who is autistic because in dating, women drive the nonverbal coy signals. Men are usually more straightforward and so I can more easily learn social cues to interpret if they are interested romantically.

      When in a relationship, I make people aware of my sensory overload. I also do my best to make them feel loved in my own ways since I know I do not pick up on a lot of nonverbal signals of affection. Something that has really helped is to read about love languages. We all speak our own type of love language no matter who we are, and you can even take free quizzes online to see what types of love your personality repsonds to best. I encourage whoever I am dating to take these with me so we can both know how to best make the other feel wanted and appreciated. Beyond this, I keep communication open about how I feel most supported and ask them to tell me how I can best support them. I find that concrete examples help. "I love when you do the dishes." or "It is too difficult for me to process what you are saying if we eat with the TV on." These little things help the person to learn more about me while acknowledging actions they do that make me feel good.

      I will step out of my comfort zone from time to time to make them feel loved just as I hope they do for me. I do think that the hardest part for me is my inability to know tone and facial expressions, leaving me constantly worried about someone's true feelings or anxious that I have missed a cue of affection. Now, I simply tell people who date me long term these parts of myself. While it can certainly be harder, if they are the right person they won't leave me guessing.

      The most important thing is to be yourself and always speak your truth no matter how hard it is. Never sacrifice who you are. Don't compromise your core beliefs or who you are as a preson just to be "good enough" for someone. Just because we are autistic does not mean that our feelings are any less valid within a relationship.

    • An additional post I have written on advocating for yourself within any relationship, whether that be romantic or a friendship can be found below:

      It is important to recognize when someone is taking advantage of you, and as autistic people it is often hard for us to tell since we take people at face value. I created this guide so others can better recongize toxic relationships and find ways to advocate for themselves within those situations.

    • Mikhaela, you and I had a long conversation over this past summer about the challenges of managing a social media presence on multiple platforms (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube) while still balancing the demands of work, family and fun.  

      I love how you’ve used Facebook Live to better engage with your fans on Facebook.

      Can you talk a little about your experiences with using Facebook Live?

      What else have you found helpful to stay connected with fans and followers on each platform and your blog, Edge of the Playground?

    • Balancing social media can certainly be difficult. I want every follower to feel heard but I also find I need to take breaks to enjoy life outside of social media. This is especially true since I focus on a lot of advocacy that does not take place online too. I typically set specific times to check my platforms and then remain offline so I do not burnout. I found that this has helped tremendously, before I was simply online all the time constantly answering follower questions and posting content to build my following. This is not sustainable, and loyal followers will stay even if you only post once or a few times a day.

      Facebook live was a great way to connect with followers in a more personal way. I know it is important for a lot of people to put a face to the name. I am face blind, which means I cannot recognize faces or facial expressions, so to me it did not occur at first that people connecting with me in this way was important. For me, knowing someone's face doesn't hold the same value since I cannot recognize it.

      Facebook live was also wonderful because it allowed me to interact in real time. It can be a little difficult trying to read the questions while answering live (a lot to process) so I often ask followers to submit their questions ahead of time. This gives me the extra processing time I need to deliver the best answers. I then field live questions as well.

      Other ways I stay connected is through my direct messages, email, newsletter, posting more personal content so people can get to know me as a person, and of course connecting in real life at conferences and events. I also always try to support other autistic advocates the best I can by sharing their content and having guest postings on my blog.

      Overall, social media is a wonderful way to stay connected. I am truly humbled by how many people I have been able to reach through these platforms and always inspired by the messages I get from parents and other autistic people about their own personal stories.

    • I also always try to support other autistic advocates the best I can by sharing their content and having guest postings on my blog.

      Your sharing of the spotlight with other voices within the autism community has been amazing. I was reading this guest post on equine therapy and it was fascinating to learn how grooming a horse provides social skills training to individuals on the spectrum.

    • Yes this was a wonderful post written by a close friend of mine. Equine therapy helped me a lot as a child with not only socializing, but my coordination and confidence within myself. Horses have a unique way of helping us feel comfort. They are patient and do not demand the same social complexities that humans do. Horses proved to be the steady companions I needed to develop at my own pace.

    • My mom and I are coming out with a book this spring that we have co-authored. It is written from both her perspective as a parent and mine as an autistic child (now adult). It follows our journey and personal stories while also documenting our struggles and successes. Our two stories come together to show how we worked as a team to support my strengths while accommodating my weaknesses. We hope that this book will help others and give them confidence in finding their strengths. It will be available on Amazon.

      For more information about the upcoming release, you can follow my Facebook page which is where most major announcements will be made.

    • That is fabulous news! I’m sure your followers will find the book both helpful and meaningful.

      Thank you Mikhaela and Mary Lynn for sharing insights and resources for transitioning adults and their families.

      And thank you as always to @Chris @Vilen @yaypie and @Victoria for providing an amazing platform for fascinating conversations!

    • Wow, what an inspiring conversation. As a parent I was asking myself throughout whether I would have been as determined to understand my child and try the different things you both tried. It's amazing how much you learned and what a bond you have now. 👏

      It also made me wonder if our children had a little bit of autism that I overlooked or didn't take the time to fully understand. I can't wait for the book to come out.