The Self-Advocacy class was recently joined by a beautiful and talented guest named, Michelle Vinokurov who is a 22-year-old autism advocate that is profiled in a new book called, This is Autism that recently reached number one on for Communicative Disorders in Special Education books. It is co-authored by Jessica Leichtweisz and Aidan Allman-Cooper. Michelle participates in a panel every Tuesday night that is called, “Ask an Autistic” in which she teams up with other prominent self-advocates to educate the public about the enigma of the autism spectrum from someone who actually lives with the challenges.

Michelle has achieved leaps and bounds despite not having uttered her first word until the age of six. She showed the classic symptoms of autism at age one and started receiving intense Early Intervention therapy seven days a week. Her parents originally thought Michelle was hearing impaired considering she did not respond to her name. They took her to an audiologist who said she was “fine and perfectly healthy.” Michelle was eventually brought to a hospital where she was assessed and diagnosed with “Autistic Disorder.” At the time she lived in Brooklyn, NY with her parents and older sister. Michelle also received speech, occupational, and physical therapy during this seven-day schedule for a couple of years until she moved to New Jersey. There were other challenges such as lack of eye contact, and at age four her doctors said she would probably never be able to speak. Michelle’s future seemed like an open, bleak canvas at that point if her family had taken the doctors’ predictions seriously.

Michelle began to make additional progress because her parents did not give up on her. “I really started understanding more of the world around me when I was in third grade because I went from a specialized school back into my town school district. That is where I learned how to start making friends and social skills and all of that. Today I am now a paraprofessional working with elementary school students living with autism. I have had opportunities providing keynote speeches to special education organizations and special education parent advisory groups all over New Jersey. I am a blogger of my own blog series called, “The World of Autism.” That is where I write blog posts about my personal experiences of living with autism. I bring the community in because I like to share other people’s stories as well. I am also providing guest interviews on there so everybody can have their voice be heard, too.

Michelle says she is fortunate to work in a classroom environment with students who have autism because she is able to relate to the individual struggles of the students and what they have gone through. The only hard thing is finding out what interventions work and what support works for each student because it is different. Michelle is able to use the therapies and techniques that work for her

Michelle has a lot of good friends, but she has a group of best friends that she has known since middle school who she still says in touch with and are very close. “There are a lot of good people out there. It does not matter if you have a disability or not. It is not about that. That is what you have to be grateful for.” Michelle is right. Not everybody in the entire world is meant to accept, like, or want to understand us. But it is important to remember the Dr. Suess quote from the classic book, Oh, the Places You’ll Go. “Those who mind do not matter. Those who matter do not mind.”

Michelle was also willing to impart some advice for the students with regards to honing their self-advocacy skills while they are in the college level.

“I was fortunate to have had very good professors at the time. With being a self-advocate it is about communication. Just talking about what you need to do well in general so problems could be prevented that could arise later on. That is a good part of being a self-advocate. Just raising your voice to be heard.”

We wish Michelle continued success in all of her endeavors, and we thank her for giving up so much of her time to answer questions from the students doing the best they can to navigate unprecedented challenges.