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Portraits of Inspiration: Michelle Knight

By Richard Allen

Michelle related her inspiring story to me in a Starbuck’s in Belmont. We meet here at her suggestion. Michelle is giving up her Saturday morning and driving in from her home in Acton to tell her story. This in itself seems to me remarkable for this shy, unpretentious, youthful-looking woman. However, Michelle is a goal setter, who sets her sights high and patiently works out her strategies. The proof of this statement is evident in Michelle’s social and educational achievements, and in her current pursuit of a career path.

Michelle appears poised; she has remarkable social skills and ability to maintain eye contact. Her story emerges as I prompt her for more details and try to understand the chronology of her struggle to figure out why she has had to work so hard all her life—in spite of her intellectual gifts, which were evident both to her and her family from an early age. Michelle’s ability was not so evident to her teachers. She began school in a town north of Boston in the late 1970s, long before Asperger’s Syndrome was commonly known about in schools. Although she had been reading since she was two, she was not able to demonstrate her skills to her teacher until Michelle shared with her a letter she has written to her grandfather. In spite of her mother’s claim that Michelle is precocious, the school refused to promote her to the next grade due to her “immaturity.” Michelle had trouble keeping to the lines on her papers, and was hopelessly uncoordinated at physical activities and games.

Michelle’s family moved to Belmont, where she entered a small elementary school. Her teacher soon referred Michelle to the Speech and Language Pathologist who recognized how much she was struggling. Mrs. O’Neill, whose sensitivity is legendary within the school, becomes Michelle’s coach, helper, scriptwriter and interpreter through the 5th grade. “Through talking situations out with someone, I became verbally prompted to observe social situations. After a time, I internalized this conversation and applied the strategies to new situations.” Michelle made a close friend who was a foreign student. They fit in with each other even though they didn’t fit in much in the larger world of the playground. Michelle recalls being an observer, trying to figure out what she should do to fit in better with the other kids. However, schoolwork was going well, and Michelle developed a plan to become an astronaut. Michelle is clear that this narrow focus of her effort helped her keep up her motivation and her efforts in the face of many obstacles.

Michelle was considered too bright and too academically successful to be eligible for special education services in middle school; she entered sixth grade without an IEP (Individualized Education Plan). Her new school recognized her intelligence—but had no idea how much of Michelle’s energy went into “figuring it all out.” She diligently memorized the information presented, but had persistent difficulty making connections and grasping concepts. Michelle felt stressed, but it is now that she first develops her most important strategy for adapting to the “normal” world. She approaches her teachers for help, tirelessly enlisting their support for her efforts to get organized and to master concepts.

In high school, Michelle continues to drive herself toward success in math and science. However, it is an English teacher who recognizes Michelle’s hidden brilliance and becomes her friend and mentor. Michelle remembers Mrs. McCormick, as she remembers Mrs. O’Neill, with vivid fondness. Many years later, Mrs. McCormick attended Michelle’s wedding.

Michelle won admission to Smith College, perhaps the most competitive choice for a woman interested in math and science. This was a remarkable achievement, but college proved to be the scene of renewed struggle. The expectations of her science and math professors at Smith are very high. By junior year, Michelle realized that science and math are not her academic strengths. She found that she could not master this challenging material by over-learning and rote memory. She had to come to terms with the demise of her long-cherished dreams of becoming a space scientist.

At this critical time, an acting class became a catalyst for change and self-discovery for Michelle: she recognized that she had long been an actor on the stage of life. This insight led her first to study psychology and eventually to pursue psychological testing to learn more about herself as a learner. She took this step against her parents’ wishes, for they both hoped to avoid labeling Michelle. They could not believe that their very bright daughter, who had won a place at Smith College, could have a learning disability. Nevertheless, Michelle did go for testing . She discovered that she has a non-verbal learning disability. This explanation of her strengths and weaknesses, while discouraging in part, also provided some relief. Now she could begin to let go of the idea that there was something wrong with her that was she could “fix” by making heroic efforts.

The time of transition from college to work presented more difficulties. Michelle had graduated from Smith as a psychology major, hoping to obtain a research job. She found, however, that psych labs wanted to hire self-initiating, highly organized people—and she did not fit the mold.

She did obtain jobs a lab assistant and as a bookseller, In hindsight, Michelle realizes that she wanted her supervisors to be teachers, people who would nurture and guide her. Unfortunately, the more she sought their help, the less satisfied they became with her performance. Disappointed, but at heart understanding the problem, Michelle began to work with a career counselor, through whom she met another key mentor in her life: Ellen, a teacher with an interest in Asperger’s Syndrome. Ellen helped Michelle gain further insight about her limitations and strengths. Based on her new self-understanding, Michelle applied to the graduate program in Information and Library Science at Simmons College. She was accepted, and successfully earned her MLS (Masters in Library Science) degree.

Although she has not yet attained her goal of full time professional work, Michelle sees her life as satisfying and happy. A very large part of her happiness is due to Michelle’s relationship with her husband, Scott. While at Simmons, motivated by a desire to practice her social skills, Michelle accepted an invitation to accompany a friend to a party. Her friend introduced her to Scott. “I started dating my husband, Scott, in 1998. We grew closer, married, and have a strong relationship. Scott is the most important person in my life and I don’t know what I would do without him. We enjoy our company together and Scott brings out the best in me. I try more new things when I am with him. For example, we went snow shoeing for the first time this winter. I find I really enjoy these enriching experiences. Also Scott has a good sense of humor about some of my quirks, and allows me some down time to veg-out from human contact.”

What makes their relationship work? “I find that the relationship works best when I am open to constructive criticism, even things I don’t want to hear, and encourage honesty. I make changes to my behaviors that benefit the relationship, like not forgetting my cell phone, and communicating better on how long I will be out. I am still working on these issues with Scott. I treat him with respect.”

Michelle’s emotional grounding is based on her ability to acknowledge setbacks, while still persevering in seeking out people who understand and accept her—along with her limitations—and who have an interest in helping her. Michelle’s helpers and mentors have recognized her intellectual strengths, and appreciated her strong drive to connect with other people, learn about herself, and work toward her goals.

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