Meet this week’s neurodivergent athlete - Michelle Lau! She's a world-ranked amateur golfer and she's also Autistic.
According to Michelle, the awareness Neurodiverse Sport are raising gave her the confidence to pursue a world ranking, and we couldn’t be happier for her!
A little bit of context
It’s stories like Michelle’s that make all the hard work we do oh so worth it!
It’s proof that we’re making a difference and that we’re beginning to achieve our ultimate goal…
To ensure that every person – no matter their neurotype, has a place in sport wherever they feel most comfortable and capable. For some this will be able-bodied sport, for others para-sport, and others yet again, ii sport…
But what’s really important to remember is that not everyone fits nicely into these categories…
For example, some Autistic people may feel capable of training and competing in ‘mainstream’ sport, and if this is the case, thy should be supported to do so and not excluded.
Others may experience greater difficulties than are apparent at first glance, and for them, opportunities to compete in disability sport are essential.
Understanding of neurodiversity is everyone’s responsibility because neurodiversity exists everywhere.
Michelle (like so many neurodivergent women) wasn’t diagnosed as Autistic until well into adulthood, and the years leading to her diagnosis were filled with feelings of confusion and isolation.
Michelle always loved sport - as a child she was forever running around, and as a youth she would take part in every sport accessible to her. But her personal challenges meant she could never take it as far as she would have liked. She knew she found school tough, and she knew she found the crowded corridors, noise, lights, and “chaos” overwhelming, but she didn’t know why. How do you give everything (or anything in some cases) to sport, academics, or even self-care when simple day to day tasks are a struggle?
They don’t have to be, but if you don’t know the cause, how can you possibly find a solution?
Regardless of her challenges with sensory sensitivities, introspection, and transition, Michelle excelled academically at school, college, and university, eventually graduating with an MSc in Law and Accounting After being “called to the Bar” as a Barrister she made several successful career changes also; from Court Advocate to Chartered Company Secretary, and most recently, Software Developer! But her immense successes only served to mask her difficulties.
Successfully struggling & struggling successfully
Michelle and those close to her started to suspect she might be Autistic when she was in her early 20s. At that time, Autism in women and girls was only just being talked about. But it wasn’t until her late 20s, following a significant downturn in mental health and a period of unsuccessful and arguably harmful counselling (harmful because it wasn’t neurodiversity informed), that Michelle was referred for an assessment.
Michelle attributes her mental health crisis to extremely long working hours; hours spent in open office environments, requiring her to tolerate constant noise and stimulation whilst masking her difficulties and continuing her productivity. The result was utter and prolonged exhaustion and a complete lack of human connection or belonging – something that arguably every human’s health and wellbeing relies on – Autistic or not. Her reduced capacity for anything beyond work prevented her from participating in the one thing that could have offset her difficulties – sport.
So, Michelle was in crisis, but there was a light at the end of a tunnel – she was on the waiting list for an Autism assessment. Of course, an assessment and/or a diagnosis is not a solution in itself, but it could provide Michelle with some semblance of clarity, direction, guidance…
Unfortunately, she wouldn’t receive this clarity for six years.
Because Michelle was on the NHS Autism assessment waiting list for six years…
Yes, you read that right – six years!!!
For six years, Michelle had to tolerate this uncertainty. For six years she couldn’t with any certainty ask for reasonable adjustments at work, and for six years she couldn’t buy into discovering what Autism meant to her. She couldn’t buy into the learning journey that we should all have access to as children, but that many neurodivergent people don’t get to start until their 20, 30, 40, 50 years old. She couldn’t get to grips with exactly why she thought and felt so differently to her peers, or how she might live and work in the most productive and sustainable way for her.
During her six years in limbo, Michelle unsurprisingly struggled to balance work, life, and self-care. She tried to stay in touch with her lifelong sporting passion – football, but her limited energy and capacity made her overly vulnerable to injury, and after one too many hard tackles, she decided to make the switch to golf.
In 2022 Michelle finally received her Autism diagnosis, and with this she was able to register with EDGA who are responsible for some of Europe’s most popular disability golf tournaments. In EDGA she found a space and a community in which she felt seen, supported, and accepted. Although Michelle had only been playing for a year by this point, she was already obsessed, and was getting pretty good… so, inspired by Swedish golfer, Erika Malmberg (also Autistic), Michelle began the qualification process for world ranking with Virtus.
Michelle’s application was accepted in April this year and with the support of Joel Rickard (Coach and PGA Professional), she’s already competed in two tournaments finishing 4th and 2nd place in her category. We decided to write about her experience of the tournaments below to give a little more insight into the difficulties some Autistic people face where sport and physical activity is concerned.
Michelle’s first tournament wasn’t plain sailing by any means – in large part due to the build-up. Not only was she recovering from an operation, but she was also working on an exam piece when she was unwittingly drawn into a neighbourhood dispute. Most people find conflict difficult, but for those who are Autistic, such interactions can be intolerable. The harm they can cause is perhaps far more than people might realise. Michelle described the fallout: “My anxiety was through the roof, and I didn’t want to leave the house – even to go into my own garden.”
Michelle’s energy levels were already low post-surgery and mid-exams, so this incident was the last thing she needed. Before she arrived to play her practice round, she had to take a detour to the bathroom to cry. Once on the course, she couldn’t make eye contact with the tournament director, and her speech was slowed and compromised, but she ploughed on, nonetheless, balanced precariously on the edge of a meltdown...
The word meltdown is one I use begrudgingly in leu of a better term, because it’s often wrongly attributed to ‘bad’ or even malicious behaviour. However, when used in the case of Autism or ADHD, it rarely describes a conscious choice. A meltdown is an automatic response to nervous system overwhelm. Bad behaviour is bad behaviour – and even then, all behaviour is communication – isn’t it?
A meltdown can be avoided with adequate self-understanding, self-management, and support, but it cannot be prevented once in motion. Only time, space and comfort will help an Autistic individual in the midst of a meltdown. The most important part of the ‘process’ is the learning that takes place afterwards; in the past I’ve asked myself “what led to this point; what can I change going forwards; how can others help?”
For Michelle, she almost always ensures her meltdowns are a private affair (as do many Autistic women), but in the case of this tournament, where a world-ranking was at stake, Michelle gambled a public meltdown to stay on the course until the very end. Unable to hold it in anymore, she turned to her friend and caddy, Sherrie Nash, and broke down on the 18th green after her final putt to end her first ever world-ranked golf tournament.
Michelle’s story will be continued in our next blog post