Melissa Koole figured out when she was about 10 years old that she wasn’t quite “neurotypical.” She had a few friends with whom she enjoyed socializing, but she spent much of her time buried in encyclopedias and nature-related hobbies. She began to feel like an outcast and was bullied for not properly understanding what “normal” behavior was for her age. Her attempts to copy the way others acted got her into some tricky situations.
When Melissa was first diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, she was 19 years old and in business school. She didn’t feel frightened about her disorder, which to her was simply another part of her personality and inextricable from the rest of her being.
“I was so relieved when I got my diagnosis; it felt like recognition,” she says. “Finally I wasn’t just some weirdo, I actually belonged to a group of people that were just different. It gave me clarity, belonging, peace of mind and support.”
She was, however, worried that others would see her as somehow broken if she mentioned it, or that they would define her based on that one tiny aspect instead of based on her whole being. She only shared the information with those close to her and the occasional classmate, concerned it could keep her from getting a job. And when she did tell people, she felt she often didn’t get the recognition she deserved for overcoming her obstacles.
“Dismissive comments about how I don’t look autistic or how I could be in university, made me feel like I had to defend my diagnosis,” says Melissa. “Unfortunately it’s very common to get comments like these when you’re autistic, as people don’t understand the condition.”
But now Melissa has a successful modeling career, as well as a successful Instagram following. When she realized she no longer had any reason to keep quiet about the disorder, she told the rest of the planet she had Asperger’s on April 2nd, 2017, World Autism Awareness Day.
Today is world autism awareness day, a start of a new journey. For a long time, I was convinced that autism wasn’t a part of my life that I wanted to share with others, afraid of people’s preconceived opinion. Now that there’s more room for individuality and personality in the fashion industry, and knowing that my agents fully support me, there’s no legitimate reason left for not speaking up. I love every bit of myself, including my ‘so considered disability’, so here we go! 💙 I was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome at 19 years old, and it felt like I finally had some belonging in this world. Autism means that your brain isn’t able to process all the information that’s coming in, which makes everyday activities more challenging. I like to say that I have a different operating system. In my case, it expresses itself mostly in communication, social interaction, obsessions, anxiety, isolation and frustration. Do you think that sounds negative? Well, it doesn’t stop me from achieving my goals, traveling the world, loving people, being good at my job and being (strangely) awesome. My autism doesn’t hold me back, and therefore being different or ‘having a disability’ is something we need to talk about more. Awareness is the key to a very simple but essential thing; wanting people to know, understand and accept my condition, without it being the sole thing they see. I would never sacrifice the greater part of who I am to be considered ‘normal’, because – no matter what – being me is pretty awesome, and you should know that. 💙💙 #BringingEveryDayWeirdness #ThatsKoole #LightItUpBlue #AutismSpeaks
Since coming out about her autism spectrum disorder, Melissa has been using social media to speak up for other people on the spectrum. She believes everyone should be proud of themselves and do whatever they want to do with their lives.
She says, “People ask how someone like me can survive the modeling business. All I can say is that every work environment brings along its handful of challenges for each and everyone of us. A very important part in taking care of yourself is knowing what your pitfalls are, and how to avoid falling into them.”
One of the reasons Melissa is speaking out is for other young girls with Asperger’s or autism — girls who are good at hiding their symptoms, often become depressed, and even engage in self-harm out of anger and frustration with the way the world treats them.
“It’s unfortunately common for girls with Asperger’s to be easy targets for both sexual abuse and mental health problems,” says Melissa. “They tend to mask their difficulties very well which makes them vulnerable. Their symptoms are still being overlooked and misdiagnosed a lot, which is something I feel very heavy-hearted about.”
Thank you, Melissa, for using your position of influence to remind us that everyone is unique and beautiful and for showing the fashion industry that beauty is far more than skin-deep! There are so many people out there who desperately needed to hear this message!
Elizabeth Nelson is a wordsmith, an alumna of Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, a four-leaf-clover finder, and a grammar connoisseur. She has lived in west Michigan since age four but loves to travel to new (and old) places. In her free time, she. . . wait, what’s free time?