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  • Writer's pictureKelli Munn

Vinokurov: Asking for Support Essential for Career Success

A green thought bubble with the words "About Us" in blue text, followed by "Not without us" in smaller, pink text.

"About Us" is a series of interviews with accomplished self-advocates in Florida.

Michelle Vinokurov of Lakewood Ranch has made it her mission to help others on the autism spectrum be the best version of themselves every single day. To accomplish that in her career as a certified behavior specialist with the Manatee County School District, Michelle had to find that confidence at a very young age.


Florida Self-Advocacy Central recently interviewed Michelle to learn more about her self-advocacy journey.

Michelle Vinokurov stands in front of a green screen. She is in the process of making a video with a camera placed on a tripod in front of her. She is smiling, has brown hair and is wearing glasses and a black top.
Michelle Vinokurov

Question: When did you start to identify as a self-advocate and why?

Michelle: I began to identify as a self-advocate when I learned I was autistic in sixth grade during my middle school years. I was diagnosed early on around age two, but I did not know personally until my parents shared with me in sixth grade. I was at a family friend's house, and we watched a documentary about Dr. Temple Grandin. After watching her documentary, my parents described how I related with her. That was when I wanted to learn more about myself, and I learned I grew up with autism. It was a positive experience for me because I learned a part of myself that I grew up with that I did not realize, due to the severity of my challenges with autism at a young age (E.g.: nonverbal communication, lack of eye contact, pretty much in my own world, barely interacted with anyone, never responded to anyone calling my name). Ever since sixth grade, I've been identifying as an autistic self-advocate.

Question: What advocacy related issue is the most significant to you?

Michelle: Diversity and inclusion in the education system. I work with a public school district (Manatee County) full time, and I always come across many families of neurodiverse students who barely get access to the support they need. I make sure parents understand their rights and to advocate for services. I help schools I work with provide interventions and supports needed for the students. Not only that, but I help schools learn to accept neurodiverse individuals as who they are and become flexible when working with neurodiverse individuals.

Question: Describe a time when you had to overcome an obstacle related to your disability.

Michelle: When I began my new job with the school district on the behavior team back in January 2023, I had to learn to get supports I needed to do well in a higher paid position. I recall having schools not wanting me back to support their teachers and school staff when working with neurodiverse students due to either providing too much or not providing enough support that they wanted. It was super frustrating along with balancing paper reports in regard to creating individualized behavior plans. I got so overwhelmed I would have meltdowns almost every day for an entire month. I was feeling burnout. My parents supported me by writing a letter to my supervisor about supports I needed in place, such as weekly check-ins and visuals to follow protocols when working with schools. Ever since then, I reach out to my supervisor if I have any questions. Today, I'm still in the same position for over a year now.

Question: What did you find helpful in overcoming that obstacle?

Michelle: That I disclosed being autistic to my supervisor. I provided her insight into what it is like being an autistic employee in a higher paid position, from being creative to being a visual learner. I learned from that experience to reach out when things occur and to not be afraid to disclose in a way that supports yourself the most as a neurodiverse employee.

Question: Describe a time when you had to advocate on the spur of the moment.

Michelle: I learned back in community college to advocate for myself on the spur of the moment. I had a professor who was not providing me accommodations I needed in the course. It was a course about ethics. How ironic, right? I explained to this professor that I needed extra time on exams due to needing more time to process information. This professor would not give it to me more than once. I fought about it with the disability services at the college and won that situation. I gained extra time on assignments and exams in that class. I pulled a B overall as my grade.

Question: How has your advocacy affected your career and personal life?

Michelle: Today I'm there for neurodiverse individuals who cannot advocate for themselves. I advocate for the same services for families with neurodiverse individuals in the school district that I was provided from my family and other interventions early in life. On the behavior team, I create individualized behavior plans for neurodiverse students who need supports in improving their quality of life through social skills, communication skills, and coping skills. I can relate at a personal level with all of the students I work with because I teach them they are unique in their own ways and they should embrace who they are. I teach teachers, administrators, and service providers in schools that neurodiverse students learn in their own unique ways, and we should embrace that as part of being an inclusive school community.

Question: What advice would you give to someone struggling to accept their disability?

Michelle: My advice to someone struggling to accept their disability is that it is ok. It is not easy to learn about living with a disability, and I know because I did not know until later on in life, despite being diagnosed early on. I want you to know that you are unique as WHO YOU ARE. You have special interests and gifts that outweigh the challenges you live with. When you reframe your thoughts about yourself, your outlook about who you are changes. That is how you learn to love yourself as a neurodivergent.

Question: In 10 years, what would you most like to see changed in the lives of people with disabilities?

Michelle: In 10 years, I would like to see society become more inclusive and embrace people with disabilities in ways that gives everyone a chance for a better quality of life. This can be workplaces hiring more neurodiverse people in various career fields, despite not having a college degree; education systems incorporating more hands-on and visual learning styles for neurodiverse students who do not do well on performance exams, since grades should not reflect how neurodiverse people learn in the world; colleges offering more programs that allow neurodiverse students to take vocational courses for those who are visual learners and/or hands-on learners. The more opportunities that are naturally put in place everywhere, the more opportunities neurodiverse people have to enhance their quality of life.

Question: If you could pick one song as a theme song, what would it be?

Michelle: It would be "High Hopes" by Panic at the Disco. I chose this song because I am only one in a million and always had a vision for my dreams in life. I graduated from Purdue University Global with my bachelor's degree just two years ago and not only that, but I've also been working multiple jobs and maintained them for five years so far. I know life can get complicated, but I always get reminded from my mom and dad to never give up. There is so much in life for me.       

The FSACentral staff would like to thank Michelle for taking the time to participate in the interview. Let us know what you think about "About Us" on Facebook. If you know an accomplished self-advocate in Florida you think we should showcase in "About Us," contact us here or via Facebook.


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