Close-up of a painting featuring a woman's eyes

When Mikaela Sheldt was 17 years old, her parents bought her painting supplies – opening the door to a world Sheldt’s mathematically-inclined brain never knew existed.

“Honestly, I wasn’t very interested in art,” Sheldt told The Mighty. “But one day I came home and started painting on my bedroom walls. I think I was 17 or something. It just seemed like a good idea and I went with it.”

Drawing in ink of a man with long hair and a beard.

A physics and mathematics student, Sheldt’s decision to pursue art as a career didn’t come until years after college. “I still continued to study math and physics in college, but art slowly took over my world,” Sheldt said. “I started painting as a way to process all the things I was feeling inside myself. It made me feel better to paint. When I was painting, I felt connected in a way I never had before.”

Sheldt graduated from Agnes Scott College, a women’s college in Decatur, Georgia, and took a job teaching mathematics at a nearby school for refugee boys. Two years later she left teaching to pursue art full-time.

Colorful painting of a woman's face.

Now, the 29-year-old artist focuses on a number of creative pursuits including painting, creative writing and photography. She’s painted large seascape commissions, spent time as the artist-in-residence at a Sonoma County winery and has had exhibits and galleries dedicated to her work.

Still, Sheldt insists she’s not a creative person. “I am not creative, I just see the world uniquely,” she said. “When I paint a portrait or a seascape I am doing so much more than rendering. I am painting they way a subject makes me feel. As a person on the autism spectrum, painting the way something feels has a very distinct meaning. The world is an incredibly loud place.”

Painting of an African American man

Of all the paintings in Sheldt’s portfolio, some of her most striking work are her portraitures – canvases that extend almost from floor to ceiling, featuring intimate gazes and candid expressions. Rather than live models, Sheldt uses photographs to create her artwork, referencing her experience of a person in addition to processing the visual information in front of her.

“A person’s face has in incredibly high concentration of information coming off of it. There are so many things to process all at once, often I can’t look at someone when I am tired because it is painful,” she said. “In my studio, I get lost exploring the depth of all of this information. I become obsessed with decoding and translating all of the stimulation that comes off a person’s face.”

Colorful painting of a woman's face

The whole process, Sheldt said, is exhausting. As a person on the autism spectrum, Sheldt experiences emotions, sounds, smells, weight and texture all at once. “During the day when I’m trying to engage with the world outside my bedroom, it is overwhelming,” she explained. “In my studio, when I’m painting, I get to focus and obsess on one thing at a time. I get to take as long as I want to experience and process.”

The process continues until the painting makes Sheldt feel the same way the paintings subject makes her feel. “I use an immense amount of energy trying to move through a world that isn’t designed for autistic people,” she said. “My painting process is exhausting, but it is also incredibly rewarding.”

Black and White up close painting of a face.

All images featured belong to Mikaela Sheldt, and are used with permission. 


Autism Avenue is a floral and gift shop that trains and hires young adults with autism and sells items made by its employees.

Read the full transcript:

This floral and retail shop does more than just sell gifts made by people with autism.

Autism Avenue is a one of a kind floral and retail shop which hires young adults with autism.

The structured work environment provides job training and real world experience for its trainees.

Located in Wichita, Kansas, potential employees must master a pre-training program before they are considered for a position.

Working gives trainees the opportunity to practice the skills they’ve learned while building self-esteem, social connections and motivation.

Items sold in the shop are unique and personal because they are created by the employees.

The store also carries support resources as well as awareness items such as necklaces, bracelets and artwork.

To learn more about Autism Avenue, visit

When Marjorie Madfis retired after 30 years in the marketing industry, she wanted to do something to help women succeed in the business world – women like her daughter, Izzy, who is on the autism spectrum. In February 2014, she opened Girl AGain, an American Girl resale store that teaches young women on the autism spectrum the ins and outs of running a small business.

“American Girl dolls are my daughter’s passion,” Madfis told The Mighty, explaining her choice to open a resale boutique. “She loves the product. Many people turn to her and ask ‘Izzy, do you know what year this is from?’” That passion, Madfis said, helps her interact with customers. Not all of Girl AGain’s trainees are as passionate about the product as Izzy is, though they all are passionate to learn.

Now in its third year, Girl AGain, part of Madfis’ nonprofit organization Yes She Can, Inc., works with nine trainees, ages 18 to 23. Each trainee comes in to the White Plains, New York store for a minimum of two hours per week, with the training program lasting between a year to 18 months. Trainees work with job coaches, volunteers who are trained psychologists and social workers to hone their skills at a pace and environment tailored to their needs.

“The resale business provides a lot of task-based opportunities,” Madfis said. Trainees learn how to collect donated dolls, determine if they are sellable, package the dolls, log products inventory management system as well as learn competitive pricing. “You can’t just make up your own prices,” she added.

The store, which is open from Wednesday to Sunday, also offers weekend workshops with doll-oriented crafts, creative writing programs and other activities. “It’s an opportunity for trainees to do something different and be leaders and help-givers to other children who look up to them,” Madfis said, 

So far, the program has trained 28 women, many of whom have gone on to college and other part-time positions. “There are only so many women that can fit into this tiny little place, that we can support in this program,” Madfis said. “We are working on documenting our process and curriculum. I think this model could be replicated across the country to enforce job skills.”

To learn more about Girl AGain, or donate a gently-used American Girl doll, visit Girl Again’s website

It’s been one year since my autism diagnosis. I almost never dwell on the past. It seems pointless, and I have too many blank spots. This time I want to, before I forget what my life was like before and lose the sense of newness I’ve found over the past year.

So many things are different. Pursuing a diagnosis absolutely was one of the best things I’ve ever done. It made sense of my life, freed me from my worst demons.

I worry less about what others think of me these days. Beating myself up over things I can’t change is pointless. Passing as “normal” has come to feel like an unnecessary concession and personal defeat, as though I’m allowing others to set the rules for an exhausting, un-winnable race. Autism is my explanation. It’s not my excuse or apology. It mediates everything I experience.

I’m more happily “unwrapped” now. I pace, bounce up on the balls of my feet, rock, cover my ears, stare at people to keep track of what they’re saying… whatever I need, whatever helps. It’s such a relief.

I finally have accepted that being pressured and bullied aren’t things I deserve because I’m a failure or unlovable. They are things I permit. It’s a choice to stand up for myself, draw lines in the sand, express my desires and needs. It may get loud and be draining, but it’s absolutely necessary. Besides, people being angry, impatient or embarrassed won’t “fix” me; it’s only going to cause me to shut down and leave me unreachable.

Words still are the slippery fish they’ve always been. Sometimes they school downstream by the hundreds. Other times, they hide just out of reach where I can’t catch a single one. It’s gotten to be fairly amusing, and not just for me.

I’m pretty upfront about my autism these days. At first, I told people almost as an excuse, a get-out-of-jail-free card for my quirky behavior. Now, I tell them in order to help educate them about autism and to improve our interaction and, hopefully, relationship. Surprisingly, being upfront about autism is pretty easy for me. Not so much for other people.

I have a lot to be thankful for. Autism has, after 35 years of at times tumultuous marriage, brought my wife and me closer together. We still push each other’s buttons, but with more awareness of the reasons and necessary limits. My adult children still love their dad. I have new friends in the autism community that absolutely “get me,” no explanations or apologies required. I have an expanded sense of purpose thanks, in part, to an adult support group I started.

Like many autistics, I have skills and abilities I wouldn’t have as a neurotypical person. These skills are a lot more “available” to me these days, now that I’ve left behind the depression and anxiety that used to weigh me down. So, I now volunteer with a purpose, focusing on my abilities and how I can make a contribution. It’s amazing what a difference the simple act of feeling good about myself has made in almost everything I do.

Today, I turned 64. Perhaps it’s just my age, but the present… this moment… is more important than before. The past, other than the miracle of watching my children grow up, is of little concern. The future… well, it’s largely what I choose to make of it, not something to worry about.

It’s good to be older. Trivial things make way for more important ones. Clarity and contentment slowly creep in. I now have random hours and whole days when I’m happy and content, something I never experienced before my diagnosis.

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Thinkstock image by milanws

It’s bedtime — a glow-stick-cuddling kind of sleepy time tonight. Like many parents, I look forward to this time of evening. A busy day comes to an end, and bedtime finally comes around. It’s a fond part of our day. It’s calm, it’s routine and we’re in no hurry.

Bedtime stories and cuddles galore, drinks, toilet trips… just one cuddle more.

They as reasons alone do not define why I love bedtime so much. It’s the time of day you are your most chatty, Sonny. Some days I’ll admit, I would appreciate you being a little less chatty and a little more sleepy. Especially those nights after the one before where you go to bed at 7 p.m. but you’re wide awake at 10 p.m. and refusing to go back to sleep unless you have me by your side.

There are some times I’m so exhausted I fall asleep lying beside you. I wake, often hours later, and take the sleepy stumble back to my own bed. The pillow is cold, and it feels good to rest my head somewhere comfortable. I breathe a sigh of relief as I close my eyes.

It’s late in the evening, the world appears to slow on its axis, and it’s simply you and me. Riley sleeps silently above. He’s always been quick to fall asleep. Riley wiggles and makes silly noises, he’ll tap his fingers on the head of his bed, much to your annoyance. Just moments after his head hitting the pillow, he is out for the count.

This evening, cuddling your glow stick, you told me all you did today. You told me you helped make gingerbread biscuits with Mrs. H today. They were stars and they tasted like sweets. You said they were delicious.

I asked you if you’d saved me a bite, to which you said nothing. Your eyes have always told me everything I need to know. I ask where the biscuits are now. “In my tummy. They tasted like sweets.”

It was over three and a half years before I heard you speak to me. When you have something to say, I listen intently. I watch your eyes as they sparkle. I hang on to the words as they escape your lips. Your sweet little voice, it echoes deep in my heart.

These moments together are precious.

This time right now is ours.

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