She can’t play softball. She won’t be able to fit into the team environment … He can’t be part of the golf team. He will be a disruption to the other golfers … He can’t swim competitively. He doesn’t have the strength or coordination … She can’t become a competitive runner. She can’t handle the crowds.
Pigeonholing, typecasting, stereotyping— whatever you want to call it, children on the autism spectrum too often find themselves working up hill against shortsighted assumptions and preconceived notions that try to place limits on what they can do.
Granted, interpersonal skills and reading social cues don’t come easy, there may be problems with impulse control and hyper-focusing, an inclination toward repetitive behaviors and stemming may not be the right look for an athlete.
But while some of the behavioral, cognitive and emotional differences that define autism may make you feel like getting your kids involved in the hyper-competitive world of sports isn’t the best idea, there is a growing number of athletes on the autism spectrum who have bucked the stereotypes and made a name for themselves.
While Heisman Trophies may not be commonplace for individuals on the autism spectrum, the issue might really be more about the fact that many kids with ASD haven’t been allowed to participate. Don’t compound the issues your kid deals with by placing limitations on them that don’t need to be there. It is entirely possible that your kid has actual athletic talent that, if fostered, could allow them to achieve excellence – and the odds are getting better all the time as society continues to become more socially aware and accepting of people that might be a little different.
We’ve assembled a list of some top athletes who are on their game, and on the spectrum. These five athletes have been killing it in everything from team sports to individual sports to extreme sports.
Like so many people on the autism spectrum, Clay Marzo was mislabeled and misdiagnosed plenty of times growing up: ADD, dyslexia, learning disabled. Socially awkward with others yet masterful on the surfboard, Clay wasn’t formally diagnosed with Asperger’s until he was 18.
But if you think Asperger’s has limited him, think again. While he already earned a reputation in the surfing world by this time, a signature film about him, entitled Just Add Water, introduced him to a broader audience, and fame followed. His story inspired countless others, and getting plenty of coverage from ESPN and a write-up in Rolling Stone Magazine further catapulted his career.
But ask Clay, 24, why he continues to surf, and he’ll tell you it has nothing to do with the money or the fame. He feels at home in the waters off Maui—perhaps more than he does on land. He has difficulty holding a conversation, maintaining eye contact, and developing relationships. While he has Asperger’s—labeled as a less severe form of autism—his struggles are often intense.
Since he was a child, he found solace in the water. He was obsessed with the water, according to his mother, Jill. “Out of the water, he is not comfortable, even today. In the water, it’s like he can breathe.”
While fixation can prove to be a disruptive force for many individuals with autism, Clay’s obsession with surfing turned into a thriving career.
His mom says he still struggles with meeting new people, navigating the world around him, and even answering basic questions. For Clay, now considered one of the world’s best freesurfer, the water remains his peace.
Tommy Dis Brisay
A half-marathon race time of 1:14:55 is just one of a long line of accomplishments for Tommy Dis Brisay.
At five years of age, his parents were told he would never develop the ability to speak. A string of medications and countless struggles led to being overweight as a teenager. But his parents were committed to their son’s success, and they encouraged him to develop an interest. His father, Peter, an avid runner, encouraged Tommy to take to the trails. A jog with his father was all he needed to get hooked on running. In the first year alone, Tommy lost 35 pounds and began competing in various races, eventually leading the pack and taking first place in many.
Says Tommy, “I run every day, every week, every month, every year.”
An obsession with running has turned into a love of athletics, and Tommy has since won kayaking and cross-country skiing races, as well. But running has done more for Tommy than slim his physique; it quickly became an outlet for his anxiety, serving as a positive way to focus his energies.
He’s also become part of the running community of Ottawa, and other members are there to support him, despite his challenges with Asperger’s. For example, the organizers of Ottawa Race Weekend allowed Tommy’s father, Peter, to ride his bike alongside his son during the race, guiding him and helping him navigate the course.
Other members of the racing community find his habit of singing Disney songs and reciting movie lines during a race quite quirky, although these habits allow him to relax and deal with everything from crowds of people to loud noises.
Peter says that as a result of running, Tommy has become less anxious, more social, and less dependent on medication. His successes continue to inspire others to pursue their dreams, despite a disability.
Jim Eisenreich was a Major League Baseball star in 1982, where he played for the Minnesota Twins. Uncontrollable tics, the result of Tourette’s Syndrome, combined with a later diagnosis of Asperger’s, eventually led to his withdrawal from the MLB in 1984.
But medication, combined with a deeper understanding of his challenges, allowed him to return to the game he loved in 1986.
By 1989, Jim won the Kansas City Royals Player of the Year and eventually enjoyed a very successful career that spanned 15 years.
British swimmer Jessica-Jane Applegate, 18, is a decorated athlete, boasting a whopping 24 gold medals in Paralympic events. She holds 11 British records and a world record for the 100-meter butterfly.
She also has Asperger’s.
An early diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome didn’t discourage Jessica-Jane from pursuing her love of swimming. By the age of 13, he had already set several regional records, and just a few years later, she was selected for a UK sporting talent program and set the second fastest world record for her 200-meter freestyle. She was the first British athlete from the intellectually disabled classification to win gold at the 2012 Paralympics. A string of broken records followed, and in 2013, she was appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) for her contributions to swimming.
While she doesn’t let her challenges limit her, she does remain open about her struggles: “In training/competition there are very few people who really understand how hard it is for me. I really struggle to cope with people socially. I don’t like any changes and trying to concentrate on more than one thing is so difficult but my coach is very understanding. We have a timetable for everything so I have a good routine, we make plans to keep calm and we always have a backup plan so I feel safe.”
Australian David Campion is a champion snowboarder, representing his country in the 2017 Special Olympics World Winter Games in Austria. David is the second only snowboarder to be selected to represent Australia in the winter games.
Like so many young people, David became obsessed with the idea of snowboarding, even though he admits it took some time to get the hang of it. But once he figured it out, he said there was no stopping him.
“I’d start getting frustrated with it. Then it kind of came to me, kind of switched on; like riding a pushbike.”
His mother, undoubtedly his biggest advocate, saw potential in his ability on the snowboard and encouraged him to become involved with Disabled Winter Sport Australia.