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Autism Without Fear: Don't Kid Yourself -- or Rob Your Kid: Sports Matter

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Part one of a three-part series

When you grow up with any kind of developmental disability it means that you do not grow as everyone else does. Shut out of the rituals of your peers -- the "developmentally-appropriate" experiences others refer to -- you will grow in different, often unseen ways. We positive types like to mention that there are some areas where you might find yourself surprisingly ahead of your peers. But, as we all know, not only will the areas where we are behind get the most notice (as that is what others will more clearly see), being in any kind of minority makes life harder, not just "different."

For autism spectrum kids who are better able to navigate greater society, sports are one of those rituals. But unlike fellow proponents of "more athletics for spectrum kids," my concerns don't rest solely with the exercise benefit. In 10 years of running the world's largest membership organization for adults (GRASP), I saw inestimable damage because people had grown up terrified of competition. In some cases, with folks whose ages range from the 20s to the 80s, I even saw a commitment -- rather than a conditioning -- towards avoiding rivalry. They were so determined to avoid creating, or engaging in any kind of battle with their fellow humans that they wouldn't even utter the words, "I can do better," which, as we all know, is wherein we compete against ourselves.

Competition is a fact of life. We compete against each other for jobs, girlfriends, boyfriends, (and in New York City, we compete for apartments and schools). When we lose at competition, yes, we suffer; but in the repeated face of defeat we also learn from the experience, and we gradually develop a thicker skin for failure itself. And when, God forbid, we succeed at competition, the reward is confidence. Well, in many life arenas such as academics, business, and sexual performance, studies show that size and skill sets matter, talent matters, and work ethic matters... but that confidence matters much more. And only on those fields, courts, rinks, or gyms do we, as spectrum children, get that chance to iron initially ugly emotions into the capacity to both win and lose with grace. "Brainiacs may not need sports," you say? Well, despite the myths, we're not all academically brilliant.

A comfort with competition has never been high on the priority list for raising developmentally-challenged kids. Naturally behind due to motor-skills issues, our caregivers have packaged that with our misinterpreted disinterest, and let this slice of life go by. But caregivers have also shied away because of the stress it puts on them to teach many of us how to survive an encounter containing a winner and a loser. In avoiding "tantrums" they are unknowingly harming our futures in exchange for an easier present. All those ugly emotions previously mentioned, given no chance for exploration and refinement, come out years later than they should; in job interviews, on dates -- certainly in online internet forums -- and the results are brutal. This can even be seen in adults who rightly point to the positives about themselves: They will proudly claim distance from sports, and ignore that somewhere inside they got robbed, for it always hurts to not be a part of what others are clearly enjoying. We may protect our emotions by stating said disinterest, but protecting our emotions is not the same as loving ourselves. In the end we fool ourselves into believing these half-truths, and words of self-worth become a script, not a reality. Often the poker tell herein are the words, "Well, if they don't want me for who I really am, then the heck with them." We give up, and refuse to participate, and this is so sad. Because every once in a while, we ALL need the confidence to feel, if not say, "Get the %^$# out of my way," in addition to "I'm sorry," or "I need help."

Early on in my autism career, I sensed the discomfort coming from both parents and fellow spectrumites, and so I chose not to advertise my family's sports lives out of "disrespectful respect." But roughly three years ago, sensing the damage was greater than I'd earlier surmised, I stopped keeping my family's baseball, or hockey lives a secret in my career. I'm privileged to have some influence in the autism/AS world, and so I wanted to share with others the benefits our family had experienced. Furthermore, great stories were starting to come out about people on the spectrum succeeding at sports. It started with Team Manager Jason McElwain hitting seven three-pointers when, in an emotional gesture, the coach let him play in his final game. There were then stories of football players playing in high school, and recently, an assistant college basketball coach came out to her team about her diagnosis. The evidence is there.

But unlike other aspects on my autism agenda, the resistance has been silently fierce, even from my usual supporters.

Why? Well, the majority of our autism community still regards sports as a minefield of trauma, and social ostracization (if not outright disinterest). Historically, the once-very-real jerk/bully iconography of athletics scared our more sensitive brothers and sisters away from that very place that could lead to a life less scared. And the result in many GRASP adults was to subconsciously think of physical fitness and dietary health almost as the cultural property of their past perpetrators. Opportunities for improvement herein were avoided not just by accident, but often on principal. Though I can't prove it, I think there's a traumatic origin, rather than just wiring behind the words "I don't care how I look."

Since those darker times, athletics have embraced much of the great societal changes surrounding behavioral pluralism. With the upswing in numbers of diagnosed folks and diagnosable conditions, more special needs kids play sports, and more coaches adopt different strategies for managing them. They do so for many reasons other than kindness: developmental leagues need the money, and competitive leagues are not able to easily turn down talent. When I approached the legendary Xaverian High school coach, Dennis Canale (now tragically out of baseball) about a possible special needs recruit that I was trying to help, he stopped me, sensing my ambivalence towards his abilities herein (for I too wondered if he'd been a successful coach via jerk/bully means). He then smiled, and rattled off the names of two major leaguers he'd developed, both of whom were diagnosed with developmental disabilities, and were receiving special education services while under his care.

And yet, the progress often falls on deaf ears. At an autism picnic hosted by several service agencies (to cite just one example) I watched with thrill as a kickball game played by some significantly-challenged youngsters suddenly turned hot and competitive. The counselor, terrified of the emotions suddenly being summoned, abruptly stopped the game as soon as it was tied, and ushered his devastated charges to a new activity. I lost it a bit, and yelled "Don't do this to them! Let them go through this stuff!" But he walked away.

Many spectrumite kids want to play games. But aware somewhere that it isn't working out with our peers, we may abandon the games others play, and either stay away from the fields entirely, or try to invent our own games, until the dual frustration exhausts us: of spending so much time coming up with rules, rather than exercising, only to find out these are games no one else wants to play. And rather than own up to the real tragedy, we decide instead, in an understandable act of self-preservation, that sports are stupid.

So I now update colleagues on my kids' activities, or mine, whether I sense it's desired or not. My older spectrum son, now about to head to college, has benefit wildly from travel baseball since he started playing (late) at age 8. My younger son, who just turned 8, also plays travel baseball but has a greater love for travel hockey. I have coached many travel baseball teams, and have even enjoyed a secret life that I'll reveal in Part II of this series.

My boys love it, and no, we didn't push. Kathryn and I have a rule that they get to choose something they want to do, and we don't care whether its hair styling or cage-fighting. But we get to choose how hard they work at it. Our sole motivation is that they understand the difference between talent, and working hard (because there's a big difference). And the fact that their interests are the same makes the brothers even tighter.

As I described a bit in my first book, I myself had quite the arm growing up, and it did not go unnoticed. But that was it: I was no "natural athlete," and was once told that I didn't even know how to run. I quit at age 15 partly out of the same reasoning as others of my era -- because the blatant racism and homophobia of the late 1970s sports sphere became too hard to diplomatically negotiate. Plus, I had a choice to make: Stay at the school I was miserable at only so I could play baseball, or switch to the hippy school (School One in Providence, RI) that had no sports, proms, or yearbooks; and that resuscitated, and then blew open a monstrous sense of self-worth. Choosing the latter was one of the best decisions of my life, and for at least a decade after, I never even thought of sports . . . until I became a father.

Your kids' abilities and desires, if you as a parent, are doing what you're supposed to be doing, takes over. And they cared about only one extracurricular thing--baseball, and then hockey. So no more do I study opera or philosophy in my free time, nor do I pick up a guitar as regularly as I once did. Your kids lead, not you, and the positives they've accrued read in them loud and clear. But through their sports lives I've been confronted with how much the experience had once benefit me.

So I push colleagues who don't want to be pushed. I want to get it into their heads how developmentally important, if not wonderful, such recreation can be. The sportswriter Roger Angell once commented about those who don't like baseball, pointing to the bitterness in their voices as they conveyed their opinion. "Somewhere," Angell noted, "they know what they're missing, and it hurts."

To cite the benefits from just "the big four:" In basketball you get the most exercise, and even if you can't dribble or shoot, defense in this sport only requires effort; and since most kids want to light up the scoreboard, kids who focus on their D will stand out. Hockey too, can be so much about effort -- skills come with time, but the team that usually wins is the one that skates harder. Baseball is the spectrum mental paradise -- with its slowness, its focus on stats, the absence of anxiety-producing clocks, and where in the batting order, everyone has to wait their turn (unlike basketball where the best shooter might take 80 percent of their team's shots). And finally, football -- my least-favorite of the four, but whose fields are the only accessible place I know of where heavy-set kids will be celebrated rather than ostracized for their size (why would you deny a kid that?). If peer alienation is an inescapable probability, then I encourage individual sports, like tennis or golf; where a bad performance carries no risk of letting down peers. But despite what we may fear, the lessons of sacrificing personal opinion for a greater collective's benefit is an anxiety-reducing, not anxiety-producing, act. Banal corporate sloganizing aside, teams really are beautiful.

But I still end up looking like "crazy sports dad," or the experiences are just too foreign for others to understand. I am losing this one.

Next Installment: "Hey pitcher! You suck!"

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Michael John Carley is the Founder of GRASP, and the author of "Asperger's From the Inside-Out" (Penguin/Perigee), "The Last Memoir of Asperger Syndrome" (TBD), and numerous articles. In 2000, he and one of his two sons were diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome. More information can be found at www.michaeljohncarley.com