About this new column Carley writes, “Being (1) a brash New Yorker, (2) a blunt person with autism/Asperger’s, and (3) a non-drinker, has made for an interesting move to Green Bay, Wisconsin. It’s time for me to start telling their stories, even if it’s through the context of educating me.” To subscribe to his columns, or to suggest story ideas for this particular column, please see the information on Michael John at the end of today’s story.
by Michael John Carley
Far too often, individuals on the autism spectrum are denied opportunities to participate in competitive sports. Longtime readers of my work know how firmly I believe in sports’ developmental power to both unleash, and fine-tune certain emotions...under safe conditions. The benefits of improved motor skills and overall physical health? That stuff’s obvious: The unnoticed tragedy is that without sports, spectrumites can also grow up fearful of competition. And like it or not, grownups compete with one another for boyfriends and girlfriends, for jobs...etc.
Not only is it hard to care about your physical health when you’ve been allowed to focus only on what your body can’t do, but no one can have all the opportunities that life presents when they are scared of competition, an essential (albeit, often terrifying) reality of human behavior.
Now sports may not appeal to many kids on the spectrum at all. Young autistics might see neurotypical kids chasing a ball, or hitting puck with a stick, and anthropologically wonder, “Why? What is the point of that?...” Furthermore, the aforementioned motor skills issues often produces a relative deficit towards sports, and who wants to spend a lot of time at something they’re not comparatively good at?
But other kids, kids on the spectrum who might be drawn to sports, often get left out, as the neglect spares many caregivers the messy, emotional lessons about winning and losing with grace.
The end result yields rested caregivers, but it also produces future adults who are more prone to depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem.
At first glance, the young man I meet today is a very healthy exception. A twenty-two year old Senior from the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay (UWGB), Erik Johnson was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome as a youngster, but has played many sports throughout his youth, including high school basketball at Pulaski as a shooting guard. He’s no mascot: On a cross-country squad of twenty-one men’s Division I runners at UWGB, he’s the second best on the team. Who’s #1?
“Mitchell. And he’s my roommate.”
I ask him, “Why running? Erik, our (spectrum) minds are busy! Why doesn’t the sport bore you?”
He struggles to answer.
Keep in mind that Erik’s brand of Asperger’s is not the verbose kind. He does not have what some refer to as “Little Professor Syndrome.” His place on the autism spectrum, for now, leaves him with few words. He wants to have a better command of speech—that is clear. But he has to work harder than others to be able to share who he is.
He finally says: “Well, there are fewer injuries in track…”
So I feed him an answer in my follow-up question: “Are you drawn to track because you’re good at it, or because it’s a sport you truly love?”
“Both!” he exclaims, almost thanking me.
But his answer still doesn’t satisfy, and here’s why: Very often, baseball, as it was with me, is the preferred sport of spectrumites because of two unique factors: (1) the attention to statistical analysis, and (2) the sport’s often unnoticed absence…of a clock. Clocks, after all, cause us almost nothing but anxiety in our daily lives. So why not celebrate, above all others, a sport that instead allows the game to justly end—not when “time” has run out—but instead when everyone has had their proper turn?
After I’ve relayed all of this to Erik, we hash it out further; and together, get an answer. It is the certainty of time that Erik adores. And when you live life on the spectrum, certainty, in a confusing world, becomes a treasured commodity. Erik can rely on the simplicity of a running time. His running time does not have complicated nuances to learn, nor does it contain intimidating context. A running time is what it is. He either beats it, or he doesn’t, and Erik takes great comfort from that. My guilt in uncomfortably pressing him goes away as, in having engaged him so, I have learned something (about how track could possibly be attractive to a spectrum person), and moreover, Erik is clearly happy to have conveyed something so important.
But still unanswered…to what degree is Erik’s epigrammatic vocabulary caused by diagnostics (like social anxiety), and to what degree is it caused simply by the person he is? Something else, I think, is going on.
Mike Kline, 59, is the Student-Athlete Academic Coordinator at UWGB as well as the Head Coach of both the men’s and women’s cross-country teams. He’s been at the school for a whopping thirty-one years.
“Erik is my first kid with Asperger’s,” he confesses, admitting that he’s had to adapt his coaching style. “He doesn’t pick up on humor and sarcasm…but he’ll get so close (to the lead runners) that Erik can tell what flavor gum they’re chewing.”
Coach Kline, through Erik, has also discovered an element of spectrum life—a benefit, believe it or not—that, when developed, can turn into something pretty special:
“I wish I could get into ‘the zone’ before a competition like Erik. His ‘zone’ is on another level.”
And when Kline, in his continuing praise of Johnson—as a teammate, as a person—adds that “There’s not a more true or honest read than what you’ll get from Erik. He means everything he says,” I chuckle inside. And I chuckle inside because in my three years here it has become apparent that Midwesterners are often shocked—sometimes even offended—at how spectrum folk can be such über-communicators. But I don’t show the chuckle because I don’t wish to offend Kline. I’m grateful to him, as it’s so apparent that he cares deeply about Erik Johnson.
“Erik,” he also says (slightly shaking his head), “is extremely competitive.”
Coach Kline’s words trigger the explanation I’m looking for.
In addition to both Erik’s being a person on the spectrum, and someone who just might not be hyper-focused at wowing people with his storytelling ability, he’s far surpassed the “comfort with competition” stage. The other, simpler element at play is that Erik is a true athlete.
We—who are not true athletes—struggle too often to understand why every athlete doesn’t have the jaw-dropping aura of a Yadier Molina, the grace of a Henrik Lundqvist, or (yes, Green Bay)…the soul of an Aaron Rodgers. We expect them all to be “role models,” or great interviews. But in order to accomplish the unreal physical feats that we see them demonstrate, there are often extreme sacrifices made to their social or emotional development. Most developing hockey players, for instance, who at age thirteen get up at 5 a.m. every morning…just to work on leg strength…will later suffer an often noticeable, social cost; and we struggle to forgive them for that. Erik isn’t focused on a number of things—verbosity, autism politics, semantics…I too was pressing Erik to be something he was not.
If you want to understand who Erik Johnson is, look past the obvious and see the hyper-focus, the mental toughness, and the hard work. He’s a lot of things, but first and foremost, and in the truest sense of the word…
He’s an athlete.
Michael John Carley is the Founder of GRASP, a School Consultant, Peer Mentor, and the author of “Asperger’s From the Inside-Out” (Penguin/Perigee 2008), “Unemployed on the Autism Spectrum,” (Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2016), and the upcoming “’The Book of Happy, Positive, and Confident Sex for Adults on the Autism Spectrum…and Beyond!” He also writes the more national Huffington Post column, “Autism Without Fear.” For more information on Michael John, you can go to www.michaeljohncarley.com. To subscribe to his columns and newsletter, or to suggest stories within the Green Bay area, please click here, fill out the contact form, and check off the box at the bottom that reads, “Yes. Please include me on the event mailing list.”