At first glance, sports may not seem like the best environment or activity that a child with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) should participate in. The raucous crowds, possible physicality and the mandatory communication that comes with being on a team are all possible stressors for a child with ASD. These negatives can be looked as positives though.
Loud crowds may cause a child to experience sensory overload, but as the child becomes more accustomed to the crowd noise, the noise will no longer faze the child and the child will be able to hone their focus onto all portions of their life, not just sports.
Children with autism tend to have lower bone densities than neurotypical children and this creates a risk if the child enters a sport with physical contact like basketball or soccer. Through exercise however, autistic children can build up their stamina, increase their bone density and if need be, lose weight, allowing them to feel physically and mentally better about themselves.
Communication between teammates is necessary for a team to succeed, and the confidence built by autistic children when they talk with their teammates can improve other aspects of their lives as well, like having a reduced level of anxiety in situations where stressors are present. Getting individuals who are on the spectrum involved in sports is becoming a more popular choice for parents as the benefits become clearer to see.
The impact of autism in sports has been felt on all levels, from junior T-Ball, to PGA major champions and NFL Hall of Fame Quarterbacks. Here are some stories about how autism has touched the lives of some of the biggest names in sports.
Three time NBA champion and 2016-2017 NBA Defensive Player of the Year Draymond Green played basketball at Michigan State University from 2008 until 2012. Green had his fair share of basketball success in college, and even more in the pros, but a teammate of Draymond may have made the greatest impact on Draymond’s basketball career.
Anthony Ianni, teammates with Draymond from 2009 to 2012, has autism. Draymond was the vocal leader for this team, and mostly used a sarcastic style to encourage his teammates, which worked for the most part, except with Ianni. Unable to recognize the sarcasm, Ianni would miss Draymond’s jokes and most of the humor that the team had together. Once Draymond learned that Anthony had autism, Green changed his humor style and even “translated” their teammates’ jokes for Anthony.
Always a hard worker and a team favorite, Anthony would go on to graduate in 2012 with a Sociology degree. He appeared in 27 games for Michigan State and in 2011-2012 received a “full ride” scholarship from head coach Tom Izzo. Ianni was the first Division I basketball player with autism to receive a scholarship.
Draymond Green has had tremendous success as a Golden State Warrior. It is possible that he is one day enshrined in the Hall of Fame. But Anthony Ianni will always remember Draymond Green as a friend and someone who respected his abilities and helped improve his life once Green learned of Ianni’s autism. Ianni is now a full time motivational speaker, especially at schools, and focuses on the positive community aspects that are inherent with sports.
Though not a household name, John “Doomsday” Howard has a story worth learning about. Dealing with a difficult childhood full of bullies and people who did not understand his social shortcomings, Howard was placed into special education classes. Though Howard did not have many friends, his favorite activities, despite possessing a great amount of muscle mass, were focusing on solving puzzles. Autistic children tend to love structure and repetition, something a puzzle is perfect for. Sports, more specifically mixed martial arts, is also built upon specific rules and training regimens.
Using his gift of focus and his love of solving puzzles, Howard put all his focus into MMA. Figuring out how to best position himself for a specific move or memorizing all the counters became a passion for Howard, and in 2009, his first UFC fight took place. Howard had always known he was different from his peers, and in 2016 at the age of 33, John Howard was diagnosed with autism.
Howard points to autism as an advantage for him. Autism allows Howard to focus at a higher level than neurotypicals (Those without autism) can, helping him in the octagon. Howard credits sports with much of his success as an autistic adult. Sports has helped with Howard’s confidence, muscle tone and coordination among other things. The autism diagnosis also helped Howard’s family situation. Juliana, John’s daughter, is 11 years old and on the autism spectrum as well. Although not as high functioning as her father, Juliana is still a happy child. When asked if his relationship with his daughter has changed since the diagnosis Howard responded, “Now I can say to her: Daddy has the same thing, and we’re going to work on it together.” (Sports Illustrated).
At 25 years old, Jordan Spieth has won three major championships on the PGA Tour, spent 26 weeks ranked as the Number One golfer in the world, and possibly most importantly, founded the Jordan Spieth Family Foundation, the focus of which is being able to provide people of all abilities the life changing experiences they deserve. The inspiration for the foundation is Jordan’s most devoted fan, his sister Ellie.
While Jordan was busy rising through the ranks of Junior Golf, his sister Ellie was born and shortly afterwards, diagnosed with autism. Jordan would take care of Ellie and quickly realized all of the things that he took for granted every day that Ellie required help with. Using his professional success to the best of his advantage, Jordan founded the Jordan Spieth Family Foundation in 2016. Specific focuses of the foundation include: Special Needs Youth, Junior Golf, Military Support, and Pediatric Cancer.
Jordan has become one of the fiercest competitors in golf today, but his main focus remains his family and shining a light on Ellie and autism community as a whole. Whether his next round of golf is for his fourth major championship, or he is playing with Stephen Curry and Barack Obama, expect Jordan to come out a winner, and the first person to congratulate him to be Ellie.
This is by no means a complete list of athletes who support autism awareness or who have been personally touched by autism. Choose any sport and you will find recognizable names. Is basketball your favorite sport? Look towards Deron Williams and his son DJ (http://www.intercaretherapy.com/blog/nba-autism). Prefer football? Hall of Famer Dan Marino and Canadian Hall of Famer Doug Flutie both have foundations dedicated to philanthropic efforts towards autism. For current NFL autism awareness look towards the 2017 Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles (http://www.intercaretherapy.com/blog/philadelphia-eagles-autism). Enjoy the Jordan Spieth story and are looking for more golfers? Try Ernie Els and his ‘Els for Autism’ foundation.
Autism and sports is an unexpectedly good combination. Both the autism and sports communities improve with the inclusion of each other and this bond will only grow more apparent in the near future. We have set up some links below if you would like to do any additional research on your own and learn more about the deep connection that sports and autism truly have.