By Jennifer Copley (Last Updated 22 May 2011)
Contrary to popular belief, autistic spectrum disorders (ASDs) do not preclude athletic achievement, though athletes with ASDs tend to prefer individual physical pursuits to team sports. Sports in which those with ASDs have excelled include running, swimming, surfing, martial arts, baseball, basketball, and archery.
The following examples indicate what can be achieved when an athletic activity becomes the special interest of an individual with an autistic spectrum disorder. Many credit the achievements of these athletes to the intense focus, penchant for routine, and in some cases, unique cognitive abilities that come with ASD.
Anthony Crudale, a competitive marathon runner, was diagnosed with autism at 18 months old and didn’t speak until the age of four. Crudale has overcome numerous obstacles, achieving a university degree in art. His interests include heavy metal music and long-distance running.
Those who don’t have a good understanding of autism often assume that Crudale been misdiagnosed due to his apparent intelligence. This tanned, fit young man does not match the stereotypical view of those with ASD. Crudale runs 115 miles each week and does weight training at a nearby fitness center. He has a few friends, but spends much of his time on his own by choice. The ASD tendency to maintain routines ensures that Crudale trains intensely and regularly.
Crudale isn’t the only successful marathon runner on the autistic spectrum. Andrew Bryant is another ASD running star. Doctors had little hope for Bryant when he received his autism diagnosis as a child, but the 25-year-old high school graduate is now employed and has won numerous medals for marathon running. His speed has put him among the most elite runners in the world.
Yet another accomplished runner on the autistic spectrum is Jonathan Brunot, a New York City Marathon medal winner. The handsome, profoundly autistic 19-year-old required six years to learn how to tie his shoes and has mastered only a few words. Brunot didn’t initially take to running when his mother tried to encourage it early on, but later it became a special interest. Through running, Brunot has become extremely fit and far less hyperactive, and his athletic ability has been described as “off the charts.”
Alex Bain, another award-winning autistic athlete, runs to raise awareness of and acceptance for autism. In addition to completing a full marathon, notable achievements include running from one end of Prince Edward Island to the other. Bain has a positive view of autism, and is comfortable with the fact that he is different from his friends.
C.J. Moore, an autistic high school student on the less severe end of the spectrum, is a taekwondo black belt who has won eight trophies. Moore acts as a mentor for younger taekwondo students.
When he first started training, Moore didn’t believe that he could be successful in the sport, but he has since reached a level of success beyond that of most non-autistic students. Moore trains five days a week for two-and-a-half hours per session. He credits taekwondo with improving his social skills and helping him to make eye contact.
Despite the discomfort he feels in leaving his familiar comfort zones to travel, an activity which forces him to deal with crowds and airplanes, Clay Marzo, a brilliant surfer with Asperger’s syndrome braves such journeys to obtain new surfing experiences. Previously a State Champion swimmer, Marzo shifted his intense focus to surfing and subsequently won several NSSA national surfing titles. It has been speculated that Marzo’s Asperger’s syndrome may be the reason for his unique abilities.
Marzo walked when he was just seven months old, without even crawling as an intermediate step. Graduating through a serious of hyper-focused obsessions, which included sea shells and sea life, he was once misdiagnosed as having Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).
Inclined to shut out the world with headphones, Marzo is only completely at ease when he’s near or on the ocean. This is not uncommon among those on the autistic spectrum, many of whom find the ocean therapeutic. Considered the world’s best surfer, Marzo has appeared in a number of surf movies and supports the Surfer’s Healing Foundation, which enriches the lives of autistic children through surfing.
Other accomplished athletes on the autistic spectrum include:
- 15-year-old Olympic archery champion Kyle Cramer
- Greece Athena High School basketball coach Jason McElwain, who scored 20 points in the last four minutes of an important game
- Medal-winning swimmer Tommy Eliopoulos, who was once afraid to go in the water
- Major League Baseball player Jim Eisenreich who received the Royals Player of the Year award in 1989
Those with ASDs are a diverse population, and there is no particular athletic pursuit that is perfect for all those on the autistic spectrum. Informal surveys of athletic interests suggest that a wide variety of sports can potentially become special interests, though individual or solitary sports are more often favoured. And of course, as with neurotypicals (people without ASD), there are those who naturally dislike physical activities of any sort.
For more articles on autistic spectrum disorders, visit the Autism and Asperger’s Syndrome page.
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