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My adventures with autism in sport

(AP Photo/Patrick Post)
Roar Guru
11th April, 2019
2

Last year, I spent some time speaking about my struggles with mental health and its impact on my sporting endeavours.

Today, I would like to return to the subject but this time focusing more on how having autism specifically impacts and complicates things.

The timing for this, is more that World Autism Awareness day was April 2; and the delay in writing this was more of self-reflection for me if I wanted to firstly even broach the subject, and then if I wanted to share it with the community. Being open about how I have depression and anxiety somehow seems easier to share than saying I am autistic.

For myself, I am fall into the high function part of the Autism spectrum; what would previously have been labelled as Asperger’s syndrome. The more accurate terminology is I have been diagnosed as having a high function form of Autism.

That diagnosis came in my early 20s, and even today I still don’t fully understand or appreciate what it means for who I am as a person.

Given the forum we are, I will be linking this back into the sporting arena. As the diehard readers of my work will know, I am a field hockey player and umpire for many years now (juniors and seniors). I happily play lower grades (fifth grade) and the Canberra Cup competition; and umpire most grades including first grade men’s and women’s.

Being an adult and on the spectrum is difficult enough, playing a team sport is difficult but not impossible. The main challenge about playing a team sport is that there is a team involved.

Many studies have shown, specifically in children that autistic children struggle with some of the coordination skills and social communication that comes with playing as a team.

As an adult, I am just uncoordinated, never associated it with neural brain functions and just not the best at it. It’s a contributing factor in why I enjoy playing a lower grade of hockey that is more specifically geared to players that aren’t pushing for Kookaburrass or Hockeyroo selection.

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However, the communication aspect is definitely where I experience a challenge.

Playing a position on the field that involves both predicting what my teammates will do, and requiring verbal and non-verbal communication is a challenge that is very difficult to negotiate, and regularly causes distress for me, and complications to my teammates.

To point it simply, I don’t like verbally communicating and do very subdued motions for non-verbal cues. And I often don’t understand my teammates communications to me, and regularly have to ask that they explain themselves in very plain terminology of what they want from me.

How I found ways around this is I have adapted my play style to play a high striker role, with very set lines to run. Legitimately, I have (over) analysed my style to have very set “when player does this, do this”.

Thankfully, my teammates have also adapted, and will know what I am going to do, so only need to give me really minor adjustments in communications that are easy to understand.

Where I encounter challenges, is playing with people who are neural typical and don’t realise/understand that I am not ‘normal’. How I respond when I feel uncomfortable, is to shutdown.

I will avoid eye contact, give no answer or mumble, and try anything answers that will end the confrontation. Note that I don’t use conversation there, it is a confrontation to me. This is especially challenging when the person is a person of authority (captain, coach etc.).

Oddly enough, being an ‘Aspie’ doesn’t stop when I am an umpire. However, umpiring more closely aligns to how my brain is wired and excels. Umpiring, is very rules and structure based, it is the application of a rule set that is clearly written.

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Where most people wouldn’t be excited by the rules, my brain responds very positively, they outline an exact set of outcomes based on circumstance.

But, that challenges of communication stay the same; and in some ways are made more dramatic. Umpiring is a lot about verbal and non-verbal communication. How you (as an umpire) present to the players has a major impact on perception. Being someone who is naturally unable to pick up on social cues and body language, makes umpiring just a little more challenging. Not impossible, just means I have to work harder.

One of the best pieces of advice I got, came from my umpire manager. And it’s something I want to finish this article on.

“It is only a disability if you let it be”.

Having depression, anxiety and having high functioning autism is only a disability if I choose it to be. Yes, it means I have to work harder than “normal” people; and that’s what I have to do. It just means some things don’t come naturally, and I have to work harder for it.

I have won multiple premierships, umpired grand final shootouts, umpired first grade and AHL trial games. I have made so many friends, and so many great experiences because of sport.

There has been loads of challenges and difficulties too; and I have overcome them. A lot of that has come from that piece of advice, and I want to close with it again because if this article reaches one person in a positive way…

It is only a disability if you let it be.

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