If you have ever worked with a person on the spectrum you know that due to the way their brain is wired, they have hyper-sensitive senses. It can be just one of the five, such as touch or hearing, a combination of two or more, or all five. This heightened sense(s) can be a benefit to a person on the spectrum but can also be a hindrance if a person wants to pursue a certain goal/dream. In wrestling, all five of your senses are used in any given practice, let alone, an all-day tournament in some gymnasium. For some kids and adults, this can be an overwhelming/draining experience. If for example, a person is touch or sound sensitive, wrestling is a sport that will challenge the kid to either overcome or run from this particular aspect of the sport.
In a single two-hour practice alone, there is enough There’s constant contact between two practice partners, coaches blowing whistles or speaking loud enough for the whole room to hear them. Enter the person of whom I am writing about in this essay, a teenager who is undiagnosed at this point in his life but is acutely aware of his own body. (He is now a 30-something, adequately socially adept and full-time working adult with a family of his own. He gave me permission to tell his story as long as I agreed not to share his name.) He has sensitive hearing, flawless eyesight, and doesn’t like to be touched by other people in any shape or form. Needless to say having a girlfriend at this point in his life was out of the question. However, like most teenagers, he still desired to “fit in.”
His freshman year both coaches and several of his peers tried to coax him to come out for the team, partially because they needed someone that was roughly his size to help fill the lineup. Like most people with Asperger’s, he didn’t want wrestling or anything else at that time to interfere with his routine. He had a routine and a keen sense of stubbornness to ignore his peers’ pleas. However, after months of contemplation, careful planning and the announcement of a new head coach was made, this young man decided to go out for wrestling. He had no clue what he was getting into.
Side note: One thing you need to understand about someone with Asperger’s is that they have a narrow focus about their interests. But with that narrow focus, comes an unequivocal desire to understand every aspect of their interest. These interests can range from some type of video game genre to the mechanics on how a car works. If you ask a person with Asperger’s about their interest, they will give you an encyclopedia volume worth of information about it if you allow them. Now, getting someone with this particular diagnosis to expand their interest fields is no easy task, hence the months of pressure from his friends. He would later tell me that when he decided to join the wrestling team, it was the only time in high school he actually gave in to any peer pressure. (Good for him! How many of us can say that?)
This coach had a solid understanding of accommodating different learners and was willing to answer all of the questions that the inquisitive teenager could come up with to ask. However, his coach warned him of something about wrestling. (I’ll explain later) He let the kid borrow videos of technique to watch, highlight videos of previous years’ teams and set him up on off-season workout regimen that would help him get into wrestling shape. He would watch the technique videos multiple times. He found books on wrestling and found out some of his relatives even wrestled at some point in their lives.
Like any beginner in the sport, he didn’t win much but he did win, sometimes just based on sheer determination and no technique. However, unlike a lot of people in this day and age who quit if they don’t become successful immediately, he kept coming to practice and competing. At the end of his first year he was awarded a provisional letter, which meant if he came back and competed at the Varsity level the next year, he would be a two-time letterman in the sport. This would be quite an accomplishment of someone who struggled to fit in at all in high school.
During his junior and senior seasons he showed improvement but came up short of every American high school wrestler’s goal, making it to State. Now typically a person with Asperger’s doesn’t take disappointment lightly. They can become secluded, depressed and/or angry. However, for some reason or another, none of these things happened. However, what came next shocked his parents. Somehow he knew after losing a do or die match, his wrestling days were not done yet. His thoughts turned into actions and those actions earned him the only wrestling scholarship that anyone received in his high school graduating class. That wrestler’s mentality coaches talk about, he has that.
He ended up walking on to a NAIA school team after spending a year taking classes at a junior college. He trained every day at the junior college’s weight room for 5 days a week for the spring semester and worked out all summer while working a 40-hour a week job to save money for school books and gas money. The semester started and he was ready, at least for wrestling. Wrestling had become a safe haven for him and as long as he had it as part of his life, he was okay.
With that being said, people with Asperger’s tend to adapt a different rate than someone who doesn’t have it. This can be as simple as not having their favorite bed spread one night, while it was being washed by their mother or something substantial like moving hundreds of miles from home for the first time. This is probably one of the most difficult challenges any “normal” person faces but it is amplified substantially due to the brain wiring of a person with Asperger’s.
For lack of a better term, he was homesick. His parents, friends he grew up with, and his pet dog didn’t show come with him. He finally broke down and went to the person who promised to take care of him while being away from home, his coach. This coach was just as smart and insightful as his high school coach was, and talked this scared kid from walking away and going home after only being at school for 2 weeks. Over the next three years and despite injuries, the coach let me keep his scholarship so this young man could have an opportunity to finish his degree, which the young man learned was more valuable than being an All-American, even though being an All-American is what he wanted to do.
Fast-forward some years and some trials and you can find a man who is happy but you won’t be able to tell because with his particular flavor or Asperger’s he doesn’t show a lot of emotion. He coaches his own kids in the sport that gave him a sense of belonging, a few select friends and memories that will last forever. Coaching them is his way of giving back to the sport. Always remembering what his high school coach said many years prior, “Once wrestling gets into your blood, it will never go away.” His coach had no idea how true this would be for this young man when he said it.