What Olympic Athletes Can Teach Us About Autism
By Todd Harris
The Olympics are on the horizon and athletes from around the world are gearing up to go for gold in Rio. But it’s more than just the triumphant finishes or amazing feats that captivate the world, it’s also the incredible origin stories: the days, months and years that go into preparing for competition; the many challenges and failures on the path to success; and the tireless devotion of athletes to their sports, their teams and their own success. Olympic athletes are inspiring, uplifting and an example to us all of what can be accomplished through hard work and dedication.
They also give us powerful insight into the lives of those with autism. The cornerstones of athletic success routine, repetition and commitment are the same for those with autism.
Everyday life can often be overwhelming for some individuals with autism and excessive stimulation too much noise, too many people, and too much visual stimuli can cause anxiety, confusion, even loss of self-control. Maintaining a routine is important for individuals with autism to help manage daily life and create stability and order. Routines can be simple, like getting up and going to bed at the same time every day, or more involved, like participation in tailored daily care programs that provide support and growth. Like Olympic athletes, when individuals with autism follow healthy daily, weekly, monthly and even yearly routines, they are able to thrive.
Many of the skills and behaviors that come naturally to most people eye contact, communicating with others and understanding of social cues must be acquired by individuals with autism. Learning appropriate social behavior can take considerable effort. Individuals with autism must build a solid foundation, and continue to reinforce their skills through repeated practice, instruction and support. Like an Olympic basketball player, who might finish every practice by shooting 100 free throws in order to stay sharp, individuals with autism often need continued practice and coaching in order to improve and maintain their communication and social skills.
Above all, what inspires us about Olympians is their dedication. Many spend their entire lives working towards their goals and the hopes of a gold medal. Likewise, individuals with autism, their families and their support teams work day in and day out to improve their quality of life. Autism is lifelong diagnoses, but that doesn’t mean individuals with it can’t live fulfilled and accomplished lives. Through an ongoing commitment to development of communication, social and independence skills, and with the support of loving families, friends and care teams, individuals with autism achieve fulfilling, productive and socially connected lives.
Olympic athletes are inspiring, but so are individuals with autism and we can all learn from them. Through routine, repetition and commitment, we can unlock our true human potential and share it with the world.
Todd Harris, Ph.D., is director of Autism Services for Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health Pennsylvania and National Autism Consultant.