What Olympic athletes
can teach us about autism
By Todd Harris, Ph.D.,
Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health Executive
Director – Autism Services
The 2018 Winter Olympics is just around the corner, and as
I think about this exciting international event, it is an amazing display of
good sportsmanship, taking pride in one’s country, and a world coming together
to celebrate hundreds of outstanding athletes.
But as athletes from around the world prepare to go for the
gold in South Korea, it’s more than the triumphant finishes or amazing feats
that captivate us, it’s also the incredible origin stories: the years of preparation;
the challenges and failures on the path to success; and the tireless devotion
of athletes to their sports and their teams. Olympic athletes are inspiring,
uplifting and an example of what can be accomplished through hard work and
These athletes also give us powerful insight into the lives
of those with autism.
Why? The cornerstones of athletic success - routine,
repetition and commitment - are exactly the same for individuals with autism.
Everyday life can sometimes be overwhelming for those with
autism and excessive stimulation – too much noise, too many people, 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, such as
getting up and going to bed at the same time every day, or more involved, like
participation in tailored therapeutic programs that provide support and growth.
Similar to 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 – adjusting to changes in settings or routines, communicating effectively
with others and understanding 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 hockey player, who needs to skate every day to stay sharp, individuals
with autism often need continued practice and coaching 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 toward their dream of winning
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 this diagnosis
can’t live fulfilled and accomplished lives as we have frequently witnessed. Through
an ongoing commitment to development of communication, social and independence
skills – and with the support of loving families, friends and support teams –
individuals with autism achieve fulfilling, productive and socially connected
Olympic athletes are inspiring, as are individuals with
autism – and we can learn from all of them. Through routine, repetition and
commitment, we can unlock our true human potential and share it with the world.
Learn about Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health.