Athletes come from all walks of life, and with the right amount of practice and determination, anyone can excel at athletics. Individuals with both physical and mental disabilities are able to play sports competitively thanks to Paralympic sports and special athletics leagues. As athletics have evolved, so have the opportunities for athletes with different disabilities, such as autism.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, autism spectrum disorder is a form of developmental disability that affects both men and women. Autism spectrum disorder encompasses multiple disorders, including autism disorder, pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified, and Asperger’s syndrome. Those who are diagnosed with autism often experience social, communicational and behavioral challenges throughout their lives.
However, the challenges that are associated with autism do not always have a negative impact on an individual’s life. Many individuals who are diagnosed with autism are still incredibly talented in music, art, academics and even sports.
Participating in sports and other forms of exercise can be beneficial for both adults and children who have been diagnosed with autism, according to Autism Speaks. However, due to challenges with concentration and over-stimulus, some autistic individuals find it difficult to participate in sports. It’s incredibly important for individuals who struggle with autism to have role models and other autistic individuals to look to for inspiration, especially in something as therapeutic as sports.
Here are a few athletes who have overcome the challenges of autism to excel in athletics.
After being diagnosed with autism at a young age, Michael Brannigan joined the Rolling Thunder Special Needs Program to help him socialize and make use of his excess energy, according to ESPN. However, he never imagined that he would become one of the country’s most accomplished runners by the time he graduated high school.
Brannigan was the number-one runner at Northport Senior High School in New York, and was the New Balance High School National Champion in the 4×1 mile relay. In Feburary 2015, Brannigan was named the Sports Illustrated Athlete of the Month.
However, Brannigan’s success was not limited to high school track and field. He was also a member of the 2015 United States Paralympic track and field team. In 2015, shortly after graduating high school, Brannigan finished first overall in the men’s 1500 meters and second in the men’s 500 meter at the IPC Athletics World Championships. He then went on to take first place in the men’s 1500 meter at both the U.S. Paralympics Track and Field National Championships and the Parapan American Games. In an interview with ESPN, Brannigan said he hopes to qualify for the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan.
Although Brannigan still struggles socially and faces multiple challenges due to his condition, he serves as an incredible inspiration to other autistic individuals who want to get involved in athletics.
Despite being diagnosed with a mild form of autism, known as Asperger’s syndrome, at the age of 18, Clay Marzo finds comfort in the water and has established himself as one of the world’s best professional surfers.
In an interview with ABC, Marzo’s mother, Jill Marzo, said that the sport of surfing was comforting for her son and gave him something on which to focus his attention. Marzo found interacting in social situations to be incredibly difficult but used his passion for surfing as an escape from these challenges. He regularly competes against non-disabled athletes in surfing competitions around the world.
Marzo has earned a number of incredible achievements throughout his surfing career, including becoming the National Scholastic Surfing Association National Champion in 2005, an X Games gold medalist in 2007, and the top finisher at the World Qualifying Series in 2009. In addition to numerous accolades, Marzo has also earned a sponsorship with Quiksilver, according to USA Today.
In addition to his career as a professional surfer, Marzo is involved with Surfers Healing, an organization that allows children with autism to get involved in the therapeutic sport of surfing.
Like Clay Marzo, British swimmer Jessica-Jane Applegate also lives with the challenges associated with Asperger’s syndrome. She has become one of the most inspiration female athletes with a developmental disability since starting her career in 2011.
Applegate competes in what is known as the S14 division, which is a special division for swimmers with intellectual impairments, according to BBC.
The 19-year-old is a decorated athlete; she has won a total of 24 gold medals while competing in Paralympic events. She also holds 11 British records and one world record in the S14 100 meter butterfly. In 2015, Applegate qualified to compete in her first able-bodied event at the British Summer Championships.
BBC reported that Applegate is currently preparing to represent Great Britain in the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Just because an individual has been diagnosed with a developmental disorder does not mean that he or she cannot achieve greatness, and these athletes are here to prove it. Each of them serves as an inspiration to the rest of the autistic community, proving that despite the challenges of autism, they can do anything they set their minds to.