By Mark Palmer
Wrestling is for everybody.
That’s one of the most appealing aspects of amateur wrestling. It’s a sport that is open to all types of individuals. Males and females. Individuals of every height, weight and body-build. Athletes dealing with hearing or vision loss, missing limbs or other physical aspects that might be considered “limitations” (or even “deal-breakers”) in other sports.
Add autism to that list.
Many individuals diagnosed with autism have found that wrestling is the right sport for them.
This article will explain what autism is … and how some individuals who had tried other sports or activities have found the right fit in amateur wrestling.
How this story came together
Originally, I had been talking to Jeff Sitler of Ohio’s Mad River Wrestling Officials Association about writing a recap of their annual Wrestle Against Autism tournament held in Columbus each April for the past decade. This year’s tourney, held at Otterbein University, attracted approximately 300 participants, ranging in age from six to 30-something … with the majority of participants being in high school. As Sitler told InterMat, “Not all participants are autistic, but all are there to support someone with autism.”
The tournament is a fundraiser to assist individuals who have been diagnosed with autism. In addition to ticket sales and entry fees, Wrestle Against Autism also raises funds through auctions held at the tournament, including autographed headgear from Cael Sanderson, a singlet signed by Mark Schultz, and t-shirts from Frank Jasper, the former wrestler who played Brian Shute in the 1980s movie “Vision Quest.” Proceeds from Wrestle Against Autism go to purchase laptops and other learning tools; in addition, another primary benefactor of the event is 4 Paws for Ability, a Xenia, Ohio-based organization that provides service dogs for individuals on the autism spectrum.
As I interviewed Sitler, I learned more than the facts and stats about the Wrestle Against Autism tournament. I also gained a new understanding of autism and how wrestling has proven to be an ideal sport for some diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. It occurred to both of us that the subject deserved more than a basic recap … but, instead, a more detailed feature story incorporating the personal stories of some of the Wrestle Against Autism participants who have autism.
First, what is autism?
Here’s how the website Autism Speaks defines autism:
“Autism, or autism spectrum disorder, refers to a range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication, as well as by unique strengths and differences. We now know that there is not one autism but many types, caused by different combinations of genetic and environmental influences.
“The term ‘spectrum’ reflects the wide variation in challenges and strengths possessed by each person with autism.”
The Autism Speaks website goes on to state that the most-obvious signs of autism tend to appear between 2 and 3 years of age … though it can be diagnosed as early as 18 months. Some developmental delays associated with autism can be identified and addressed even earlier, with early intervention which can improve outcomes.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that one in 68 children in the U.S. have been diagnosed with autism, translating to one in 42 boys and one in 189 girls. Approximately one-third of individuals with autism spectrum disorder remain nonverbal; a similar portion of those diagnosed with autism have an intellectual disability.
In interviewing individuals for this feature who have a personal connection to autism spectrum disorder, one phrase came up more than once: “If you know someone with autism, you know someone with autism.” In other words, each situation — and each individual with an autism diagnosis — is unique. Broad, sweeping generalizations just don’t work.
That said, a number of young people with an autism diagnosis have found a place in the sport of wrestling. Wrestling Against Autism’s Jeff Sitler put InterMat in touch with the parents of three wrestlers of different ages from various parts of the country who all share some form of autism.
“His social skills are lacking. He didn’t speak until age two. He has sensory processing disorder, meaning his brain doesn’t interpret signals appropriately — what is called ‘textural issues.’ For example, taking a bath made him scream. The feeling of the water upset him. After all, ‘texture’ can be called a sixth sense.”
“Smells can also bother him. We use essential oils to mask odors. Sounds are also exacerbated.”
“A.J. is on the higher end of the autism spectrum, almost like Asperger’s syndrome.” (Here’s how AutismSpeaks.org defines Asperger syndrome: “Asperger syndrome was generally considered to be on the ‘high functioning’ end of the spectrum. Affected children and adults have difficulty with social interactions and exhibit a restricted range of interests and/or repetitive behaviors. Motor development may be delayed, leading to clumsiness or uncoordinated motor movements. Compared with those affected by other forms of ASD, however, those with Asperger syndrome do not have significant delays or difficulties in language or cognitive development…”)
“He avoids eye contact,” Victoria explained. “A lot of his autism is anxiety-based.”
“The first couple of practices, he cried a lot. Since then, he’s adjusted to it well.”
So well, in fact, that in his second year of wrestling, A.J. managed to compile a 61-11 record this past season, placing first at one state tournament, and second at another. (“He said, ‘I want to go back next year and not be second'” according to Victoria.)
So … what is it about wrestling that works for A.J. and his situation?
For starters, Victoria described her 6-year-old son as being “extremely physically strong.”
She added, “It’s a solo sport. He doesn’t need to depend on others.”
That said, Victoria cited the “sense of camaraderie in wrestling” that appeals to her son, adding, “You don’t mess with a teammate.”
“Sportsmanship is very important. He pinned an opponent who started to cry. A.J. tried to care for him, rubbing his back.”
A.J.’s club coach, Jeremy Abbott, a Parkersburg native who has wrestled since age 5 and competed for West Virginia powerhouse Parkersburg South High, told InterMat, “I had no idea A.J. was autistic until about three-fourths of the way through the season.”
“He’s a real natural at (wrestling),” Abbott continued. “He’s very coachable. I can yell out a move from the sidelines and he’ll attempt it.”
“I don’t treat him any different than any of the other wrestlers. In fact, I expect more from him.”
“He’s come a long way in two years. Last year, if he lost, he’d have a meltdown. This year, I’d talk to him and he’d calm down within a minute or so.”
“That growth is his biggest accomplishment. Even in losing, he’s demonstrating that he’s learning.”
Wrestling has had a positive impact on A.J. off the mat as well.
“His grades have improved since wrestling. The discipline of wrestling has helped with his classroom behavior. He gets worn out in wrestling practice, sleeps better, and focuses more at school.”
“He’s making friends. His teammates want to include A.J. in on things, like inviting him to sleepovers.”
“He’s never loved anything before wrestling,” said Victoria. “He gets excited about going to practice, to wrestling events. These people love him.”
“Wrestling opens so many doors for my son, providing so many opportunities I never thought he’d have,” according to Victoria. “Helps him become assimilated into society. He’s making friends, developing trust, empathy, integrity, sportsmanship … It’s completely life-changing.”
“He’s even talking about wanting to be a college wrestler someday.”
That’s a possibility reinforced by his club coach.
“I can see him doing well in high school and maybe even in college,” said Jeremy Abbott.
Christian, age 16
Christian, who lives in White Bear Lake, Minn., a suburb of St. Paul, came to his autism diagnosis — and to the sport of wrestling — somewhat late.
“He was diagnosed with autism in sixth grade, which is rather late,” said his father Terry Hancock. “His teacher had an autistic kid and she recognized some of the same aspects in Christian.”
“Growing up, Christian tried different sports, but would give up on them. He played eighth-grade football. His coaches thought he should wrestle,” said Hancock, who wrestled some growing up in southeast Ohio near Wheeling, W.Va.
“He had a rough start. Lost every single match — approximately 60 of them — in his first year. But he wanted to do it again, this time in high school (at White Bear Lake High).”
“He was an extra on the JV Freshman squad — wrestled 195. Won his first match at a cancer fundraiser. That was the first of two wins that season.”
“Sat out his sophomore year because of a football injury. Lost a lot of weight.”
“Discovered Brazilian ju-jitsu in the off season, and found out that wrestling and ju-jitsu complement each other.”
“In his junior year, Christian became a JV starter, weighing about 165. He had a winning record, scored a lot of points for his team, and placed sixth at the JV Conference championships.”
“He was voted ‘Most Improved JV Wrestler’ that year.”
“He’s now doing club wrestling with the Ice Bears, learning freestyle and Greco-Roman. (Former University of Minnesota wrestler/mixed martial arts fighter) Jacob Volkmann is his coach.”
“As a ninth grader, Christian hoped to win. This year, he expected to win.”
Christian has demonstrated steady improvement and greater success in wrestling. He has put in much effort … and that has paid dividends beyond the practice room and the mat.
“Christian used to be bullied,” according to his dad Terry. “Wrestling has helped him find his place as an individual, while also finding he’s a part of a community. That’s given him a sense of belonging.”
“We’ve built a support network which helps him with athletics and academics.”
“He received an award for high GPA as an athlete. His academics have improved, as he has a greater determination to do well. I’d say it’s a complete turnaround.”
In addition, Christian has gained additional interests. He’s teaching himself to play the guitar, and repairs VCRs and other electronics.
What does the future hold for Christian?
“He definitely has plans for college,” Terry Hancock told InterMat. “Lots of his teachers want him to go to Augsburg, so he may go there to school. While he may not wrestle for them, he may want to give back to wrestling in some way, as a manager, for instance, or in some other capacity.”
“Wrestling has been nothing but a positive for Christian. Life has been so much better for him because of it. Such a brotherhood.”
Mason, age 20
Mason was born in Maryland, but now lives in the northern suburbs of Cincinnati with his parents and brother Jensen, who’s just 20 months younger.
Mason was diagnosed at age five. His mother had an intuition that something was wrong, despite assurances otherwise from his pediatrician and nurses.
Both Quinn boys wrestled at Lakota West High School, where Jensen is third on the school’s all-time pin list.
Their dad Mark Quinn, a retired FBI agent, grew up competing in a combat sport himself — boxing — which he said “got me through some tough times, but I knew that wasn’t for my sons.”
“I think individual combat sports are great for young people,” Mark Quinn told InterMat. “They teach valuable lessons.”
“Joe Hiles — Mason’s godfather, and related to Luke Fickell (football coach first at Ohio State, now at University of Cincinnati, and some say was the best high school heavyweight wrestler in Ohio) — got the boys into wrestling club.”
“I think the world of wrestling. We knew Mason was a strong kid. To be a wrestler, you don’t have to be a superstar athlete, but tough, hard-working.”
Mason started wrestling in second grade. However, it wasn’t Mason’s first sport. He started swimming at age six months, and was competing at age four, through the sixth grade. (“It gave him confidence and exercise,” said Mark Quinn.) He also played one year of flag football, and ran cross country for three years.”
Mason found success in wrestling, accumulating a total of 54 wins in his junior and senior years at Lakota West.
“Wrestling is an arena where an individual with autism can succeed,” said the elder Quinn. “It gives him socialization with his peers, and a sense of purpose.”
At age 20, Mason has served as a volunteer assistant coach at his alma mater for the past two years, and works out with the upper-weight wrestlers. In addition, he now works as an unpaid intern at the nearby West Chester Medical Center, learning various jobs at the hospital.
“Wrestling gave Mason acceptance,” according to his father. “Wrestling is a team sport. After all, the individual wrestler is scoring points for the team. And, conversely, the team can provide support to the individual athlete.”
“The camaraderie in wrestling is strong.”
Mason has gained much from his participation in wrestling … and so have his teammates and opponents, as well as fans.
“Mason helps his peers understand that everyone has something to contribute. He has been embraced by members of other teams.”