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The Asperger's Athlete

April 4, 2011

Asperger's Syndrome is a neurological disorder that, like others on the autism spectrum, is marked by difficulties in communication and social interaction. The set of characteristics easily identified with the condition was first identified by Austrian pediatrician Hans Asperger.

- Autism Speaks

Best-selling author Shonda Schilling says that if you've met one child with Asperger's syndrome, you've only met one child with Asperger's; each child with an autism spectrum disorder is unique. Her 11-year-old son, Grant, is one of those children.

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Shonda is the author of "The Best Kind of Different: Our Family's Journey with Asperger's Syndrome." If the last name rings a bell, it's because she's the wife of retired Boston Red Sox All-Star Curt Schilling. That's right, the guy with the bloody sock. Grant was diagnosed with Asperger's three years ago when he was 7 years old, and according to an excerpt from Shonda's book, it sent the family household into "chaos."

The mother of four says the challenges of raising a child with Asperger's or any autism spectrum disorder are many, and they certainly extend to youth sports. Shonda says the first time Grant played baseball it "was a disaster," and now he has no interest in it.

Basketball, they discovered, is the one sport where they could really see the drastic difference in ability.

Shonda calls Grant a "phenomenal" athlete, however, as has found success in the sports of indoor soccer and swimming. Her advice for any parent of a child with Asperger's who wants to play a particular sport is simple: "If they love it, let them play it."

After deciding on a sport, Shonda suggests parents talk to the coach before the season and find out first and foremost if that coach even is willing to have a child with Asperger's on the team. If so, give the coach some techniques he can use to deal with some of the common behavioral issues that are bound to occur.

"When you are coaching Grant, he might talk too close to you or touch you because he has sensory issues, and that can be awkward," Shonda says. "But nothing they (children with Asperger's) are doing is out of disrespect. If they don't look you in the eye and are locked in on a thought and can't answer you, it's because they can't break free from that thought. It's just the way their minds work."

Shonda says that coaches and parents who don't understand Asperger's often think a child's behavior is a result of poor manners or being disrespectful, when, in fact, the child is just overly focused on something else.

Shonda suggests to coaches that being firm and avoiding giving the athlete choices will help prevent situations from spiraling out of control. Despite the use of all types of techniques and interventions, however, there will still be times when a child with Asperger's will lapse into atypical behavior, as Grant did earlier this season in the middle of a soccer game.

"His shoe was untied and he became completely disconnected from what was going on around him," Shonda recalled. "He sat down in the middle of the action and just focused on trying to get his shoe tied up again, which he doesn't know how to do. The coach learned from this and the next game as soon as he saw Grant's shoe come untied, he immediately took him out, tied his shoe in a double knot and sent him back in."

Shonda says the most important thing is to make sure the child participates in all of the practices and plays the entire season.

"Too often, when you have a child with Asperger's who might not be able to find his shin guards one night, it's easier to just say, 'Forget practice tonight.' But you can't let that happen. It gets them out of their routine."

Shonda, who says the experience of raising Grant has made her a better person, hopes her experiences will help other children with Asperger's, including those who participate in youth sports.

"I think parents need to take their own selfish goals out of (youth sports), and we have to get back to the basics of raising happy, respectable children. Somehow we are taking the fun out sports. We are teaching achievement, being the best, winning. Somehow, the fun is not there anymore. And it should be."

Her husband, Curt, agrees completely, and not just when it comes to dealing with a child with Asperger's, but any child.

"Being a 'star' when you are talking about Asperger's has to be about the child. But I'd argue that's the case with any child. What you want for your child will likely never have anything to do with what your child truly wants. Your children will rise to the occasion, excel at things they love and want, not what you want them to love and want.

"Grant loves to swim, but something happened in a practice that made it a nightmare. So now, when he goes to practice or a meet, yes, he's disappointed when he finishes last but you can sense the pride in him that he actually did it. And our reinforcement and pride comes in knowing our 10-year-old faced a real physical fear, overcame it, and 'went for it.'

"That works for us. There's no need for Olympic gold, just win a daily struggle one time, then build on it."

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Jon Buzby is the author of a column called "Buzz on Youth Sports," He can be reached at



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