This post is by Darrin Steele the CEO of the USA Bobsled and Skeleton Team.
USA Bobsled & Skeleton is proud to be entering our fourth year as a partner
with Autism Speaks. The Autism Speaks bobsled has already earned two World Cup silver medals in as many races under third-year pilot Cory Butner and Olympic brakeman Chuck Berkeley. The original request to partner with Autism Speaks came from Olympian, Steve Langton, in recognition of his cousin. At that time I was still getting used to the idea that my own son,
Darrin Khan, had been diagnosed with autism, and he and I weren’t talking much about it. A lot happens in four years.
In 2004, 1 in 150 children born had autism. Four years later, in 2008, it was 1 in 110. Four years have passed since then and today, 1 in 88 children are born with autism. It’s a disturbing trend and only half of the increase can be attributed to better diagnostic techniques. Autism Speaks is at the forefront of the research trying to solve this mystery and we are happy to increase awareness to their cause.
It was exciting watching the sled compete against the best in the world this season. As I watched it speed past me in Park City en route to another World Cup medal, I suddenly realized the symbolism between autism and a trip in a bobsled.
Five Ways in which Autism is like a Bobsled Ride
1. Teamwork. The only way that our teams can be successful is by working together. Only the best athletes make the cut, but no one gets it done on his or her own. We learn very quickly to rely on our teammates for our success. The best teams genuinely care about each other and share a special passion for the sport that makes them all better.
This concept can be a hard reality for families dealing with a child with autism – it certainly was for me. My wife and I didn’t trust anyone and our instinct was to shelter my son from the world around him. We quickly learned that the only way to give him what he needed was to build a team around him. We are fortunate to have a great team made up of teachers, administrators, aids, therapists, family and friends. There’s only one rule to being on this team; you have to care about my son. If you don’t care about him, you don’t make the cut.
2. Sometimes you crash. Every time our athletes go to the line, there is a chance they wind up on their heads. Some crashes are worse than others, but if you are in the sport long enough, it is going to happen. New drivers crash more than experienced ones and the most important thing about a crash is knowing why it happened. You still have the bruises, but you can avoid the same mistake in the future if you learn from it.
When my son was five, we took him trick-or-treating for Halloween. He seemed to understand what was going on that year, so we were ready to have a great time in our neighborhood as a family. The only problem was that while he understood the costumes, he didn’t understand how the rest of it worked. His only frame of reference for ringing a doorbell involved entering the home when the door opened. So that’s what he did – at every house. There was a great deal of stimulation around him, so my attempts at teaching him this new process were less than successful. Eventually, he had a meltdown and I took a very upset boy home early, which was hard on all of us. In hindsight, we could have simply practiced at a few houses before the big night and avoided the whole thing. The crash still hurt, but we learned to avoid the same mistake again.
3. You need guts. We always lose a few athletes because they just can’t get used to the danger. The athletes who stick around either enjoy the risk or learn to overcome their fears. The scariest moments for most athletes come not during a crash, but in preparing go back down the hill after a crash. That’s when you find out what an athlete is made of. There is no greater joy than when a team has a successful run after a crash.
Unlike bobsled, families with autism don’t get the choice of opting out. Whether they like it or not, these families figure out that having guts is a necessary part of the equation. Whether you have to fight for resources, ignore the disapproving looks from people in public, face the painful realities of the future or enter a situation right after a “crash;” you’ve got to have guts or you will get run over. There’s a great quote by an unknown author that fits nicely here; “You never know how strong you are, until being strong is the only choice you have.”
4. You learn to react. Every bobsled team starts down the hill with a plan. Very often, however, you find the curves coming at you so fast you just have to react to what’s in front of you. The more experienced you are, the more comfortable you become reacting to situations.
These families eventually know the triggers and the cues to look for, but they also know that you have to be ready for anything. You learn to expect the unexpected and become comfortable reacting to what’s in front of you.
5. We are educators. Bobsled is a small sport that the general public knows little about. We educate people as often as we can. Our athletes and coaches know how special this sport is and they are all too happy to share it, warts and all. One of the first things we try to do is put someone in a sled. It is the only way they can truly appreciate the sport. They don’t usually come to us, so we have to go to them and bring them into our world.
Education and awareness are pretty important to autism spectrum disorders. It is almost impossible to generalize because each child falls somewhere different on the spectrum. At the same time, we are bringing these children up in a world that was not designed with them in mind. The end result is that too often the challenges and children are misunderstood. People outside this world usually don’t realize just how special these kids are. I don’t just mean the special talents that many of them have, but the major role these kids have in their families. Once you look beyond the things they can’t do, you will see smiles and love and laughter and sadness and desires and larger than life personalities. You will see children who can light up any room they walk into and touch the lives of those “teammates” around them. And because those outside of this world usually don’t come to us, we have to go to them. The best way to educate people about autism is to show them how special these kids are and open up our lives to them, warts and all.