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8 Individuals with Autism Who've Been Impacted By Sports

In our community we’ve seen the amazing impact that sports have had on those with autism.  Today studies show the positive correlation that sports can have to help those with autism leading to improvements in communication, social and cognitive skills. In addition, nearly a third of individuals with autism today are medically obese putting a bigger impact on finding outlets for physical activity.

On behalf of 10 Years of Progress we wanted to highlight several individuals from our community who’ve been positively impacted by sports…

Eric Kirschner

Eric who was a media intern at Autism Speaks was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome at the age of 13. Growing up he used sports as an outlet to help him make friends. During that time he played basketball, baseball, and hockey.

Eric writes, “In looking back at the growth I made because I embraced getting involved with sports, I know how valuable it can be to help others on the spectrum grow as well. If nothing else, playing sports and getting involved on teams simply made me feel genuinely good and that was invaluable for my growth.” 

Michael Brannigan


Michael was diagnosed with autism at 18 months, has been running since he was nine years old when he joined the Rolling Thunder Special Needs Program, which provides individuals with disabilities the opportunity to participate in mainstream running events. Michael has been able to use running to help him learn about work ethic and is now being pursued by over 200 universities for college.

Michael has been featured in several publications, including Runners WorldNewsday and Business Insider.

Malcom Harris Gowdie

While some play sports, others are impacted by simply having a passion for watching the games. Malcom, a young adult with autism from Florida is a perfect example of that. Growing up he was involved with Special Olympics and participated in Basketball, Golf, Track and Field, and Bowling. In 2010, Malcom was awarded Special Olympics St. Lucie County Athlete of the Year. By playing sports as a kid he now has aspirations to become a sportscaster for ESPN.

Malcom writes on advice for other athletes, “Try your best and remember to have fun in the moment!”

Josh Bailey

Another great example of learning a work ethic from sports is high school senior Josh Bailey. Josh, who was non-verbal until the age of 3 ½ is now living his dream of playing high school football. Josh has gained interest from NCAA Division III School in Cincinnati, the College of Mount St. Joseph.

Josh writes, “Football has given me basically all of my high school friends. It’s given me something to love.”

Maverick Steiner

Maverick, who was a quiet kid was able to open up to others by finding a passion for golf. Now, after hitting each shot, he squeals with delight and loves talking about the game.

Maverick’s mother Monique says on Maverick’s passion for golf, “I don’t know where it came from. I really don’t. It’s pretty amazing.”

James Piccarto

James, a young adult with autism dealt with several challenges growing up. Diagnosed with autism at 3, many thought James would never speak or communicate. Thanks to his interventions though James was able to overcome many oh his obstacles. James collected racecars as a kid that led to him finding a love of NASCAR. He used this as an outlet and later a hobby he could get involved with in his spare time. In 2010, James even got to meet NASCAR drivers Jeff Gordon and Denny Hamlin.

James writes, I even got to ride around Dover International Speedway during the pre-race ceremonies before the 2010 Autism Speaks 400 with Jeff Gordon and Denny Hamlin. One young man that stands out to me the most is Jeff Gordon's former crew chief Ray Vernham's son Ray J. Evernham. He is on the Autism spectrum and he really stood out to me the most and made me realize of how proud we are to be autistic. 

Natalie Nielsen

Others have been impacted by sports by just having a great time and having fun! Natalie, a teenager with autism plays baseball and broke out into the “Cha-Cha” slide during a little league Challenger baseball game. Natalie loves to dance and certainly had an amazing time at this game!

Anthony Ianni

Our last athlete on this list was the first individual with autism to ever play Division I college basketball. Anthony was told at age five by doctors and specialists that he would be lucky to graduate high school. Thanks to basketball and finding a niche, Anthony was able to get a college degree from Michigan State University. Anthony also learned how to make friends and learn how to communicate with others through basketball.

Anthony says, “Throughout my life, I had difficulties in school because of the way I struggled with words, nouns, verbs, idioms, and even sarcasm.  So my biggest concern when I got to college was how I would do in the classroom and where I would get the help I needed. I had a great deal of resources that were available to me and I took advantage of them right away because I was determined to graduate and get my degree.”

Unfortunately, boys and girls with autism often face barriers to participating fully in youth community organizations. And so with help from respected experts in the field of autism and special education, experienced parents and caregivers, we have created Leading the Way: Autism-Friendly Youth Organizations, a guide for organizations to ensure that youth with autism have the same formative experiences through community programs that are available to their typical peers. Download the guide here.

How have sports impacted your loved one’s life? Tell us in the comments.

The Autism Speaks blog features opinions from people throughout the autism community. Each blog represents the point of view of the author and does not necessarily reflect Autism Speaks' beliefs or point of view.