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ASD Gifts in the World of Competitive Football

by Thomas Ankner, guest author

Please welcome guest blogger, Thomas Ankner, as he shares his experience as a high school athlete with autism – a football player who excels on the field and earns high grades in the classroom.

When most people think of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), they do not think of competitive athletes.  I am a varsity wide receiver, and kick-off and punt returner for Rock Canyon High School with a goal of attending a Division I university on a football scholarship.  I maintain a 4.0 GPA as a Junior, taking all Advanced Placement and Honors courses. I have been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).  While many view ASD as a disability, I focus on using my gifts that others may see as challenges to help me succeed in the areas I find interesting.  I do not let ADS define me.  I use ASD traits to help me be the best person I can be in areas that are motivating to me.

Finding football was key for me.  Attending an all Highly Gifted and Talented elementary school, I often found myself in physical confrontations with other students.  I was one of the kids that disrupted Kindergarten so was pulled out of class for a special social skills group. I had Sensory Integration Occupational Therapy for several years and finally was diagnosed with ASD when I was eight years old.  Applied Behavioral Analysis  was helpful as was speech therapy in my early years but I did not fully begin to succeed until I discovered sports, particularly football. 

Only 2% of identified people with ASD excel at competitive athletics but I believe there must be more; they are either undiagnosed or chose not to go public.  Sports require extreme focus, hard work, honesty, structure, routine, repetition, and a willingness to forgo typical social relations.  Positions like wide receiver, goalie, and catcher, all of which I played, require intense technical knowledge.  These are traits often associated with ASD and ones that I have embraced as I worked on being one of Colorado’s top football players.

My extreme focus allows me to spend countless hours preparing for each game, watching game film to study the opponent, running routes after practice, or going through the playbook over and over again to ensure I never miss an assignment.  I work hard to be the best I can be.  Coaches praise me because I Iisten to them, incorporate their feedback, and do my best each and every time.  I work on my routes incessantly  until they are perfect.  Coaches know everytime I hit the field, I leave it all out there.  Early in my freshman year, I was already being compared to Wes Welker with my 5 feet 9 inches and 170 pounds muscular build, skilled route running, quick moves, and soft hands.  I am just as committed to and determined with my studies as I am on the field.

My lack of interest in typical social interactions allows me extra time on the field and in the books but it does have its drawbacks.  I have a hard time making small talk with people in certain situations so I do not.  This leaves me with less distractions and more time to focus on my interests which I consider positive.  Don’t get me wrong,  I have friends, a girlfriend, and a great sense of humor.  I have no issue with opening up to people I feel I have a connection with.  However, it is hard talking to strangers and hence, promoting myself.  This is a challenge I currently face. College coaches expect players to self-promote via Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, e-mail, phone calls, and interviews.  I would rather work on my skills and game and have faith that others will see my achievements but I am learning that this is not how college recruiting works.  I even had difficulty getting myself to write this article.  Luckily, I have coaches, friends, and family that are teaching me why this is necessary and how to do it. I have to trust their judgement, make small tasks to accomplish, and remind myself of my ultimate goal, college football.   

I can be cocky and self-interested at times which may sound socially unacceptable to some but on the football field, it comes in handy.  First, if you do not believe in yourself, you will not even get on the field.  Second, once on the field, if you do not exhibit confidence, you will have trouble succeeding and your team will not be able to rely on you.

My advice to others with ASD is to find what inspires you.  Find that interest where you feel comfortable to dive into what is really motivating and use your skills to excel.  My advice to the world is to give people with ASD a chance.  We tend to be focused, hard working, and honest.  Take the risk, accept us to universities, on teams, and into the workforce.  We come in all shapes, sizes, and abilities, you might be surprised.

About the Author

Thomas Ankner is an accomplished high school athlete and scholar diagnosed with autism. He was nominated for the Marine Semper Fidelis All Americans Program for his athleticism, grades, community service, and leadership. Thomas is one of the most skilled high school football route runner in Colorado, where he resides and attends school. He maintains a perfect GPA with AP classes. He looks forward to applying to colleges to play football or become an engineer.