When I was four years old, I was diagnosed with PDD-NOS (pervasive developmental disorder), and at age five, my doctors and specialists told my parents that because I have autism, I wouldn’t be or do much in life.
They told my parents I would barely graduate from high school, never go to college, never be an athlete, and eventually end up in a group institution with other individuals like myself.
Fast forward to 2007—I graduated from the great Okemos High School and then went on to Grand Valley State University on a full scholarship for basketball.
When things didn’t work out for me at GV, I decided to transfer and live out my lifelong dream of playing basketball for Coach Tom Izzo and the Michigan State Spartans.
I was a walk-on for two years until my senior year when I was awarded a full scholarship from Coach Izzo.
I was a part of two Big Ten Championship teams and a team that went to the Final Four in 2010, and I also became the first known Division 1 College Basketball Player in NCAA history with an autism diagnosis. But my biggest achievement was graduating with a bachelor’s degree in Sociology from MSU in 2012.
It wasn’t easy climbing to the top of the mountain to achieve my dream of playing for Michigan State, and in my life, things always didn’t come easy for me on and off the court—especially off the court, as I wasn’t exactly the smartest kid in school. I was a very slow learner, and I had to take things step by step and second by second.
On top of that, I took lots of bullying and disrespect from my classmates because of my autism and my height (I currently stand at 6’9, but I was 6’0 at 11 years old). So how was I able to stay strong? How was I able to stay motivated while being on the spectrum? But the bigger question is how was I able to believe in myself? Well, the answer is simple…my support system.
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The day my parents were told my “future fate,” my father got out of his chair and told those folks I was going to graduate high school and go to college and graduate. My parents didn’t know how, but they were going to find a way to get me there.
Remember, this was in 1993-1994, a time when there was NO path or guidance for people with autism like we have now. But somehow, someway, my parents were relentless in making sure they and the Okemos Public School administration, teachers, and staff helped me get the services I needed to be successful in school.
If something in my Individualized Education Plan (IEP) did not work, my parents and teachers would come together and find something that did. They made it a team effort to make sure we were all successful. They always tried to push me up and let me fly as high as I could go, and my teachers and other support services did the same every day.
That’s my advice to all parents out there because I know some folks reading this might think to themselves that their child might not do the things I’m able to do. Just continue to keep your expectations high and let your kiddos fly. Push them up and they will make it a heck of a lot higher than either you or the people around you think they can go.
All of this motivation and relentless attitude my parents had rubbed onto me, and it was the same attitude I took with me to the court or when people doubted my ability to do anything because I have autism.
But the goals I had on my checklist—to graduate from high school, get a full-ride scholarship for basketball, and graduate college—were the three things that always motivated me every day. My advice to those on the spectrum is to find motivation in things you want to do or finish in life.
Whether it’s graduating from high school or college, getting a job, getting good grades in class, whatever it is, write it down in your own personal checklist and carry that list around with you every day. As a national motivational speaker, I always ask folks, “What is your Why in life?”
Now I’m done with basketball and college, my Whys in life are my family, my wife, my two sons, and the autism community. Those things are why I love to do what I do in life. I have my Whys written down in my phone, and they’re the first thing I see when I turn my phone on. I know my Whys in life, and now I’m asking all of you reading this…what are yours?
On a side note, I’m glad I’m writing this now because I know we’re all dealing with a crazy time. The world’s upside down and the things we love to do are currently put on hold for the time being. As an individual on the spectrum, that’s not easy because I like to have a certain schedule to be on and have a daily routine.
Since this pandemic began, trying to find an alternative routine hasn’t been easy, and I can imagine it hasn’t been easy for others either. My advice to all families, individuals, and those who are affected by autism is to continue to stay positive during this time.
It’s important to try and have a positive mindset throughout all of the good and the bad we’re dealing with. I try to stay positive for my wife and kids as best as I can because it’s an interesting time for all of us. We can’t continue to point the finger and be angry at someone for why all of this is happening.
We can only be positive and thankful for the ones we love in life. Continue to support your family, friends, colleagues, schools, and teachers because this is the time to support each other and help one another as well. To those reading this, just know if there’s anything I can do, please don’t hesitate to find me and reach out to me.
I’m always going to continue to support and be there for the community I keep near and dear to my heart. A community I will always put on my back every day. And that’s the autism community.
This article was featured in Issue 106 –Maintaining a Healthy Balance With ASD