JIM PETERS: Washington Township boys track team opens its arms to autistic student

2014-05-08T17:00:00Z 2014-05-09T00:05:16Z JIM PETERS: Washington Township boys track team opens its arms to autistic studentJim Peters Times Columnist nwitimes.com
May 08, 2014 5:00 pm  • 

Autism is a mysterious disorder, symbolized by pieces of a puzzle.

Those with it can be trapped within the cognitive constraints of their brain and often seek the cocoon of a daily routine, where they find a sense of security.

It's a challenge to coax the autistic out of that shell. Just ask a parent like Karen Emmons of Portage. It's also a wonderful, heart-warming feeling to watch them take that step into the unknown and see what's out there.

It's happening every day this spring on the track at Washington Township, where boys coach Teri Barkas persuaded Michael Emmons, a 17-year-old autistic student, to be the team's manager.

"It's been a blessing," said Karen Emmons, who brought her son to the school two years ago to put him in a smaller setting. "The teachers have been very flexible. The students have been phenomenal. He's struggled socially forever. I'd try to talk to him, to get him into something. You know how that goes ... "

Actually, I do. Our youngest son, Cameron, now 22, has a mild form of autism. Over the years, I've referenced the difference makers in his life, the teachers, the sports coaches, impactful people with the caring and understanding to try to negotiate the obstacles that go with the circumstances.

Many people can't or don't want to deal with it. Thank God for those who try, like Barkas, who struck a rapport with Emmons and thought that having him help at practice would be a good experience for him.

"People who don't understand, they tend to step away," said senior hurdler Luke Soliday, who did a project in a vocational class called "Opening Pandora's Box," aimed at creating greater knowledge and awareness of mental health issues like autism. "They don't want to interact."

A smile, a hi, an extended hand can all go a long way. Emmons handles tasks like placing hurdles on the track and getting equipment out of storage, but the social dynamic is the most important activity that takes place.

"When you have a bad day, Michael's there to brighten your day, to pick you up," senior Joe Nugent said. "He's always in a good mood."

Nugent laughed, calling Emmons their new Thamarr, in reference to former Senator Thamarr McGee, the life of the party on last year's team. He first met Emmons in the fall, when they were in the same art class.

"It's nice to make new friends," Emmons said.

Emmons struggles to express himself in conversation, but you get his point with a thumbs up signal, the phrase "oh yeah!" or the special handshake he shares with his teammates. In a quick stream of consciousness, he references John Denver songs, Snoopy and the old Honeymooners sitcom out of the blue, breaking the circle into laughter.

On May 17, most of the team will join Emmons for the Chicago Walk Now for Autism Speaks at Soldier Field. Neon green T-shirts feature the Superman logo with an M (for Michael) on the front and the phrase, "Seeing the World from a Different Angle" on the back. Emmons' grandmother Pat Batchelder donated money to buy the shirts for the group.

"I feel like it will be an honor to be in Chicago with the team," Soliday said. "Anytime you can benefit something like this, bring attention to it, it's a really cool thing. It's important to do."

It's all about breaking down barriers and eliminating stereotypes, something we can help accomplish by chipping away at them ourselves.

"It's a great cause, raising awareness for something so prevalent," Nugent said.

As I left Washington Township on Monday, Michael and I hugged and did his handshake. I was happy to have a new friend. I hope he was, too.

This column solely represents the writer's opinion. Reach him at james.peters@nwi.com.

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