Imagine walking into a coffee shop and immediately being overwhelmed by the sounds of peoples' voices. They are having their own private conversations, but it feels like they are yelling. People laugh, talk, whisper and make noises that all feel equally as magnified. The sounds of spoons clanking against half-empty mugs are so intense that the sound seems to pierce through your ears, making you cringe.
You approach the barista. It is your turn to make your order. You've rehearsed what you'll say over and over again in your head. The barista looks at you and asks what you'd like. The eye contact you make for a fraction of a second feels like staring into the sun. You glance away, not wanting your eyes to burn. The sound of someone sniffing from across the room distracts you. Processing and filtering all of the sounds, voices and faces feels as challenging as completing the most difficult calculus problem.
For someone with autism, this social situation is an every day reality. Which makes Nick Malouf, a 25-year-old with autism, both fearless and undaunted for achieving his most recent feat: joining the Howard County Special Olympics softball team.
Nick has always been active; he enjoys long distance running (sometimes running up to 16 miles at one time), has his black belt in karate, goes to yoga class, rides bikes, lifts weights, loves to ski the black diamond trails (the most difficult courses available at most ski resorts) and has participated in horseback riding lessons as well as swimming lessons.
But for Nick, team sports had always been out of the question due to his fear of negative criticism and social situations. Suzanne Malouf, Nick's mother, explains that negative criticism is not something Nick tolerates well. Due to the large amount of social anxiety brought on by autism, being criticized even in a very small way can be greatly magnified and feel much harsher than it would to someone who is neuro-typical.
The Special Olympics pairs individuals with coaches who are experienced in working with athletes who have intellectual disabilities. Suzanne says that Nick's coach, Chris Warren, has been incredible in working with him. "He'll go over to Nick and say, 'Nick, this is how you do it,' not 'Nick, you're doing it wrong.'" Suzanne says this way of using positive language to help Nick learn has been crucial in making softball something Nick loves.
Suzanne says she has noticed a huge difference in Nick since joining the Special Olympics softball team, and that he is a lot happier now. She adds that he often compares softball to going to Space Camp, which is one of his favorite childhood memories (and that's how she knows he's really enjoying it).
According to an article from Autism Speaks, "among the most important advantages of physical activity are the social implications of participating in sports and exercise. Physical activity can promote self-esteem, increase general levels of happiness and can lead to positive social outcomes, all highly beneficial outcomes for individuals with autism."
After speaking with Nick and asking him about playing softball, he asked if he could tell me something positive. "A positive thing is when people help people; they're helpers in the world."
There are many different individuals out there with autism who may be struggling to find a place they fit in and feel comfortable. Special Olympics is certainly a positive force and starting place for these individuals as they are able to learn new skills from experienced coaches and volunteers. These "helpers" provide athletes with a safe space to socialize and express themselves in their own way. And for someone like Nick, it makes him just as happy as going to Space Camp.
Hannah Boudreau, a student at Bloomsburg University, is interning with the Special Olympics Maryland communications department.