Many of us can recall the very first time we were included as part of a team. Whether picked to join the group of kickball players during recess at elementary school, or playing on behalf of the state champions in high school soccer, the pride, joy, and satisfaction experienced was palpable. We felt included, special, and privileged on some level — which gave us stronger self-confidence that inevitably rippled out into many other components of our lives. Even when things didn’t go well out on the field, there was a sense of connectedness with teammates that buoyed us up.
For people with Autism, a neurological disorder marked by social, language, and processing challenges, and for all with special needs who will participate in this year’s Special Olympics, being part of a team is more important than most of us can imagine. Founded in 1968 by Eunice Kennedy Shriver (sister of President John F. Kennedy), the Special Olympics events empower. Not only are participants given the chance to train and compete, but they enjoy a basic human right of feeling included and accepted, sadly new to some who have dealt with tremendous isolation and discrimination in their lives.
The truth is, the challenges they have already faced, and in many cases conquered, are seemingly insurmountable to most. Whether or not they are part of the Special Olympics, they inspire every day. Right here at Anderson Center for Autism, we see students with communication difficulties working tirelessly on a daily basis to express their needs, hopes, and dreams, without giving up. We watch students focus intensely during occupational therapy sessions so that they can process information more readily during their school days. We see a fierce spirit of determination as our adult population embraces opportunities to learn valuable work skills that can translate into more productive lives.
When you think of individuals with special needs who work hard every day to maximize their potential, certain words pop up – and they happen to be the same words you would use to describe an Olympic gold medalist: persevering, conscientious, passionate, and hardworking.
As we get ready to celebrate the Special Olympics, we honor the opportunity that our Hudson Valley region has to applaud our athletes with special needs. We are also reminded that these athletes, and their peers with developmental disabilities, are not much different than star athletes like Michael Phelps. We all need the self-confidence that comes from being included as part of a group of some kind, and we are all inspired by people who embrace opportunities to shine.
For more information on Anderson Center for Autism, visit andersoncenterforautism.org. Or, to learn more about the schedule for the Hudson Valley Special Olympics games, visit http://specialolympics-ny.org/ hudsonvalley/.
Patrick Paul is the CEO/Executive Director of Anderson Center for Autism, located in Staatsburg, whose organizational mission is to “optimize the quality of life for people with autism.”