Brandon's Blog: Autism Awareness Gets Boost from Sports World

Jan. 29, 2014

University of Michigan director of athletics Dave Brandon will regularly offer his view on a variety of topics related to U-M and intercollegiate sports. All his posts, along with links to related content, will be available on his page,, and he is also on Twitter at @DaveBrandonAD.

Sports play a role in social organization and society. Why and how it creates the emotion for athletes and fans alike has long been studied.

Sports psychologists talk about athletes developing self-awareness. They talk about overcoming frustrations and despair by seeking input, finding patterns and resolving to do better as they gain insight.

Sports can also play a major role in awareness by merging the emotional aspect of a game together with a societal issue.

On Friday, the Michigan women's gymnastics team will take on Michigan State at Crisler Center in U-M's inaugural Autism Awareness Meet.

Assistant coach Dave Kuzara hosted a women's gymnastics autism awareness meet at Western Michigan University, and the results were amazing. In November, head coach Bev Plocki approached our Leadership Team with the idea of doing this type of meet and taking it one step further. Not only did she want to host this autism awareness meet, she wanted to educate her student-athletes about this complex disorder.

What followed was truly a 'wow' experience.

Jill Leone, a friend of Kuzara's and an elite gymnast herself, has an autistic son named John. He is 17 years old. When John was born the doctor told Jill to 'take him home and just make him comfortable.' John wouldn't amount to anything.

Jill did not heed the doctor's advice. Instead, she worked with John. She found different therapy techniques. Three weeks ago, she and her son John visited the women's gymnastics team. It wasn't to sit back and watch practice, John was going to speak to the team.

The young man talked about living with autism and how he is treated by others. He told the team how he remembered when he couldn't speak. He was in there, but he couldn't do it. He described how he felt trapped inside. Then, he asked the team the tough questions:

'What do you think of when you see me?'

'Why do you treat us different?'

'Why don't you think we are smart?'

The answers to these questions were not easy.

The discussion was to go 20 minutes; 45 minutes later it ended.

The idea of merging autism awareness with women's gymnastics was developed by Dr. Larry Nassar, the physician for USA Gymnastics that travels with Team USA to international competitions, including the Olympic Games. He too has an autistic child. Now, he is working to fund research for movement therapy as it relates to cognition.

There are only anecdotal stories how movement therapy allows autistic children to improve both physical and cognitive skills. Dr. Nassar is working to prove the therapy works. He wants to show the scientific community facts.

Friday night's meet will be a chance to watch some of the best women's gymnast in the nation and learn more about this complex disorder. Video board messages will present facts about autism. Prior to the meet from 6:45-7 p.m. immediately after warmups, special-need athletes will perform routines. After the meet, a highly skilled Special Olympian will perform a floor routine to the song 'Eye of the Tiger.'

As for John Leone, who was never supposed to speak or amount to anything, he is now a 4.0 student at Grosse Pointe North High School. He takes physics, and when he works an equation, he can picture it in his mind and develop the answer.

One last item, when John talked to the team, he left then with this thought:

"Give us a chance, see us for who we really are not whom you think we are."

I can think of no better reason for the University of Michigan women's gymnastics team to host its first annual Autism Awareness Meet.

Arrive early and stay late, it will be a rewarding night for everyone.

Go Blue!

Event/Fan Information | Meet Preview
Dave Brandon Home Page