Wolverines Learn Lessons on Autism Ahead of Awareness Meet
John Leone

Jan. 30, 2014

This Friday (Jan. 31), the No. 4-ranked University of Michigan women's gymnastics team will host Michigan State in the program's first-ever Autism Awareness Meet at Crisler Center (7 p.m.). Visit MGoBlue.com/tickets to purchase tickets.

By Bradley Rudner, MGoBlue.com

Fifteen years ago, Jill Leone was told that her son, John, wasn't going to be an active member of society.

It was a hard day, one of the hardest and scariest of her life. She had dreams of John and her eldest son, Matthew, growing up together as normal brothers would, to be close. As soon as the doctors told her that John had autism, she felt those dreams evaporate.

He didn't show emotion. He wasn't speaking. He wouldn't acknowledge basic commands. After seeing the red flags, it was suggested that speech therapy might be the solution, so they tried that for six months. Nothing changed.

"It was absolutely devastating," Leone said. "It was like everything was crumbling right in front of me."

While the doctors were unfortunately right in their diagnosis, they couldn't have been more wrong about John.

Now 17, John is a junior at Grosse Pointe North High School. He's has a 4.0 grade-point average. His favorite classes are physics and mathematics. He's a swimmer. And wouldn't you know it; he wants to go to college at the University of Michigan.

"He's a walking miracle as far as I'm concerned," Leone said. "Looking at where he was all those years ago, nobody was home. He was there but the lights were out. He worked harder as a toddler than most people do through their senior year of high school. He's changed tremendously."

One week into 2014 and with his mother besides him, John sat on the mat in the middle of the floor at the Donald R. Shepherd Gymnastics Training Center and spoke at length about his life to a group of 13 college gymnasts. Most of them didn't know much about autism, which was a stark contrast from the young man sitting a few feet away from them who had lived with it his entire life.

Between the long hours spent in the gym and the always-prevalent injury risk, these gymnasts are no stranger to facing challenges. But none of them have faced the kinds of challenges that John faces every day.

During those moments, every pair of eyes were glued to John, hanging on his every word. They asked him about his education, his medication, how he processes things, how he's treated at school. The conversation was more impactful than any vault landing they would do in practice that day.

"Autism feels stigmatized a little bit," sophomore Lindsay Williams said. "In reality, when you listen to someone like John, all he did was work hard. If you work hard, you'll achieve it. He's doing amazing. He's shown us that autism is not something that can't be managed. It just takes effort."

Towards the end of the talk, John turned the tables. Those he had captivated were now forced to look internally to answer a question that so many avoid.

"When you see people with autism, what do you think?" he asked.

A few seconds went by before John quickly broke the silence with an answer to his own question. Maybe it was because nobody truthfully knew how to answer.

"Don't be afraid of them," he said. "See them for who they are as people, for who they are inside."

After hearing him speak, freshman Talia Chiarelli took to her Twitter account and posted, "Such a great experience learning firsthand from someone with autism. Really opens your eyes." Three weeks after that conversation, John's message still lingers.

"I had such a different picture in my mind of what he was going to be like," she said. "The fact that he was willing to talk about his condition to a bunch of strangers took a lot of courage."

"When you see or meet someone that has autism or another special need, you could feel uncomfortable," Williams added. "But what if it were you? How would you want people to treat you? That's what stood out to me about John. He put it into perspective."

Head coach Bev Plocki actually wanted to have an Autism Awareness Meet several years ago, but couldn't get anything to stick. The idea popped up again last season after the gymnasts wanted to host a meet for a specific cause. Several options were discussed, but it wasn't until the return of former assistant coach Dave Kuzara that things started to fall into place.

Kuzara orchestrated Autism Awareness Meets during his last two years at Western Michigan, his previous coaching stop. He used personal contacts to help get the meet off the ground (Jill and John Leone included), while making in-roads with other autism awareness organizations throughout the state of Michigan. Plocki praised Kuzara's work in bringing all the different parties together in order to make Friday's meet memorable for athletes and fans alike.

Outside of his family, the only other person in the room that day that had heard John speak at length about his autism was Kuzara. After witnessing it herself, Plocki knew this meet would be the start of something big.

"Having John come in and talk to us was one of the best things we've ever done," she said. "A lot of people do a "Pink Meet", but there are some many more things out there that aren't being talked about and autism is one of them. It's something people really do need to become more aware of and I think those that come to the meet will be surprised to learn how prevalent it really is."

"John is the one who is leading us," Kuzara added. "He says things all the time that we don't even think about. I used to think, 'What am I supposed to do?' Now, if I just listen to John, he'll tell me what to do next. It was like the day he asked me, 'Why do people treat us different?' It was one of the strongest lessons that we learned as a group in that sit-down."

Autism Awareness Meet
John Leone (L) and Dr. Larry Nassar spend time with the team prior to Friday's Autism Awareness Meet

To help further educate the team, Kuzara called on another one of his former contacts in Dr. Larry Nassar, a University of Michigan graduate and current team physician for the U.S. Men's and Women's Olympic Gymnastics Teams and for Michigan State women's gymnastics team. The eldest of his three children, Caroline, 12, is autistic.

In his separate visit to the team, Dr. Nassar recounted how it took Caroline six years to swing on a playground. There were times when the family had difficulty leaving the house to enjoy the most leisurely of activities, like seeing a movie or going out to eat. Due to his commitments with the Olympic teams, there were times that the family had to hire two babysitters -- one to watch Caroline and one to watch his two other children.

Now, in cooperation with NeuroDevNet (a Canadian-based research team comprised of top neurologists and researchers), Dr. Nassar has secured nearly $500,000 in grants from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research that could increase substantially if certain criteria is met. And at the center of the studies -- gymnastics.

Having worked with gymnasts for over 30 years, Dr. Nassar argues that essential parts of gymnastics -- strength, flexibility, coordination and motor learning -- could be the key to future growth, especially when it comes to helping children with special needs.

"This research has never been done before," Nassar explains. "We believe that if you take children that have neurodevelopmental and movement issues and put them into an environment that's structured around enhancing movement, that movement will be enhanced. With the right research behind it, we can utilize those efforts to get a major accomplishment done."

This Friday's competition against Michigan State is believed to be the first autism-centered event from any varsity sports team at the University of Michigan. Rather than focusing on fundraising or securing donations, the primary goal is to educate and inform.

"We're trying to raise awareness, which I think could have a bigger impact than if it were just about fundraising," junior Annette Miele said. "People don't truly understand what autism is and what people with autism can actually do."

Aside from the visits from Dr. Nassar and John, the team recorded videos that will be played at the meet on Friday ranging from facts (autism is more common in young boys than young girls), warning signs (no joyful expressions or smiles by six months old) and ways for parents to get help (join a support group).

Others have rallied to the cause. Organizations such as Flip for Autism (Dr. Nassar's organization), Jack's Place, SLC Therapy of Livonia and the Autism Alliance of Michigan have committed to appear, while members from the Theta Delta Chi, whose main philanthropy is through a group called Autism Speaks, is slated to be in attendance. U-M men's gymnast and U.S. Olympian Sam Mikulak will also be there signing autographs up to a half hour before the meet begins.

"As a team, we're so proud to be a part of something like this," senior Teresa Arthur said. "Looking at our fan base, a lot of them are younger girls. If they have somebody in their classes or in a group at gymnastics that's autistic, coming to this meet will give them a little bit of insight. And if one seven-year-old girl sticks up for a boy that has autism, we've made a difference."

With a crowd into the thousands expected at Crisler on Friday, the hope is that this Autism Awareness Meet becomes a yearly occurrence linked to the University of Michigan women's gymnastics team. The gymnasts are hoping that those in attendance are able to go through a similar transformation, much like they did when they heard John speak all those weeks ago.

"At any other meet, you're going to be entertained by gymnastics," Chiarelli said, "But here, you'll get that and you'll walk away having learned something about autism. It will open your eyes."

• Brandon's Blog: Autism Awareness Gets Boost from Sports World (1/30/14)

»  Learn about 2017 Michigan women's gymnastics ticket opportunities.