Howard County, MD—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… at you. To you. Around you. 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 everyday 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.
Although Nick is someone who thoroughly enjoys being active, this is his first ever experience playing sports with a team, and he and his family have been quite moved by his experiences thus far.
His mother, Suzanne Malouf, explains that the idea of team sports always made her nervous. She recalls taking Nick to swim lessons when he was 3-years-old where he learned to swim by positive reinforcement and observing the other children around him. Afterwards, on their way to the car, Suzanne would pass the soccer fields where the soccer coaches often yelled at the kids playing whenever they made an error. She knew that Nick would not thrive in an environment focused on negative reinforcement, so she never encouraged him to pursue team sports.
However, this does not mean that he was not active or involved in various other sports. Nick 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.
Nick explains to me that a day spent without physical activity is not a good day to him. Nick likes to think of his emotions in different colors, and a day he feels is wasted seems black to him. He continues to tell me that black is the worst color; it reminds him of bad dreams and scary social situations. The best color is yellow, “because it means climb up a ladder.” (This is one of Nick’s favorite activities.) I asked Nick what color playing softball is. “Yellow [because it] means safety,” he says. For him, playing softball feels happy and secure.
Nick’s coach, Chris Warren, would agree that Nick certainly brings the color yellow to the rest of his teammates too. “He’s just so nice to work with and communicate with. He’s very pleasant and happy to be here which is what this is all about,” Chris explains.
Coach Chris recalls a very specific memory of Nick making a really great hit, running around all the bases, and scoring a point. “He was ecstatic,” Chris says, chucking at the memory. “Everybody cheered him on and just saw the biggest smile on his face.” He adds, “That is something I [will] remember most about him. It’s one of those stories I will always tell.”
Nick’s ability to be active is quite impressive after hearing what it took for him to reach a point where he physically could do things like play softball, ski the black diamond trail, or run 16 miles. Movement difficulties are very common with children who have autism. Suzanne explains that Nick did not have the best coordination, so she started him with intense physical and occupational therapy sessions when he was very young. During one summer, Nick completed these sessions four times a week. “He just grew from it, he just grasped it,” she explained.
“Once he got over [his difficulties with coordination and movement], he probably could’ve doing team sports, but it was more the emotional [aspect that was a challenge],” Suzanne says. Children with autism typically do not do well hearing “no” or negative criticisms. Because of 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.
Suzanne says originally she feared Nick’s experience playing softball with the Special Olympics might be challenging because of his feelings towards negative criticism, but after one practice she was very impressed by Coach Chris’ ability to teach Nick softball skills in a positive way. “He’ll go over to Nick and say, ‘Nick, this is how you do it,’ not ‘Nick, you’re doing it wrong.’” She says that since joining the Special Olympics Softball team, Nick has been much happier. He often compares softball to going to “space camp” which was one of his favorite memories as a child. Suzanne says that if Nick compares something to space camp, she knows it’s a good thing.
Coach Chris says Nick learned to play softball in the same manner that he learned to do everything else throughout his life, by observing things carefully and modeling them back. “He’s very focused,” Chris said. Not only does Nick learn by example, but he teaches his teammates in the same way. “He leads by example. If you teach him something, he models it over and over again so the rest of the team picks up the piece. I’ll sometimes [tell the athletes], ‘Watch Nick!’ [or] ‘Nick’s going to do it how we want to do it!’”
Suzanne explained that getting Nick to a point where joining a softball team was not a difficult transition took a lot of work. When Nick was younger, he loved to play with Lego blocks but couldn’t handle the idea of his creations being knocked over.
He got so upset each time he had to take the Legos down that Suzanne eventually took them away to keep him from becoming distressed. Eventually she realized that this was a skill he needed to learn in order to be successful in life, so she practiced building towers then knocking them down and laughing to create a more positive feeling when the blocks fell down. “We did it over and over and over that whole day, to let him know it’s okay if his Legos fall down.”
Suzanne worked through any and every social struggle that arose with Nick in the same manner. Her patience and dedication to helping her son reach his best potential is truly amazing. I was moved by her recalling that, when they first noticed delays in Nick’s development, she and her husband suspected he had autism but could not find a doctor who gave them any definitive answers. Doctors said Nick had a “global delay” and that he “may never talk,” but Suzanne was displeased with their answers.
At the time, it was the early ‘90s and autism was not a common diagnosis. Finding information regarding it was challenging. Suzanne dropped out of grad school and took turns with her husband going to the National Library on the weekends. “We read every article we could find on autism,” she said. Their research led them to Bernie Rimland, who is the founder of the Autism Society of America and was the director of the Autism Research Institute. They discovered his phone number on an article and began exchanging information with him via phone calls and fax. Through constant communication, the Maloufs and Rimland eventually became good friends as he helped them understand more about what autism was and what it meant to Nick.
It may have taken our country many years to understand autism, but to Nick it is quite simple. “Autism means people can speak, see, touch, taste, hear, and look…look at society, look at people, [and] see what I can do,” he says. What Nick means by this is, people who have autism are just like everyone else. They experience the world using the same senses, but the information is simply interpreted a little differently. “[People who have autism] can’t understand [the information] because they think it’s a monster,” he continued to tell me. Nick says having autism can be really stressful and cause anxiety, but this never stopped him.
Nick is brave in the attempt. Every day. Whether he is out on a long run, lifting weights at the gym, volunteering at a homeless shelter, or playing in a softball game. “I’ve been brave every day in relaxing and sharing and talking with people in a group and [using] social skills,” he says.
Think back to the coffee shop. How difficult would it be to face situations like that example each and every day?
Suzanne says that having a child with autism has taught her a lot about being patient and grateful. “You realize that people learn differently, their interpretation might be different [than yours]… It’s given me that patience and appreciation to realize that everyone is different.” She also explains that, whenever someone does something for you, no matter what it is or how small it may be, you say “thank you.” She says that anyone’s expression of their love for you is worth “more than a million dollars.”
Many people could learn from Nick, his outlook on life, and the unconditional love given to him by his mother. Throughout our interview, she sat with Nick, helping him process the questions which allowed him to relax and enjoy our conversation. At the end of speaking with Nick, he asked if he could tell me something positive. “A positive thing is when people help people; they’re helpers in the world.”
People, like Coach Chris, who have helped Nick to view softball as the color yellow or like space camp are certainly helpers in not only his world, but in the world of many other athletes just like Nick. And the expression of their love towards all of the Special Olympics athletes is certainly worth “more than a million dollars.”
This article was written by Lianna Purcell