Music levels the field for an autistic athlete
Coaching a high-school athlete on the autism spectrum to run track and cross-country is not for the faint of heart, and sometimes it seems there should be a soundtrack playing in the background complete with foreboding drum rolls and exuberant crescendos.
You never know what you’re going to get from meet to meet. It could be a total meltdown or an epic moment of triumph. The only way to find out is to keep showing up.
The challenge becomes even more personal and consuming when that athlete happens to be your own son.
I call my son Harrison “The Blur” because of the fuzzy line between his reality and everyone else’s, and because he runs pretty fast when he wants to go, too. He also has a deep connection with music, playing in the band, singing in the choir, and learning both piano and guitar. He sings with perfect pitch.
Harrison has run on Custer County’s middle school cross country and track teams here in the central Colorado mountains for the past three years, and joined the high school varsity teams this past year. I helped out as a volunteer coach for three years until a series of departures led to me being hired as the school’s distance running coach. I’m also an MAF Founding Coach.
While Harrison’s story is one of perseverance and resilience in the face of adversity, sometimes his own mind gets in the way of his better performances.
Early on it seemed like external noises, particularly people cheering for him, were causing problems. Buying into the stereotype of autistic people having sensory issues, I set about experimenting with earplugs and other noise dampeners. But these seemed have have little benefit. Also this idea of noise bothering him did not make sense to me since he had been to several loud rock concerts, including seeing Mumford and Sons twice — not only loud but also visually stimulating with a laser-light show.
Because of his experience with loud music concerts it did not make sense to me that the noise, per se, was distracting him in competition. After some discussion with him I was finally able to drag out that it was not the sound itself that was the problem — rather the cheering was making him feel self-conscious, and this was distracting him. People in our area, even those from other schools, recognize the challenges he faces and tend to cheer for him even louder than for other athletes. This cheering was just a trigger for something much deeper.
The answer to the problem, as it turned out, was not blocking out the sound so much as it was turning up the volume — with music.
I knew from my work with Dr. Phil Maffetone about the powerful effects of music on the brain, and its resulting effects in the body. Studies show that when music stimulates the brain, the body responds too. Among other benefits, music can help reduce anxiety, improve gait and improve self-esteem — all things that can help a neurodiverse participant compete with neurotypical athletes.
“While all brains respond well to music, those on the autism spectrum are particularly receptive to its therapeutic benefits,” says Dr. Maffetone.
Music also may be helpful for others who are on what I call the “Neurodiversity Spectrum.” This includes those with dyslexia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), discalculia, dyspraxia, Tourette syndrome and others.
“Music can help coordinate the cognitive and motor conditions, which not only benefits running performance but an overall better brain. This is particularly important for those on the autism spectrum, but also for everyone,” Dr. Maffetone says.
With the help of our athletic director, Joy Parrish, we obtained a special accommodation from the Colorado High School Activities Association (CSHAA — the state governing body for prep sports) for Harrison to use music headphones in meets. He plays the music via bluetooth from his Apple Watch.
Right away the music made a big difference in his ability to focus. With the music soothing his mind, he’s managed to run smoothly and steadily over challenging Colorado cross-country courses. He finished the regular season as the third man on his varsity team at regionals, then went on to place third overall in the Unified Race at the Colorado State Cross Country Championships.
This spring he stood out in distance events in area track meets, running in the 1600M, 400M, 800M and 3200M — often all four events in one meet — about 3.75 miles of track racing — in some crowded, loud stadiums.
He’s also placed in his age group in several local trail-running events.
Coaching an athlete wearing music headphones also presents other challenges and has helped me become more aware of additional neurological issues he faces. For example, he cannot hear the starting gun very well. In cross-country I worked with him to start by watching a teammate’s foot rather than listening for the gun.
In track this system became more complicated and I worked with the CHSAA referees to give him a better chance at the starting line. These refs have been very accommodating in the longer 800M, 1600M and 3200M events to place him in the inside group of a staggered start, with at least one competitor to his left so he can watch for foot movement. In the 400M where the runner must stay in a lane, we try to get him in the middle, where he takes a standing start and can watch the runners and starter ahead of him (he can also faintly hear the gun in the 400M).
An interesting awareness experience for me has been to see how much quicker he starts from a visual cue rather than sound. Clearly the pathway from his eyes to his brain to his muscular system is much quicker than from his ears.
As his coach I’ve also had to develop a system of hand signals in order to encourage him during the races. While other coaches are yelling to their athletes, I am making pointing gestures to focus straight ahead, and to attempt to catch the runner in front of him. The most peculiar is my arm winding like a clock if he appears to be headed for a new personal record.
I yell, too, but he can’t hear me.
As his coach and father I am often asked about the headphones and why he wears them. I’m quick to explain that he is on the autism spectrum, the music helps calm his mind and that he has a special accommodation from CHSAA to wear the headphones. People are always very understanding, and they still cheer very loudly for him though he is literally running in his own concert.
Another thing people ask me is what he listens to while racing. I explain that he has an eclectic collection that includes songs from Mumford and Sons, Philip Maffetone, Don Conoscenti, Mark’s Midnight Carnival Show, Fleetwood Mac, and Tom Petty among others.
“One key is personalizing musical choice. Whether rock, folk or classical, the best choices include those the individual easily relates to — familiar songs his brain loves,” Dr. Maffetone says.
Music has carry-over effects as well, helping to modulate brain activity even when he’s not wired for sound. Harrison recently won his 13-19 age group in the extremely rugged Hardscrabble Mountain Trail Run 10K — without headphones!
As an athlete racing against his own challenges as much as other racers and the clock, Harrison has become a popular member of the school’s running teams as well as an inspiration to spectators, coaches and fellow competitors throughout Colorado. At a recent track meet an athlete from another school was recently overheard telling his teammates that, “Harrison is a legend.”
How melodious that music has played such an important role in this improbable — some would even say “impossible” — journey.
If music can do this for a person on the autism spectrum in the high-pressure world of competitive sports, just think what it can do for him and for others in all arenas of life.