Autism does not mean Savant

savant

A few years ago, I had a conversation with someone who was a friend of mine at the time, someone who also had Autism.  She was in school, was athletic and reasonably social, had enough functionality to “pass” as normal but still struggled in some places.  She told me that she wished she was a Savant.

This was the same girl who turned out to be the first person I had a crush on.  I denied that possibility to myself for a long time, thinking that it was impossible for an Autistic to feel such a way.  I’m a robot, like Data from Star Trek.  When I finally admitted it to myself, and told my family that I actually loved someone, yes, loved someone, I had an emotional breakdown and an existential crisis.  I wasn’t supposed to feel this way, why was I feeling this?

data star trek

Why did two teenagers have these expectations of themselves, one thinking that she should be a super-genius, and the other that he should be immune to the most basic of human experience?  I have an answer, and it sure isn’t Star Trek.

[For the record, she didn’t feel the same thing back but was fine with being friends.  We hung out for a while, sometimes just the two of us, but for reasons I won’t go into, we broke up and haven’t had stayed in touch for a while, but last I heard she’s doing okay]

I now believe that the answer is quite clear: our expectations came from popular culture.  Name a fictional character that is Autistic or Asperger’s, either stated so in the work itself, or acknowledged/confirmed by the creators.  Now, see how many of these characters are A, extremely skilled in some way, B, asexual/aromantic, C, white and male, and D, mainly serve to enlighten the non-autistic main characters or audience [more on that later].  Here’s a small list:

rain man

Rain Man: [Raymond Babbit is gifted at math.  Based on the real life, incredible man known as Kim Peek, who is a non-autistic, unique Special Needs man with savant skills and memory.  I actually like this film, which I feel puts me in a minority compared to other Autistics.  I like it because it did a lot of advocacy coming out in a time when “Autism” wasn’t a household name, and it was also more medically/socially accurate than many films that came later.  The problem is that it was the only viewpoint people had for a long time.]

The Good Doctor: [a hot new Canadian piece of trite, based on a 2013 Korean TV show with the same premise.  Basically, a surgeon is gifted at medicine because of Autism.  Stereotypes abound.  I hated this show, as covered in my pending review]

Mercury Rising: [a nine-year old cracks a 2-billion dollar code written by two supercomputers!]

Bones: [the titular character is a genius forensic specialist, and several traits of Asperger’s.  That being said, I like this show for how well the character is portrayed, and it’s a fun show.]

sheldon big bang

The Big Bang Theory: [Sheldon Cooper wasn’t intended to have Autism by the writers, but enough audience members assume that it’s canon so he makes the list.  I strongly dislike this character because he is neurotic, annoying, condescending and an utter cry-baby [and the most popular show in Canada, if you can believe it].  He’s also a theoretical physicist, a job which involves big numbers ]

autism movies.JPG

The Accountant: [Ben Affleck plays a dashing Autistic who is “gifted with math” and also gifted at shooting people in the face with a variety of weapons.  I hope I don’t need to explain how offensively stupid this is, both to Autistics and movie audiences in general]

Alphas and Touch: [both good shows for their portrayal of autistics personalities, included together because they went the next step to giving autistic kids freakin’ superpowers!]

The_Curious_Incident_of_the_Dog_in_the_Night-Time_(play)

the curious incident of the dog in the night-time [sic]: [Included here because this is one of the few stories where the main character is gifted at math, but he’s neither a god [still learning it in high school], and it’s not a defining aspect of his character.  I have mixed feelings of this novel as a whole, covered in my upcoming review of it]

Phewy that was a doozy, this blog post is starting to look like TvTropes.  Please keep in mind that just because something is listed here, it doesn’t mean it’s bad.  Rain Man broke a lot of ground for its time, although the flip side are movies like The Accountant which is a borderline exploitation film.  So, if I liked some of the entries in this list, and hated others, why make the list?  It was to make a point.

My point is this: just because a thousand people saw a recent movie starring “a young [white] man with Autism”, it doesn’t mean a thousand people know what Autism is, or frankly have a clue as to my personality because they see someone else with a single trait in common with me.  Particularly grating is the concept that, because I have Autism, I must be a Savant.

SavantAutism21001brain

The actual rate of Savant Syndrome, as it is officially named, is about 10% of all autistic people , whereas in other intellectual disabilities the Savant rate is around 1%.  Most people would take that to mean that a lot of Autistic people are Savants.  I take that to mean that 90% aren’t.

I came across a very good scholarly article–titled Stereotypes of Autism–written  about how movie stereotypes negatively affect people with Autism.  I’ll include it along with the rest of my citations, although I’ll touch on some of the aspects to which it has opened my eyes.  One idea which used the film Mercury Rising as an example, is how that movie portrays Savants as robots.

With the film’s plot being about an Autistic boy who out-thinks two super computers, it gives people the impression that Autistic people–therefore–have brains like computers.  This in turn gives the impression that, like a computer, Autistics are wholly logic-based and do not feel emotion.  This article also mentioned another good point: fiction is better known than non-fiction.

temple grandin

Everyone’s heard of Raymond Babbit, aka Rain Man, right?  His name’s already been mentioned in this article!  You ever heard of Kim Peek: the real man who was the inspiration for Rain Man ?  What about Temple Grandin, who helped make the livestock industry more humane?  Or Tito Mukhopadhyay, a non-verbal savant who is a renowned poet?  Ms. Grandin is pretty well-known, but I probably stumped you with the other two names, didn’t I?

We’re bombarded with popular culture, and eventually, you start to believe it.  The problem is, fiction forces people like me into one of two categories.  Autistics are either unable to live independently, or are super-geniuses who are way more capable than the average person.  Writing that down, it feels sinister to me.

It’s like neuro-typical, or “normal” people, want to keep us that way.  Keep us on the Fringes of society.  Keep us in care homes, unless we have some exploitable talent, in which case, put us to work doing the stuff they’re too stupid to do.  But if we go out into the world, we better not develop feelings for pretty girl down the street.  “Nope, that’s my girl, you go back to your numbers you freaky Autistic.”

Obviously most people aren’t that cruel, but they are ignorant, and the majority of what little knowledge exists is, frankly, bullshit.  When the world around you is ignoring your cries for help, apathetic to who you are, instead shadowing it like a parrot who repeats words without knowing their meaning, it feels alone.  It feels antagonistic.

myths

To prove that I’m not making this up, here is an article about stereotypes about Autism, that ironically stereotypes autism [commence Picard face-palming].  The Huffington Post’s 7 Myths about Autism It’s Time to Put to Rest, makes multiple references to Sheldon Cooper from TBBT, and goes so far to refer to high functioning autistics as “Sheldons”.  I honestly don’t believe the author of this article was trying to put us in our place–given what the article was titled, and how factually accurate it is–but she effectively did.  Let me ask you this: would you want to be Sheldon Cooper?

As a side note, I do think about how difficult it would be to write about Autism as an outsider, and appreciate how people  put in the effort.  The article I cited even directly criticized the Savant myth.  That’s one of the reasons why I included it: not all stereotyping or prejudice is malicious or on purpose, it just sort of happens.  Also, I wanted to sort of prove that autistics can point out things neuro-typicals do wrong without acting offended, antagonistic or disliking an entire piece [the article] because of one or two issues [the “Sheldon” thing].

Let me make this clear: These Stereotypes are Damaging.  They can put Autistic people in situations where they are expected to demonstrate abilities they don’t have–which I fortunately have never been subjected to–and they help spread misinformation such as the idea that autistic kids are just misbehaving.

rain man outburst

I starting by mentioning someone I know with autism, so I’d like to end on it too.  I have a friend people would say is a lot like Rain Man.  He’s care-dependent, emotionally very sensitive, prone to violent out bursts when things just get too much, and has trouble understanding the nuances of speech.  There are major personality differences–of course–I’m making a general comparison.  However, unlike Rain Man, he’s not a Savant.  My friend is not a genius at math or able to solve String Theory.  Why couldn’t Rain Man been about a guy like him, someone who is just disabled, and different, and that’s it?  Do we have to be a Savant for someone to care about us?

 

 

My sources

 

1, Hiles, D. Savant Syndrome, [2002], The Virtual Office of Dave Hiles, retrieved 2017, Oct 3rd, http://www.psy.dmu.ac.uk/drhiles/Savant%20Syndrome.htm

2, Treffert, D. A., The savant syndrome: an extraordinary condition.  A synopsis: past, present, future, [2009], The Royal Society Publishing, retrieved 2017, Oct 3rd, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2677584/

3, Draaisma, D., Stereotypes of autism, [2009, May 27th], PubMed Central, retrieved 2017, Oct 3rd, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2677582/#!po=42.5676

4, Brown, H., 7 Myths About Autism It’s Time to Put to Rest, [2013, June 2nd] retrieved 2017, Nov 3rd, https://www.huffingtonpost.com/hannah-brown/7-myths-about-autism_b_2977120.html

5, Autism Stereotypes, UK Autistic, [2017] retrieved 2017 Nov 3rd, https://ukautistic.org/autism-stereotypes/

6, Autism stereotypes ‘are damaging’, BBC Wales, [2007, Oct 29th] retrieved 2017, Nov 3rd, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/wales/7066436.stm

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My Unified Trip to Monteal

cover

So, by this point, it had been a month since my awesome trip to Chicago.  The Toronto Unified Team had some more practices before our big trip.  This was it, the end of my soccer summer.  It was ending on an absolute high note.

I was quite nervous about my goalie abilities, especially given how I was in the Chicago game.  For a while, it almost mentally felt like Tae Kwon Do sparring, a weird comparison I admit.  Both cases are stressful circumstances where my nerves freeze up and my autistic reaction times fail me, which leads to a decidedly unfavourable result [getting bruises or letting my team down].  It should be noted that I was to be playing in net the WHOLE GAME too.  But, I didn’t let fear get a hold of me: I knew I had the time to train and made sure to use it.  Over time, I got better, enjoyed goal keeping again, and played better too.

Fortunately, during the month of August, I had a lot more opportunities to practice with both the Unified Team and my regular soccer team.  I gained a lot of skills, the most important being knowing where to stand–which my goalie coach on the Unified Team helped me with–and learning how to grab/hit the ball so it didn’t slip past my gloves like in Chicago.  As goalie, when you learn to move so your body is in between the ball and net at all times, it makes it a lot easier–and thusly a lot more fun–to stop the ball.  Also, it doesn’t matter if your hands let the ball slip: your body blocks the shot.  Another of my worries gotten out-of-the-way.

teammate

Over this half of the summer, my confidence and body both got better at goal keeping.  The Unified Team bonded a lot too, we knew each other a lot better than when this whole thing started.  That made things a lot nicer too: going on a trip with friends you’ve already made, and it’s easier to communicate as a team with people you’ve been practicing with the last month.

We had one last practice the week before our trip.  It was a good one.  It turned out that the goal in Montreal was going to be considerably smaller than the one in Chicago–it would be the normal size I was used to.  My teammates shot really good, hard shots, and I defended a lot of them too.  It was perfect to get everyone’s confidence up so we felt ready for our game, most of all myself.

sister montreal

Pic of a trip to visist my sister from a few years ago

I’ve been to Montreal many times before, because my sister lives there.  As such, I knew a lot more of what to expect, and it was more looking forward to going to a familiar place than an exciting new frontier.  I really like Montreal, one of the few cities I’d leave Toronto to live in, although I’d have to learn fluent French first.

jozy

By far, my mother’s favorite pic from the trip

It’s funny how you can get used to the feeling of a plane taking off, but never can at the same time.  The confused sense of elation I had on my first trip was gone, but the wonder and beauty one sees when looking out the window never goes away.  Due to seating arrangement, I had the superb luck of being seated right in the middle of the TFC’s section of the plane.  I got a picture with one of my family’s favourite players–Jozy Altidore–and spent the whole flight trying not to wake up the two TFC players who were sleeping on either side of me.  Hard to describe such a flight other than, mundanely surreal?

Our team arrived with such happiness and excitement, even though I already went through the shuttle buses, nice hotel and catered meals in Chicago, it didn’t make it any less special.  Again, whereas Chicago was new people in a new city, this was people I’d already gotten to know in a city I had been visiting for years.  It’s different, no one is better than the other.

Montreal’s Unified Team was really nice.  Only some of them knew English–which was fair since no one on my team spoke French, except for the few words that all Canadians know.  Still, we both made the effort to meet, compliment and celebrate one another.  I remember the player who came to our table to say hi the players and coaches, how we managed to have a conversation despite not speaking the same language.

montreal tour

Touring Montreal with teammates

 

The day before our big game was an outing to old Montreal and the pier.  I got to temporarily depart from the group to see my sister and brother-in-law in the cobblestone part of town, great to see them again before.  Both teams had dinner at a delicious Portuguese restaurant, and I used some of the same stress management techniques I did in Chicago.  They worked just as well.  I made sure to stim and relax back in the hotel before getting a good night’s rest.  The Final Game was almost here.

media

Getting interviewed

Before that, however, our team was being interviewed one by one in the camera team’s room [we had a two-man camera team travel with us, did I mention that?].  Mostly it was just us teammates hanging out in the hallway chatting and telling jokes, which was more than fine.  At the risk of sounding amazingly conceited, I’ve gotten used to interviews and public speaking, so it wasn’t that hard.  Come to think of it, none of my teammates were that nervous about being on camera or had expressed any difficultly.  Guess we all got used to it, to some degree.

family pregame

My sister and brother-in-law got to see me play

We were playing in the same stadium that the TFC and Impact de Montreal would be playing at, on the same day.  As a bonus, it was so close to our hotel that all it took was a five/ten minute walk.  That was actually nicer, not being stuck in a bus [no matter how luxurious], getting some fresh air and seeing the penultimate stadium get closer and closer.  I think it says a lot for the sport of soccer, that no matters how many times you go through the back stage areas and waiting in the fan tunnel that leads onto that great, big field, it never stops feeling like you won the lottery.

dwayne

There was a lot of excitement and respect between our teams.  It was perfect, the way both Special Olympics and Soccer should be, even if they aren’t always that, it was at times like this.  The Montreal Players were excited to see Dwayne De Rosario–who had come with our team–and I liked seeing the surprised, happy looks on their faces.  Then, our pre-game stuff came.

practice

Last practice with my coach pre-game

It feels very big, even just getting your stuff organized, putting on the cleats and asking around to see who has sun screen because they took mine at the airport and it was really sunny out.  The man who worked with my goal keeping all through the summer, and traveled with me to Chicago, now had one last practice with me in net before the game.  After that, I was on my own.

He made a point of how, according to the rules of soccer, the goalie can just gun for the ball more aggressively than other players.  By that I mean, players learn to not do anything that could lead to contact with the other team’s goalie, because that always leads to a ruling in the goalie’s favor.  He said, “Just go for the ball, just take it.  And don’t say sorry either.”.  I think he added that last bit because I have a habit of being polite to a detriment.  I still had sportsmanship–I hope I always will–but I wasn’t going to let myself freeze up when that ball came pounding down field either.

dugout

After coming back to our seats for one more team cheer, and some words of advice from De Rosario, it was time, finally time.  The Game.

It felt a lot better.  I played a lot better, I don’t brag as a rule, but I know I did.  The game was tied 2/2, just like in Chicago [told you a theme was developing].  But this time, I didn’t let two goals in during my first shift in the second half.  I was goalie for the entire one hour game.  I knew my defenders well enough to talk with them, and they definitely saved me a few times there.  I also saved quite a few myself, placing myself in front of the ball so my body would save it.  When I saw the ball moving down field, I’d bounce side to side to warm myself up, which is not too different from sparring, come to think of it.

alone in goal

I won’t give a blow-by-blow, mostly because I don’t remember enough of the whole game, and that’s from before it took months for me to upload this post.  My mom showed me a clip from the stream where I made a really close save that involved reaching for the ball and making a shoulder roll, something I didn’t even remember doing in that specific game.  I do remember both goals my teammates made.

about to throw

The first time, I took the little time I had to breathe, tell myself that the first goal I let in didn’t kill the game, and drink a celebratory sip of water.  The second goal was made by my friend who had made it with me from my regular SO team, who I’d known for years.  Both times I wanted to run out and high-five my teammates, but that knew that me and the rest were grateful.  And I knew they were just as grateful to me for saving all those shots.

saving a goal

Saving a goal!!

As bad as I felt screwing up in Chicago, I felt redeemed here.  People kept saying how great I played, and I knew it wasn’t just being polite.  I had the memory proof of having the ball in my hands, during several times that it would have scored otherwise.  Our game ended the best way, a tie, a testament to how great and talented both cities’ teams were.  We exchanged good games and bon traivellers to each other.  I should clarify: the Montreal players said good game, we said bon traiveller/bon juez.

jumbotron

On the field and the Jumbotron during halftime

There isn’t really much to say that could add to that.  Both our teams had a nice time watching the game between the two MLS teams, and although both teams’ fanbases were a lot more…rowdy, than I was used to, it was still a great experience going out on the field one last time during the break, and seeing the TFC win another close game.  My team enjoyed each other’s company on the way back home, we said our goodbyes, and here I am.

postgame

The note I’d like to end on is thanking everyone who made it possible.  The people from Special Olympics, Major League Soccer and the sponsors who worked so hard to make the perfect once in a lifetime soccer experience.  They truly went the extra mile to make sure we felt like actual sports stars, going from having us meet real famous soccer players, booking nice hotels, giving us special jerseys with our own names on them, walking on the field, and all the odds and ends.  You could really tell, throughout the whole thing, that it was done more than just to make certain companies look good.  The people behind it all truly cared, and they did their best for us.  So, you know who you are–people who were behind this–thank you.  Thank you with more weight than those two words can bear.

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My trip to the Chicago All Stars Game

Game title

It’s been 5 days since I first got back from my once in a lifetime trip to Chicago, and I’m finally ready to write about what happened.  Even though it was only 3 to 4 days, a lot of stuff happened and it felt like a lot longer by virtue of how much I did, how many new people I met and the overall experience.  The memories aren’t as powerfully fresh in my mind, but I still remember all the events and emotion.  Basically, the stuff that mattered.

When I wrote the above paragraph, it had indeed been only five days since I came back from my trip.  I apologize for the long wait, but these kinds of emotion-based posts are difficult for me.  I remember things factually: in events.  Some people do the opposite, they’ll remember everything only through the feelings the attach to the event/person/thing, and view the subject through an emotional filter.  I am the opposite: if I remember liking a movie, for instance, I also distinctly remember what scene or aspect the film had that made me like it.

That’s why I kept putting this post off, and continued to do so.  I wrote an event-based retelling of the trip, but it was too long to fit into one post, and my mom kept saying it was too dry and missed the point.  What she and other people don’t understand is that thinking and writing about feelings isn’t just really difficult, it’s uncomfortable.  Writing this post, going inside my heart like this, is about as pleasant as scratching nails on a chalkboard, or eating an ice cream cone teeth first.  It doesn’t matter if the emotions I am looking at are comprised of pure joy or incredible anguish, they both have the same uneasy effect.

Still, that’s no excuse, since I had to keep going past that ickiness for every other post I put on here.  I’m sorry, and below is the post, in full, written in the fashion that it should be written in.

MLS allstar chicago 2017

The All Star week, for those who don’t follow soccer, is an annual event that happens in various cities across the U.S., and during that time, Major League Soccer’s best players gather to play in the All Star Game against the Real Madrid.  The MLS held Special Olympic Unified soccer teams for pretty much every Major League team in the U.S.A and Canada: representatives from each city’s Unified Team were chosen to meet for this special program that took place during the All Star Week.  From each Unified team was a group of 3 people: a special Olympic athlete [me], a Special Olympic partner/volunteer, and all of us were to play against each other as east and west conference in a game on Tuesday.

callum and coaches

Me and my partners from Special Olympics Toronto

It should be noted that I feel things differently than most people do.  I was excited about everything, but my parents felt more anticipation during the months that preceded my trip.  For me, it only became real the morning I woke up to do something, especially the last morning that I would wake up in Canada.  For every day except the one before any of my “big dates”, it was just a fact in my head that I would be going to Chicago.  Only when I was actually there, in the moment, could I emotionally appreciate everything.

 

This was my first trip to the United States since we left around 14 years ago, and my first real trip on an airplane.  I was on a plane once as a three-year old, but I don’t remember that trip–or much else from that time–so it doesn’t really count.  I went with both of my coaches–the partner and chauffeur–so I was with pleasant company and gently guided through the parts I didn’t understand.

border security

In the back of my mind were all the complaints and horror stories that people have about airport security.  It honestly wasn’t that bad, and most security guards were pretty friendly.  Episodes of Border Security plagued the back of my mind, but I didn’t become overwhelmed with anxiety and cleared all the checkpoints.  I was never freaked out by the prospect of flying.  I do have of fear of heights, but it’s more about being able to fall off of something, like a bridge or rooftop.  You can’t exactly fall off an airplane.

takeoff

I looked out the window and managed to record my first takeoff.  While I was totally fine with seeing the great height below me, I was unprepared for the feeling you get when taking off [hence I made a lot of silly noises].  The view one sees out their window is simply breathtaking, getting to see the clouds from above instead of below, the way sunlight dances off their tops, and how much like a miniature train-set the world looks from above.

 

Because of a plane delay, us and the people from San Joses and Salt Lake City were unable to make it to the hotel upon arrival.  Instead, we went straight to practice.  Even in the small time we had in the airport, one starts to notice that they are in a different country.  After getting change back from buying a sandwich, the words “Pennies, how quaint” slipped past my surprised lips like I was some pretentious tourist.  But seriously, why does the U.S. still have pennies?  I get its the Land of Lincoln, but he’s on the five dollar bill as well.  Anyways…

lincoln american money

Pretty much anytime we all had to go somewhere, we went by shuttle bus.  They got us some nice buses too, with cushioned seats, air conditioning, the VIP works.  It was way easier than taking transit, which is stressful due to the crowds and confined space.  I still could get tired on the bus trips, but they helped relieve the huge amounts of stress I [and no doubt many of the other athletes] would have felt taking the foreign public transit.  But for this day, I had all the energy in the world, and on Monday, our bus was heading to practice.

Our Chicago coach

Our Chicago coach ( wish I could remember his name)

There were about two hours for a lot of people to be coached in preparation for the next day’s game.  We had a coach who was working out of the city of Chicago, and we were training out of a multi-use field known as the Private Bank Fire Pitch.  It was official.  I was both excited and relaxed at the same time.  Warmup was used as time to exchange names with everybody in a short amount of time; it was tough, but we did it.  These were the people who got to know each other over the next three days.  It may have not been a long amount of time, but as I said, we did so much it felt longer.  I got to know my roommate, meet people from all over America–from Montreal to Dallas–and before long we were teammates, even friends.

teammates.JPG

While everyone else did passing drills, me and a partner from Washington D.C. practiced goal keeping.  I was and still am ridiculously new to goaltending for someone playing at this level, so I learned a lot of new things during this practice.  It helps that the person coaching us goal keepers is my chauffeur from Toronto, so we already knew each other.  At this stage, I was trying my best to retain all the goalie knowledge I had learned within a month.  It wasn’t easy, but my motto of “just try really hard” got me too far to start worrying about being out-classed.  At least, I didn’t start worrying yet.

Hyatt Chicago

After the two hours of practice was done–which sounds long but was actually really short, all things considered–we got to head back to our hotel.  All of us Unified athletes and volunteers stayed at the Hyatt Regency downtown, a swanky four star hotel within spitting distance of Chicago’s tourist attractions, lake Michigan beach, the highways and Chicago’s main soccer/football field: Soldier Field.  This also happened to be where the All Star players were staying at, so you would regularly see TFC and other city’s best players hanging out in the lobby, passing through the elevator and such.  It was a pretty nice place to stay.

basketball player

I think this guy is an NBA player (again, bad with names)

[I sarcastically under-exaggerated that last sentence there, staying in the hotel where all the players were was pretty awesome.  To boot, it was a really comfy place, and my room was on the sixteenth floor with an awesome view of downtown]

That night, we got to have dinner at the Lou Malnati’s Italian restaurant, home of the famous Chicago deep dish.  I could see why the city is famous for such a meal, it was amazing, and one of the few things rich enough to have me saying no to seconds [although, I was watching myself for the game ahead, after all].  This meal was also one of the first times in Chicago that I had to micro-manage myself.

exterior architecture of River North Lou Malnati's Pizzeria

There are a lot of things that can utterly sap my energy, and keep sapping it until I’m like a flashlight that someone forgot to turn off after using.  By that I mean, I end up completely depleted of power.  Perpetually loud dining halls and a long hour-to-two-hour dinner are among those things, no matter how pleasant or well-organized.  There are a lot of little, invisible yet tangible tricks that my family will do to make sure I am okay in social situations, but they weren’t here now.  This isn’t meant to at all disparage my coaches, they were amazing, and what I’m talking about are things that can only be learned about me after years of co-habitation.  So, I wouldn’t expect anyone but myself to know.

Basically, what I did was I took a break to the bathroom, and stood outside the in the hall next to the bathroom entrance for about five minutes, quietly fiddling with my fidget spinner and enjoying the silence.  I took little breaks like this towards the end of the meal so I could enjoy the rest of it.  It may not sound like much, but figuring out how to take care of myself like this has taken years of my family slowly revealing their tricks to me, and a long friendship with a very close Aspie friend of mine which intimated me on their numerous methods of quiet micro management.

I did other little things every now and then, knowing when to return to the hotel, taking a breather occasionally, and texting my sister, to make the most of my awesome trip.  It helped a great deal, knowing how to minimize my stressors in a new, exciting and busy event.  I enjoyed the end of our dinner, returned to the hotel, got to know my pretty cool roommate, and went to bed ready for the adventures next day would bring.

I got good rest sleep, because the next day was game day.  I spent the first half of the day exploring downtown Chicago with my coaches [beautiful city], and later all of us went to watch the Real Madrid practice in Soldier Field.  I got some good pictures, but I appreciated the fans as much as the players, they had such a passionate, celebratory energy to them.  It reminded me of one of the things I love about soccer games: the excitement.  It’s just… somehow more pronounced in soccer compared to most other sports [although I’m still a big fan of basketball: who says I can’t love both?].

real madrid practice

Copper & I watching Real Madrid practice

It was hard to get excited on the bus trip to our game.  Don’t get me wrong, the team was pumped, it’s just that an hour in traffic while worrying that the intense thunder and lightning is going to ruin the game kinda slowed me down.  I just sorta planned it out that as soon as we arrived at Toyota Park Stadium, I would get excited again.  The plan worked.

rainy bus

Rainy busride

It’s nothing short of awesome being in a professional field like that.  You appreciate everything the big players go through: the excitement of coming out of the tunnel, seeing the hugeness of the field and stadium around you, and you just feel so ready and now, if that makes any sense.  First half of the game I go to play midfielder, and the second half I subbed for goalie.

our field

Toyota Park Stadium, where we played

Playing on that kind of field is different, its humongous, for starters, and there’s more players too.  In this kind of game, you start to take pride in the little achievements: every time you were in the right spot in relation to everyone else, or got to touch the ball for a brief moment as a defender, or running alongside our team’s star forward to cover him as he makes the shot.  The second half, however, was different.

First half as midfielder

Me, on the right, first half of game as midfielder

Like I said, I’m new to goal keeping.  So when we had a 1/0 lead that turned into a 2/1 trail, and both those shots went right past me, it was hard not to feel really shitty.  The goal I had to defend was huge–literally the same ones used in professional games–and I had practiced maybe one game with my home non-unified team.  The first goal hurt a bit, but I shook it off best I could.  Then when I catch the second shot–but in that brief second I didn’t jump up, or tighten my fingers, or I should have punched the ball instead of trying to grab it–it slipped out of my fingers into our net.

goal gets in

Goal for the other team with me at the net

We’re winning, and then when I replace the original goalie and single-handedly put us in a losing spot, it felt really bad.  I tried getting my stupid body to warm up so I wouldn’t freeze the next time the ball came my way, while consoling myself that at least two more athletes had the awesome memory of scoring in such a high calibre game.  Then, the same guy who got us our first goal, scored again.  We tied, 2/2.

at the goal

I did the best I could to enjoy the rest of the day.  It was actually better that the game ended in a tie, because that meant there were no “winners” or “losers”, and everyone was talking about how great our comeback was.  I enjoyed the delicious food we were offered for dinner, met some nice Chicago Fire players on the way to [but not in] the bathroom, and hung around my teammates.  I had fun again.

end of game

There was a high-school league game going on in the field below, and we had the option to stay and watch it to the end, or leave earlier to take a shuttle bus back to the hotel.  I chose to leave, because I was getting to that stage of dazed and tired like I did last night.  More likely than not, I would have felt the same way even if I played better, my energy was drained regardless.

I later found out that the game tied anyways, just like ours.

Next day, there isn’t as much to talk about, more fun stuff.  We helped clean up a local park–not that difficult with -50 odd people, and it felt good to give back to a city that did so much for us.  I hung out with my roommate and some of the other coaches, enjoying the company of people from all over the country, and the beaches of Lake Michigan, which is just like Lake Ontario.

That evening, we got to watch the MLS All Star vs Real Madrid game.  Even better, we got to walk on the field at halftime.  It was a bit of a hassle lining up to go down to the field, but very much well worth it.  Then I truly got to appreciate what it feels like to be in a soccer field, the wall of people all around you, the cameras everywhere, and just walking on grass that we played on the night before.  Being introduced as the Unified Team was really cool.  Once in a lifetime cool.

After all that, I completely relaxed myself for the first time in a while, and watched the game.  Nothing much to say really, other than it was better and more intense than a lot of soccer games.  I was rooting for MLS [obviously], but they tied with Real Madrid [notice a pattern here?] and lost in the penalty shoot out.  Still, it was the perfect was to end my All Star experience.

On Thursday, I returned to Toronto feeling weird, like I just left an exciting new world and came back home after a long time.  In one morning, I left behind my roommate and all the other friends I made in Chicago, and the city itself, and now I was home with a huge amount of memories, people’s names, events and places bouncing around my head.  I missed the people I met, and Chicago, but I didn’t quite miss the All Star week solely because I knew my Unified game in Montreal was coming up, and the All Star trip let me know just how awesome that was going to be.

Pearson Airport

At the airport, back from Chicago

I was still a little worried about my goaltending, that I would let my Unified team down, especially since I was our only goalie [!].  But I didn’t mope or pity or hate myself, I cherished the awesome adventure that I had, fondly remembered all the great parts, and trained myself for the game in Montreal.

[Writer’s note].  I will be uploading my post for the Montreal game very shortly, I won’t let the stupidly big gap form again.  This and next week are pretty busy, I’ve got a big weekend and Special Olympics wants me to do some public speaking for a big fundraiser event.  But I will try, and the Montreal post will hopefully be a little shorter than this one, but no more shy of pictures.

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I was on TV: what I’ve been doing lately

This is just an update post, as I will be going to Chicago this Monday [more on that later], and I will be writing future posts to cover the content described here in more detail.  I just wanted to let everyone know what's going on and give some background to everything [which I'll probably go over again in the following posts].

 

Writer's note: I originally wrote half of this on Thursday, didn't touch it on Friday [my bad], and when I went on it today, WordPress glitched and denied me access to the article.  I think I left the tab open when I closed the computer, corrupting it somehow.  So everything here was written Saturday, so if I left anything out or made this feel rushed, I apologize and will try not to make the same mistakes again.

 

The Toronto Football Club [TFC], in conjunction with Special Olympics and Kia Motors [the latter sponsor the Club], held a tryouts last month to pick athletes for their Unified Team.  The Team would comprise of six athletes from Special Olympics playing with regular athletes on a special team that will be playing Montreal's own Unified Team on August 26th.  I heard about the tryouts from a friend who was also going, and decided that it seemed like a good idea, so I went.

 

The tryouts consisted of training and drills–to see if we were good at following instructions and had the right skills–and a scrimage–a short game to see how everyone plays.  Before the tryouts, people who showed up early got a tour of the TFC's facility in which the players practice, a tour lead by none other than Dwayne De Rosario.  De Rosario is a retired soccer player and Canada's all time leading scorer, having shot 81 goals in his career, and is still a representative of Canada's soccer presence on a world scale.  He's also one of the coaches for the Unified Team.

 

I knew that it would be a great opportunity to actually join the team and be able to play in Montreal, so I and everyone else did there absolute best.  Given that I knew many of the Special Olympic players at the tryouts were more experienced in soccer and played on a higher division, I had no other plan than to try really, really hard.  If I haven't made it painfully obvious by the fact I wrote so much about this, I made the team.  Specifically, I'm one of the team's goalies, which is funny because the scrimage at tryouts was my first ever time playing net [I had to borrow my friend's gloves when subbing for him].

 

Since joining the team, I've become elected as one of the spokespeople for the team, and I went and will go to different screenings and shows to help represent Toronto's Unified Team.  That does include an appearance on CP24's Breakfast show, which some of you may have already seen.  If you haven't seen it, that's totally fine, I for one am typically waking up when the show ends.  Before the broadcast, however, I also appeared for a commercial.

 

To help raise funds for Special Olympics, the TFC is holding a charity lottery for anyone willing to donate ten dollars to SO.  The prizes are two former VIP seats of the BMO football field, which are covered with signatures of many of the TFC's players. 

To make Toronto soccer fans aware of this prize, the TFC filmed an ad to post to its official sites.  The ad starred four people, myself as a Special Olympic/Unified Team athlete, the CEO of Special Olympics Canada, the COO of Kia Motors, and the President of the Toronto Football Club.  So, I basically shared a screen with VIPs.

 

The filming went really smoothly, everyone from cast and crew were very nice, and we had multiple takes so there was no pressure in messing up, so I wasn't at all nervous.  It was pretty cool, seeing how they film things like this, put the wire up your shirt, set people and chairs up for one take, and how the business men make friendly small talk in between takes.  I appeared on TV once before for an episode of Style by Jury, but I was too young to take notice of how the filming was done other than asking "why is there a camera crew on my lawn?"  All in all, a fun and interesting day.

 

Later that week was our first practice as the Unified Team.  It was really cool, they put our uniforms in the player's locker room; it was such a cool experience to walk in there and see a uniform with my name on it. 

That was when I found out that I'm a keeper, which I'm honestly pretty excited about, since it's a different and less exhausting style of play.  I'm also honoured to be trusted with such a game-making position as well, and it's interesting that my focus went from making shots to stopping them.

The practice itself was also a lot of fun, I gained some new skills and learned the ropes to being a goalie, I'm friends and teammates with one of the other players, and started getting to know everyone else.  There's still more practices to go, and I'm looking forward to them.

 

I suppose I should cover my time on live TV.  The video is below, for people interested in seeing it.  I was a bit nervous before the broadcast, but I felt pretty calm during the filming.  Basically, me and De Rosario appeared at the end of CP24's Breakfast show, and answered some questions about the Unified Team [which De Rosario answered], and my time in Special Olympics [which I answered, if you didn't guess.]

CP24 Appearance (<click for video clip)

Mostly my approach was the same as when filming the commercial: be calm, be natural and talk about the subject at hand.  What really helped was, below the prompter which feeds the host her lines, they had a mini TV which gave us the live feed.  That little thing helped a lot, because I knew if I was on camera or if it cut to a close up of someone else or showing pictures of soccer, so I could readjust my glasses and twitch a bit.  And like that, the broadcast was over, we got up, and everyone complimented me on how great I did.

 

Two BIG important things I have to mention.  First,  everyone on our team all go VIP seating at the TFC game against the NYC FC tomorrow.  I mention this, because at halftime, we're all going to appear on the field for the announcement of the Unified Team and its players.  I'm not sure if that will appear on TV or not, since the half time shows are almost always where they put the commercial breaks.

 

The second thing is that I've been chosen as a Special Olympics ambassador to the soccer All Stars game that is starting in Chicago this week.  My flight is on Monday and I'll be returning on Thursday.  I and the other people going with me will be on a tight and adventurous schedule while there, which includes some training with the Real Madrid team.  I had to explain to my mom who the Real Madrid were, by comparing them to basketball's Cavaliers.  Needless to say, I'm really excited about the next five days.

 

So, that's it really.  As I said, I'll write posts that go into everything in future detail, especially about my trip to the All Star game.  Talk to you then.

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What is disability? Is the difference between high-function and severe even a thing?

I, and a lot of people in the autism community, use terms such as “high-functioning” and “severe”.  What are they exactly, and how can someone who is supposedly fully functioning have a disability too?  I could get into the etymological meanings of each word, which doctor in the medical field coined them, what they meant by that, and what kinds of people are described with those terms.  I won’t do that however; that’s what dictionaries and Wikipedia are for.  Instead, I’ll talk from experience I’ve had with people in the world, people from Special Olympics, people from regular high school and people who found their own way through life.

Everyone has different levels of ability, even a completely average but well-off business-class person couldn’t match wits with Stephen Hawking or stand a chance against Usain Bolt in an endurance contest, in spite of what my or anyone else’s mom says.  Also, both men would be outmatched in the other’s respective field of work, and everyone can agree that Stephen Hawking is disabled because of his ALS.  Yet, he has made several integral contributions to our species’ knowledge of the cosmos, including his discovery of the aptly-named Hawking Radiation, which is predicted to emanate from black holes.  In this case, Hawking’s work helped to solve a problem previously observed in black holes, where they seemed to breaking the laws of physics.  All those accomplishments, and he can’t manage a flight of stairs.

In the case of Hawking, a lot of people would say that he’s physically disabled, but that doesn’t affect his mental abilities.  That is very true, but it is an easy trap to follow this reasoning with, “You can be physically disabled without it affecting your mental capacity or vice versa, but you can’t be mentally handicapped and a normal person or physically impaired and still be athletic.”  To that, I would point to the Paralympics.  Again, if we take that generic normal dude and throw him in the water with the world’s best Paralympic athletes, he’s going to get taken to school.  That doesn’t mean that life is easy for people who are missing limbs or afflicted by conditions such as Cerebral Palsy, and many of those Paralympic athletes face every day challenges the normal dude would never have to face.

“Severe” me

How does this all apply to that odd, confusing and somehow condescending term, “high-functiong”?  Well, in Autistic disorders, these differences in ability that we just talked about are more pronounced.  That’s because, unlike other intellectual disabilities, it doesn’t just delay a person’s mental age, or have a well-understood mechanism.  Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t, whereas others are normal but have no clue how socializing works, or they can’t speak and are prone to violence, so we really don’t know how much is really in that person, etc, etc, etc.  Doctors found that Autistic people shared a few core traits that must have been caused by the same condition, but with too much difference between them all to fit everyone into a single category.

There was a lot of variance in patients diagnosed with Autism, yet too many of the cases studied had too many similarities to categorize them as a multitude of separate conditions.  Asperger’s was later classified as a different-but-related condition, although that didn’t account for the still-huge amount of Autistics with varying degrees of everything.  Even one person, such as myself, can jump from one end of disability to another over their life.  So how did the doctors and therapists clear things up for everyone?

“Moderate” me

 

High-functioning literally means that the individual can do a lot him or herself.  They can eat, talk, move around, wear clothes, think and generally live without an assistant.  Others who were–and are–more held back by their disorder, and struggle with it to live a normal, functioning life, they’re severely affected by their condition.  That’s where the terms came from.  I use them because they are actual differences in people’s intellect and mental age–and other forms of development–but they’re medical enough to not be offensive or dirty-sounding.

In my life, I went from what any doctor or child physician would call “severe”, to someone who would be described as high functioning.  When I was kid, I was the frightening, problem child that would appear in melodramatic charity ads and award-winning drama films.  I was set off at the slightest bad touch, way behind in my age development, wouldn’t eat, was non-verbal and prone to rages to communicate my stress.  The latter problems–in both myself and people I know–was ratified with sign language that helped my brain grow a part that could use spoken English.

The rest is a story that I’m all too tired of telling time and time again, for this blog and other places.  Years of hard work from my loving family, awesome support workers and teachers, aid societies like Special Olympics, and myself, I became who I am today, which is leagues ahead of the what the doctors said I was capable of, Dustin Hoffman wins the Oscar.  Writing this, I have come to realize that I have a rather cynical look at my past.

I know that many of my problems today are caused by my Autism, but whenever my childhood is brought up, it doesn’t help much.  To me, it’s like hearing, “It’s okay that you’re struggling now and may not reach your goals in life, but you were super f%cked up as a kid so it’s a miracle that you’re even talking”.  Also, I don’t like the way our society takes stories such as my own and twists it.

Just because I went from severe to relatively “normal” doesn’t mean that’s a realistic expectation of other people who are Autistic, or disabled in any way for that matter.  But because so many “inspirational” news articles give the implied message that all disabled people can eventually live a normal life in spite of their condition, almost as if their condition doesn’t really mean anything.  In telling my story as a formally severe Autistic, I hope I haven’t made my life seem like that or disparaged anybody who had a worse luck of the draw than I have.

“High Functioning” me

 

If there’s any good moral lesson to take away from my childhood, it’s that “severe” and “high-functioning” aren’t hard terms.  Three year old me was definitely the former, present me is the latter, but the Callum I was in elementary school fit somewhere in the middle, or was both.  What I was would depend on which doctor you spoke to.

Terms that define what “severe” and “high-functioning” mean are necessary. Pretending like there isn’t a difference in people’s abilities–or saying that some adult people don’t have the mentality of a child–is a polite fiction.  It’s also harming the people they’re supposed to protect, by denying them their human right to receive extra aid in exchange for those intellectual or physical impairments.  This is like saying they have nothing  to compensate for.  I have different needs in my journey to University than a severely-afflicted Autistic would have just to get through their day, but that does not invalidate either of us or make one more of a priority over the other.  Maybe “high-functioning” and “severe” aren’t the best terms to use, but, they’re what is commonly used and right now, they’re all I’ve got.

 

 

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Giving a Speech

FullSizeRender

Every year across Canada–but especially in Ontario–police officers go on charity runs for Special Olympics.  These runs differ depending on when and where they are, sometimes it’s a downtown run to raise awareness, other times they’re actually carrying in the torch during a Provincial, National or even World game.  Originating in the U.S., the Canadian half of the trend started in Toronto when people thought it would be a good idea to help raise money for SO.  Over 30 years, in Canada alone, Law Enforcement Torch Runs have raised over a 100 million dollars for SO, and last year alone around 130,000 dollars were raised.  This year they want it to be 180,000.  I learned all this a week or so ago, while attending a meeting in Toronto’s Police HQ.

Any kind of organized event needs some kind of meeting before the big day, both to lay out the technical aspects and to explain why it is important to do this thing in the first place.  So, the meeting downtown was designed to fulfill both functions by talking about the history of the Ontario Torch Run, the good it has brought and how the tradition will be continued this year.  To be a sort of representative, Special Olympics reached out to be to give a speech in front of around 90 Ontario Police Officers talking about what SO meant to me, how important it is and how it impacted my life.  So, you know, no pressure.

I had about a week and a half before the big date, which was a Thursday at around 10:15 [the talks started later, we were to get there early to meet with representatives from SO and the Ontario and Toronto Police].  While new events can be scary to some, they only make me vaguely nervous since I have really nothing to expect, whereas something that I can relate to a little more–such as a test, which I have gone through before–makes me more stressed out.  Given that I was currently focused on my school work [for some tests] and had things to do on the weekend, I wrote the first draft of my speech on Monday just before noon.

It wasn’t as difficult as some of my school work, because being heartfelt allows the words to flow quicker than when being logical and scientific for a test.  The biggest challenge–given my writing personality–was keeping the speech brief while saying what needed to be said.  I simply refrained myself from talking too much on one topic–letting the sentence that introduces a topic give all the information necessary–and made sure to keep the rhythm right.  Satisfied that I had covered all I wanted to and left myself enough time to make edits the next day, I read the speech aloud to my parents.

They told me not to change a thing, and given that they both almost cried, I took it that this was more than the usual parental over-appreciation.  My mom transcribed the speech–word per word–into a form that was printable, because we couldn’t think of a less primitive method to get the speech from laptop to paper.  Side note–printers wouldn’t hook up with it, my laptop doesn’t know how to email, and while I take to some aspects of technology like a fish to water, other parts I feel like a fish taking to a brick wall.  The important thing was: I had my speech papers and they were ready for Thursday.

IMG_9755

I’ve been to the Toronto Police Headquarters before, when my mom had some minor paperwork to clear up [it’s honestly not as bad as it sounds].  They have a pretty openly-spaced brick-and-marble building downtown, with a nice little police history museum that’s free for anyone to check out, and some offices upstairs to do all the necessary paperwork.  We met with two friendly people from Special Olympics, and got to know each other on our way to the meeting hall.  There was a room on the second floor with a stage and empty carpet for chairs to be lined up, quite large next to everything else on the floor, more medium sized in comparison to a university’s lecture hall.

When we took our seat, a nice officer who was one of the meeting’s organizers explained to me that my segment was in the middle of the presentation, and everyone around me made me feel comfortable and ready.  I don’t have a lot of the social fears that other people do, nor do I have much of the social intuition.  Kind of an even trade in that regard.

My biggest worry, which follows me many places, were my intrusive thoughts.  I’ll do a separate post about them, but for now, understand that they are essentially unwanted thoughts that pop up unexpectedly, and tend to whisper detailed and disturbing things into one’s head.  They are much closer to an anxiety disorder than schizophrenia, despite some confusion with the latter.  I’d previously talked with my doctor about them, and he said that while there weren’t many viable paths to treat them, I had my thoughts under more control than normal.  That was pretty reassuring.

Besides, I had my speech to focus on, and turning my attention to that, the people I was talking to, or the insightful presentation that was being held.  It was a nice meeting, the people who were from the Torch Run were clearly passionate about the project, and the officers had a kind, jovial energy to them.  And I learned some stuff, which I put at the top of this page.  It was a bit of a shock when the next introductions on the huge TV screen in front of us mentioned something about “with his mom and grandma”, before I realized I was reading my own biography.  Then the kind officer said my name and welcomed me on stage.

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That was, for about three seconds, a very intense moment, but I quickly composed myself.  The only adlib was explaining how the stuffed dog under my arm–Copper–was a sort of pet that doesn’t need food or water, and accompanies me so I don’t stress out in public.  It’s a good way to explain why I carry him around: an idea that my friend recommended to me about 2 years ago.  I figured it would only be fair to explain Copper to everyone.  The speech I gave is located just below this paragraph.

[beginning of speech]

What Special Olympics Means To Me

I remember the first time I tried to hold my breath under water, when I would’ve been around 8 years old. It… didn’t go well. My parents thought it would be good for me to learn how to at least tread water, in case I ever fell off a boat or something like that. But the thing is, with autistic people such as myself, learning new things is just harder. We often become emotionally overwhelmed in situations that would be mundane to other people, or can’t be taught something the same way as other kids would be because we think differently. In my case, I feel like I learn slower than other people my own age. My family needed someone to teach me how to swim, someone with patience, dedication and understanding of how I was.

With luck, it turned out that Special Olympics had and still has a swim team dedicated to non-swimmers that was more than happy to welcome me on board. The Seals team, who swim every Monday at Main Street and Gerrard. Upon joining the Seals, or any team in Special Olympics, you notice a wonderful diversity of people. They don’t just welcome Autistics, but people with Down Syndrome, developmental delays or other, unique conditions that make a person one of a kind. We don’t shy away from the medical terms, but we also have no need to label ourselves in Special Olympics. We’re all equals, and coached by people who understand us when much of the rest of the world wouldn’t, or couldn’t.

I didn’t just learn how to tread water with Special Olympics, truth be told, I learned more than how to do Butterfly, Backstroke, Breaststroke and Front Crawl. I learned how to try new things even though they were scary, or really, really uncomfortable, because it was always worth it in the long run. I learned how to take the TTC by myself, so I could get to practice and other places I needed to be on time. I also learned how to make friends, which is the epitome of trying something new that is scary and uncomfortable. Now I’m comfortable enough with some of my Special Olympic friends that we also do other stuff together as well, such as going to the mall, or their house. And I get their by myself, with the same public transit skills that got me to swim practice on time.

When I was about 9 or 10, the swimming pool’s deep end petrified me. I used to only go into it at all while piggy-back riding on my coach’s back, who… did an impeccable job keeping me from dragging us both under. Now, about eight years later, I’m a Special Olympic medalist who won Bronze, Silver and Gold at the 2016 Guelph Provincial Olympic Games [show medals]. It wasn’t just me, I guarantee most if not all of the other athletes at those Provincial Olympic Games have similar stories to my own, stories of overcoming odds, surpassing the low expectations society holds for us, and becoming happier, more capable people as a result. And it’s all thanks to countless, awe-inspiring people who work for Special Olympics as coaches, coordinators and volunteers, that got me to where I am today.

There’s one more thing I learned from Special Olympics, and it’s the motto they say before the start of every swim meet or tournament. The motto is, “Let me win, and if I shall not win, let me be brave in the attempt.”

[end of speech]

So, that was the speech.  People seemed to genuinely really like it, and I got complimented on how well I did.  One man in particular gave a speech after mine, he’s an officer who has a daughter with Down Syndrome, a woman he considers his “best friend”.  I liked hearing another person who knows what it’s like to live with a disability, and had first hand experience with SO.  He thanked me during his speech in reference to mine, saying that I “hit it”.  I talked to him afterwards, and I thanked him in return for being so kind and for being a father who truly understands his child.  Honestly, we could use more dads like that, especially in the disabled community.

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In conclusion, it was a very good experience that I had, and I was blessed to have been given the offer.  It’s reassuring to hear people you’ve never met before compliment you on your words, and I’m glad I was able to represent Special Olympics like that.  I did get a bit nervous, but it was exciting too, and I’ve learned over the years about how to keep stress from getting the better of me.

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Selling 50/50 tickets


For anyone who’s ever gone to a sports game, particularly basketball or hockey, 50/50 tickets are a great way to gamble reasonable amounts of money while donating to charity.  After the first or second quarter ended and before you buy your hot dog, you may find an average-looking person in a red apron standing around and printing out pieces of paper for cash.  If you approach them and ask what the deal is, they’ll probably say that once you buy a ticket, half the money goes to charity and the other half goes into a jackpot that one lucky ticket-holder receives at the end of the game.  I know this because I actually was that ticket-seller.

 

The Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment (MLSE) company is not only the owner of the Toronto FC and [who else] The Maple Leafs, but also my favourite NBA basketball team, the Toronto Raptors.  They also run the MLSE Foundation, which is dedicated to assisting various non-profit charities, such as Special Olympics, Reach for the Rainbow, Autism Ontario and many more [the full list is on their website].  Each volunteer from one of the charities is worth 50 dollars given to their charity, so just by being there, my mom and I make 100 dollars for Special Olympics per game.  The other half of the 50/50 jackpot that goes “to charity” goes specifically to the MLSE Foundation to aid their goal of helping children through sport.  To raise that money, they enlist volunteers.

50/50 volunteers get to watch the last quarter [sometimes two quarters] of the game in the stadium, so being given the offer is a pretty big deal.  The MLSE reached me, and by extension, my mother, through Special Olympics, and we jumped on the opportunity.  A common theme in this post will be how it was difficult for me at first, but I got more used to the procedure over time.  While this is normal for everybody, this ease-with-repetition behavior is especially pronounced in autistics.

Jurassic Park ACC

View of the game from Jurassic Park


How it works is that you go to the Air Canada Centre two hours before the game, and knock on a windowless metal door so the security guard on the other side will let you in [the door is close to a more visible entrance and volunteers are usually waiting outside the right spot anyways].  This specific door faces the very public square outside “Jurassic Park” so it feels less like a drug deal than it sounds.  After being let in, some friendly volunteers/workers hand you some papers to sign your name on, and then it’s off to the employees-only segment.  The Centre isn’t as eerie without customers as one would think: the lights and bathrooms still work normally, and employees can be seen everywhere, preparing food, keeping an eye on security and such.  The staff-only door that we are lead through goes downstairs, to the basement level.

Zamboni

Zamboni!!

This floor of the building is level with the court that the players are on, as well as the associated locker rooms, Zambonis [for hockey], and we even go past one of the corner tunnels that the players make their entrance through.   Our route takes us right past one of the corner entrances to the court: a dark, spacious area watched by one or two security guards on a computer.  I think everyone who goes through here gets the thought of running out there onto the court during the middle of game, kind of like how thinks about what would happen if we jumped off a cliff or decided not to pay taxes anymore.  The 50/50 crew have a small room near the indoor trailer garage, and this is where volunteers are fitted with their aprons, equipment and assigned a post somewhere in the ACC [I always get the first floor, I don’t know if everyone does].

Raptors mascot

Never know what you’re going to see in the hallways

While not too much of an issue, this room is small, crowded with people, and finicky, so it’s nice to get out of there smoothly.  Then, it’s simply a guided trip back the way we came up to the main floor.  This part of the ACC that is essentially a giant hallway of overpriced food and beer curves around the seating area and basketball court.  Think of it like an onion, with the court being in the center, surrounded by seating and then the food hall.  Scattered through the hallway are TVs, some of which show a feed of the game that is also pumped into that big, triangular screen that hangs above the court.  So during the 90% of the time you’re not selling someone a ticket, you can at least watch from there.

Watching the game while selling tickets

There’s one more thing I should explain, and that’s when we sell 50/50 tickets.  We sell until the end of half-time, and then head back downstairs to return our gear, and get free pizza and seating.  Because people won’t be wandering around much during the game, customers typically appear in “waves” during the breaks in-between quarters.  People are usually too busy trying to find where their seat is before the game starts, so the end of the first quarter is usually when we sell the most tickets.  That being said, half-time is the most hectic because most of the stadium’s audience comes out to walk around then.

Quiet before the crowd arrives

There is typically a half hour before the gates open, during which the employees continue to ready the place.  Then a few people who don’t look like employees start to creep in, and suddenly there’s a crowd of people searching for their seats.  During my first day, I was pretty rigid and formal, and probably a lot more cautious about people not knowing stuff.  To elaborate: I would explain the process in more detail than was necessary, and would ask people if they were sure about their purchase after they handed us money.  So I wasn’t rude or unhelpful, but not exactly casual either.

My mom explained people there are just having a good time, so I could relax more.  After a while, I got used to it and discovered that even people who know nothing about the 50/50 tickets get the idea pretty intuitively, and don’t need a long dry explanation.  It’s not like a huge business deal, so there’s no reason to treat it like one.  My mom handles the cash because she can make change quickly, and I use the machinery.

There are three options for how many tickets you can buy: 3 for 5$, 10 for $10, or 40 for $20.  One of my devices is a recycled, miniature tablet used to select which option the customer chose, and the other is a portable receipt printer.  The receipt has the “tickets” that the person bought, each of which is a series of numbers.  Sometimes the tablet glitches or locks out, but I was quick to notice the MLSE has a booth with someone who’s there to help the ticket sellers, so it’s never a problem should something happen.  Over time I’ve gotten more familiar with the equipment to use it better, and I’m more comfortable that whenever it freezes, the issue isn’t anything serious.

The Foundation is kind enough to let its volunteers grab a bite to eat during their shift, so the second quarter [when everyone is watching the game] proved itself to be a great time to fill up and calm down.  The vendors are even kind enough to have given my mom an employee’s discount.  There is one rule about volunteers having to give up their spot in the line to regular ticket holders–a rule I think is annoying and useless–but this isn’t a problem when the game is on.

The hardest part of the 50/50 selling–for anybody–is the half time.  This is the longest break in any sport game, and it’s when the majority of people come out to use the bathrooms, or grab some more food and drink.  As a pro-tip, this is why it’s better to leave your seat either during another, smaller break in between quarters, or when there’s a minute or less on the game clock before halftime starts.  Because otherwise, you’ll be swamped with people, and us ticket sellers are right in the middle.

Nobody likes standing in a crowd, having one’s space restricted, and being stuck in a loud, constant din.  Fortunately I–and anyone else who lives in a city–have years of training from being stuck on the subway during rush hour, so my experience is tiring instead of really stressful.  I think it also helps that we have to stay in the same spot during half time, whereas any other time I’m in a crowd I try to find the quickest way out, and get frustrated and stressed at how slow the people in front [and behind, and all around] are.  After half time ends, all 50/50 sellers go downstairs to return their gear, monetary earnings, and then go back upstairs to watch the game from the TV camera seats.

Raptors cheerleaders

Cheerleaders practicing behind the scenes


Going downstairs is a lot better, sometimes its quiet atmosphere can be eerie straight after listening to a huge crowd and speaker-quality music.  There’s some hustle and bustle at this point–mostly camera men and cheerleaders walking through the underground hallways–and a congo line of 50/50 sellers in red aprons.  The route to the elevators [which to go upstairs] is the most interesting.  On the same level as the maintenance halls is the VIP lounge, where the food vendors sell roast meat, fancy clothing stores and a club for people who apparently paid large amounts of cash to watch the game on a prestigious bar tv.  Upstairs is where specialty seating is: the disabled spot, little sitting rooms where parties are held, and finally our volunteer seats.

 

The seats are in some ways more comfortable than the regular bleachers–being comfy office swivel chairs instead of tightly packed plastic benches–although they have drawbacks.  Mainly, the chairs are awfully close to the railing/table in front of us, that one has to look over to see the court.  I have a big fear of heights, which usually triggers itself by asserting that yes, if I did fall from this height onto that ground, I would die.  So, my first five games I watched the Raptors play either through the [glass] railing, or by practically hugging the table.  Over time I felt more safe, and I found myself in the sweet spot between at sitting ease but not carelessly.  So, in a strange way, my love of basketball helped me with a fear of heights.

Upper level ACC

So high up we’re above the Jumbotron

Another drawback is that, during playoffs, other TV companies take up those seats.  The seats we get are exactly the same angle that you’ll see on TV, so in the playoff season the entire row is taken, and we have to watch the game from the same areas we were allowed in as ticket sellers.  It kind of sucks, but it is still a great experience to be in the building, and watching our team during such an important set of games.

Are they even watching the game?

Lastly, I’d like to talk about all the people I’ve observed as a ticket seller.  It’s really interesting to see how people can have such different perspectives when going to the exact same event.  On the one hand, when walking through the VIP lounge and party rooms, I’ve noticed plenty of people in sharp, expensive-looking suits and skirts sitting on leather furniture with food and drink, talking amongst themselves with backs turned to the court.  It feels strange, since I worked hard to get the seats I got and the people who get them for free take it for granted.  On the other hand, sometimes people in those party rooms are all crowded near the courtside window, leather chairs be damned, and other fans are willing to pay for a plane to cross the border into Canada to support their team from home.  And nothing makes it more worthwhile then walking out and seeing the fans outside the ACC in a gated area called Jurassic Park, representing the fun and intensity of the game.  In the end, the long hours standing, loud crowds and depth-defying seats make it worthwhile, because the day is like a big, basketball-themed party.

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