Autism, Sport and Me!
I think I should start by introducing and telling you a little bit about myself; I am Dale Harris, Co-Director at Dream Big Sports. I have a beautiful little girl, a wonderful family and I have Autism. I have lived my entire life on the Autism spectrum but officially received a diagnosis at the age of 12.
When I received my diagnosis, I was given a label and if I am being honest I felt I had my identity taken away and given an alternative one. I was no longer a child, I was an Autistic child when really everyone is a child first and foremost. I don’t want to bore you about my life with the ups and downs on the spectrum but what I do want to talk about is how sport and in particular Rugby League took over my life and changed it for the better.
I started playing Rugby League for my local club St Anne’s A.R.L.F.C at the age of six when my parents were advised by ‘professionals’ that I was just a frustrated child and I needed to take my aggression out on something. At that point, little did my parents know how influential rugby would be in my development as a child. You could say I became obsessed with playing rugby, talking about rugby, watching rugby literally everything to do with that egg-shaped ball. I even started asking for new boots and gum shields for Christmas presents instead of the usual remote control cars or games console. Rugby had taken over my life.
Every Tuesday evening and Saturday morning we would train and then every Sunday we played and every Sunday morning I would be wide awake excited to go and play. My position was a winger and so I was expected to finish off quite a few of the set moves we did as a team with a try and I couldn’t think of anything better than scoring.
However, during the week growing up, I didn’t speak to many people, in fact, I used to go days without speaking to anyone, I had some serious communication issues…these issues used to go out of the window if we were talking about rugby or playing rugby, rugby you could say was my comfort zone, it probably would be my specialist subject on Mastermind. This person inside me just came out, rugby found my voice again.
Rugby League gave me an identity…for four or five hours a week it allowed me to be Number 5 for St Anne’s, the winger, it allowed me to be the rugby player rather than the ‘Autistic kid’. It gave me a sense of belonging, I belonged on that field, with that team. I was just as normal as the other 14 in the squad. I was part of a team, I was part of something. I wasn’t isolated, on my own, socially excluded, I was part of a unit, a family that all had one common goal to win and one common interest rugby.
When I went to high school with my diagnosis you could say it held me back a little, I still had my communication issues and I still struggled to accept the diagnosis itself. One person, in particular, helped me through high school, Mr Lord; and I bet you can guess what he did…he was my P.E teacher, and he was the rugby team manager. Mr Lord allowed me to captain the side on many occasions, and so he gave the chance for this lad who is seen as naughty most of the time, with communication issues to lead his school team…all communication issues went out of the window when we are losing by two points with five minutes remaining of a cup semi-final in year nine.
Unfortunately, Mr Lord was also there when the beginning of the end of my rugby career happened in the last two minutes of the national school’s semi-final, at home on a pitch that is no longer there, as Our Lady’s has been turned into Newman College. I had the ball, running up the wing, we were winning…I went to step back inside and BOOM! I got smashed, shoulder straight into the knee cap, great tackle at the time…probably an illegal one now…my knee cap went left and the rest of my body went right. The knee cap was in a world of its own, and I was lay there with Mr Lord waiting for an ambulance. This was the start of a hard 2/3 years of constant injury and then the end of my rugby career.
Upon reflection of “World Autism Awareness Week”; it's great to see more and more people talking about Autism and let me tell you I am well aware of Autism, so is my mum, dad and sister we have lived with it for 23 years. I have endured the ups and downs of life on the spectrum and it still plays a huge part in my day to day life today. But let me also tell you, it hasn’t had half as much impact on my life as Rugby League did.
Rugby League found me a voice when I struggled to speak, found me an identity when I didn’t know who I was, removed a label I didn’t want and replaced it with “Team Member”. It allowed me to be a part of something and allowed me to be ‘normal’ whatever that even means.
Sport and Rugby League still dominates what I do today and I am proud of what I am doing, I am working with my colleague Dillan to ensure that every child can access sport because sport can be so powerful when utilised correctly.
Hope you had a wonderful week.