Michigan hosts inaugural Autism Awareness Meet on Friday

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By Cindy Yu, Daily Sports Writer
Published January 29, 2014

“Take him home and make him comfortable.”

Those were the words the doctor said to former gymnast Jill Leone — a friend of Michigan assistant coach Dave Kuzara — when her son, John, was born with autism. But rather than heeding the doctor’s advice, Jill sought alternative therapy techniques to treat him.

Fast-forward 17 years to an exceptionally successful John Leone. A junior at Grosse Pointe North High School, he’s involved in competitive swimming, loves physics, has a 4.0 GPA and tutors his peers.

Leone recently paid a visit to the University to speak to the No. 4 Michigan women’s gymnastics team. He detailed his experiences living with autism, recalling a time when he was unable to speak.

While visiting with the team, Leone had the opportunity to practice in the Donald R. Shepherd Women’s Gymnastics Training Center. Persistence and hard work led him to learn a swivel hips move — where the individual performs a seat drop in one direction followed by a 180-degree twist to perform another seat drop in the opposite direction — on the trampoline in only one session.

The Wolverines were inspired by Leone’s visit, and responded by dedicating one of their rivalry matches to the cause. Michigan (1-0 Big Ten, 6-0 overall) will host the Spartans in its inaugural Autism Awareness Meet at Crisler Center on Friday night, and Leone will be in the stands, wearing maize and blue and cheering on the team that welcomed him with open arms.

Through video board presentations given by the team, handouts and pamphlets featuring information about autism, and exhibition performances from special-needs athletes, the meet will teach attendees about the most underfunded — yet fastest-growing — developmental disorder.

“The statistics about how much more prevalent autism has become are staggering,” said Michigan coach Bev Plocki.

Twenty years ago, individuals with autism were offered fewer opportunities to succeed after their diagnosis. Resources made available in the last two decades to people with the disorder have helped to bridge the gap, but the limited-opportunity issue is one that persists to this day.

“We’re just really excited to be a part of something that really has the opportunity to make a difference,” said senior Teresa Arthur. “It has allowed us to get a lot more educated on autism, what it is and how it affects people. It really opened our eyes to what other people are going through and making sure we take the time to think about how we’re judging other people or how our lives are.”

Though this is the inaugural Autism Awareness Meet at Michigan, Plocki and Dr. Larry Nassar, a physician for USA Gymnastics, have been collaborating on the project for much longer.

Particularly drawn to the disorder because of his autistic daughter, Nassar revolutionized the merger of autism awareness with women’s gymnastics. He founded the Gymnastics Doctor Foundation to assist with research concerning movement therapy and cognitive development of autism. Nassar is currently spearheading a project to train gymnastics instructors through the lens of special education to hold sessions in gyms that are often underutilized during the day.