Tuesday, May 27, 2008

An Adult with Autism The Story of Jamie Part 2

But he won Alice over with one unquestionable quality: He loved Jamie.

The coach often had seen Jamie's life transform from calm to chaos in a matter of moments. That's why, at Soldier Field, Rob knew exactly what was coming.

"Get my mom," Jamie said, his voice quivering. "I'm upset. I'm getting very upset!"

Jamie's brain, like those of most people with autism, is slow to adjust to change. It takes time and repetition for him to understand that it's OK when something isn't the way he thinks it should be or the way it has always been.

"Jamie, it's just that microphone, it's making everything sound funny," Rob said. "You're doing fine. Just get up there and do it like you did in my office the other day."

"All right, Rob," Jamie said, looking anything but confident. "I'm gonna get up there and do it real good this time."

Back and forth, the conversation repeated itself—Rob trying to comfort and cajole, Jamie answering that he would "do it real good this time."

Rob didn't doubt him. He couldn't. Jamie needed him to believe.

Twenty minutes later, hundreds gathered in the stands. Jamie stood at the podium and launched into his speech. This time he didn't stop.

"I . . . am . . . a . . . powerlifter . . ."

He wasn't comfortable. He wasn't smooth. But Rob had told him what to expect.

As he finished, the crowd's wild applause thrilled him. He beamed, flashing two thumbs-up signs.

Jamie doesn't have the build of a typical powerlifter. It's a sport for the stocky—the shorter the arms and legs, the less distance to heave bar-bending weight. But Jamie has managed to get the most from his tall, muscular frame, grunting and roaring his way to dominance in local and state Special Olympics competitions.

With an encyclopedic knowledge of professional wrestlers—and a bedroom plastered with posters of muscle-bound pros like Stone Cold Steve Austin and The Game—the pursuit of bulging biceps seemed a natural fit. It's also a solitary sport, one with strict rules and little variance. On the padded bench, there was only Jamie, the weights and a clearly defined, rhythmic task: lift up, lift down, rack.

In his first competition in 2003, Jamie benched 100 pounds. Legs spread wide, hips bent, he hoisted 170 pounds up to a standing position in the dead lift. He won two gold medals.

Within three years he moved up to more than 200 pounds on the bench press and more than 300 pounds on the dead lift.

"He has to do well in everything," Rob said. "He's such a perfectionist. He doesn't accept second place. It's hard to get him to accept that sometimes there are people out there that are better than you."

Jamie kept only the gold medals. All silvers and bronzes went to his grandmother in Texas.

In June, he, Rob and a group of other Easter Seals athletes rode a bus down to Normal for the Illinois Special Olympics State Games. The event had no bearing on the World Games, but it was Jamie's last formal competition before heading overseas in October.

The powerlifters gathered on a creaky stage in an Illinois State University lecture hall. Jamie was in a boisterous mood, pacing about and grinning, laughing about a movie he had watched in the dorm the previous night.

" 'Rocky III' with Mr. T.," he shouted. "Hah-hah! I watched that last night. That Mr. T, he got 'em real good."

When his turn came, Jamie walked confidently to the bench and waited for the judges command to lift.


Jamie lowered the bar to his chest.


He forcefully exhaled and pushed the bar up.


The three judges ruled Jamie's form perfect and signaled so by illuminating three white lights. Jamie got off the bench and looked at the lights. Panic washed over his face.

Normally, those lights would be green. Green is for good, red is for bad. That was what Jamie had always known.

"Rob," he said, "where are the green lights? What did I do wrong?"

"The white lights are good, Jamie," Rob said, walking him to the rear of the stage. "You want three of them. That's good."

"But where are the green lights, Rob? The green lights are good. What did I do wrong?"

Rob looked worried. For 10 minutes he tried to explain. Maybe they ran out of green lights, he said. It's OK. The white lights are good. You want the white lights.

But Jamie still looked panicked, confused.

On his next lift, he forgot to wait for the command to start. Three red lights.

He lifted a foot up during his third try, a form violation. Three red lights.

"This is the autism," Rob said, shaking his head. "He's flustered. He's out of sync."

As Jamie walked off the stage, he looked at his coach.

"Rob, it was kind of tough," he said, voice cracking.

"Are you upset?" Rob asked.

"Probably so," said Jamie. "I'm upset about it too."

That evening, Jamie was dancing with friends on the Illinois State football field, his smile wide, showing no signs of his earlier distress. But Rob was still concerned, faced with a stark reminder of his athlete's fragility.

"I don't know," the coach said. "I sure hope they have green lights in China."

"How you feel, dude?" Alice said, looking over at her son.

"All right," Jamie said flatly.

Alice would have given anything for more than that, for some assurance that Jamie knew what he was in for, but nothing came. He just stared blankly out the car window at thick traffic on Cicero Avenue.

It was a balmy July morning and Jamie soon would be on a plane to a World Games training camp, the first major step on his journey to China. But his mother couldn't stop thinking about the last time he flew.

That was in 1998, during a sightseeing flight over Niagara Falls with his classmates from the Easter Seals school. Halfway through the round trip he started to panic, and teachers had to talk him down, nursing him through the rest of the flight.

With that in mind, Alice rattled off a list of reminders for his training camp trip: Listen to your coaches. If anything hurts, tell someone. Enjoy yourself.

Jamie nodded and followed each piece of advice with a soft, "OK, Mama."

But he never shifted his gaze. He was detached, softly humming a high-pitched, ever-changing tune that slips out whenever he's anxious.

In the terminal at Midway Airport they joined a cluster of Special Olympics coaches and other Illinois athletes. Alice quickly found Brianna Beers, a coach who agreed to sit with Jamie on the flight. She pulled Beers aside. Jamie had never been away from both his mother and his Easter Seals family.

"I know this is what you do," Alice said, polite but stern. "But please take care of my baby. Please understand, this is my baby, my life."

For 24 years, Alice has been there to decipher the world for Jamie, and shield him from its rough edges. She lifted him up when people stared at him like he was from another planet. She protected him from the local toughs who tried to prey on him. She stopped store clerks who tried to shortchange him.

"I'm two people when I'm with Jamie," Alice said. "I'm feeling for him and I'm feeling for me. I have to be him in a way, to feel the parts that he's missing."

But this time she had to let go.

She yearned for an embrace and some tears. Jamie gave her a stiff hug, his arms barely touching her. She knew that was the most emotion he could muster.

He said, "I love you, Mama."

And he was off.

Alice walked slowly out of the terminal, sweating and furrowing her brow, wiping away tears all the way back to the car.

As the plane pulled away from the gate, Jamie gripped Brianna's hand. The window shades were all closed tight. His eyes were wide and he asked rapid-fire questions: So everything's OK, right, Brianna? We're taking off now, already? Everything's OK with you then, right?

As the plane leveled, his grip loosened. Ninety minutes later, he felt brave enough to peer out the window at the patchwork fields of Tennessee. He hit the ground happy.

On the first night of training camp, Jamie strutted into a ballroom on the Vanderbilt University campus with a grin that tried to break through the sides of his face.

"I'm havin' a good time in Nashville," he said, looking out at a parquet dance floor full of Special Olympics athletes bouncing to a disc jockey's beats. "I can't wait to tell everyone about this. This is really fun, to me."

He began to weave through the crowds, stopping to introduce himself and shake hands.

"Hi, my name is Jamie. What's your name?"

He sped happily from person to person, working the room like a salesman, posing for pictures, then hurrying on to the next stranger. For him, it had become a game.

In a room thick with people, Jamie remained very much alone.

Rob sat in his cramped office at Easter Seals and shook his head.

"I don't think Jamie grasps the gravity that he's competing against the world," he said. "We're going to start from scratch right now, make sure the technique is flawless."

Only two months remained before the World Games. Jamie's time at the Special Olympics training camp showed he could handle traveling, that he could manage in an unfamiliar environment. But his form was nowhere near good enough for the level of competition he would soon face.

He was a long way from winning a medal in China.

In Nashville he had met his Team USA coach for the Shanghai games, Mitch Guthrie. After the training camp, Mitch contacted Rob and told him Jamie needed more training.

Rob had brought Jamie this far, but with time waning, they needed help.

One Easter Seals teacher, an avid weight lifter, began taking Jamie to a nearby gym on Mondays. Another teacher's husband, once a competitive powerlifter, trained Jamie at their northwest Indiana home every Thursday.

Carefully building the new training regimen into Jamie's routine, they drilled him over and over again, making sure his form was exact and he followed commands without fault.

Jamie seemed fired up by the extra training. He began working out more on his weight bench at home, eyes fixed on the ceiling, neck veins bulging. He lowered his sweaty frame to the carpet, back down, legs bent, pumping out stomach crunches with the cadence of a drill sergeant. One, ah-huh, two, ah-huh, three, ah-huh . . .

At home and in public, he constantly sought out his reflection, flexing his biceps in any mirror or window he could find.

His confidence grew, but his autism stayed the same, and at times that made the coming journey seem precarious.

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