Autism and Athletes: Barmache runs through Adversity
By Latrice Williams
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Athletes are considered to be the face of heroism. They defy the odds daily, pushing themselves through excruciating workouts, competing at a high level for hours and forcing themselves to adhere to strict nutritional guidelines. These are the men and women we love to adore because if they represent our team, it gives us a sense of pride and of course bragging rights. But there’s another athlete out there that is on the horizon and one that deserves all the recognition and respect.
Athletes who have autism fight the daily battles of their disorder, but refuse to use it as a crutch. Yet autism is REAL and the fight to become a superior athlete still exists. For Dillan Barmache, persevering through the daily grind of being a student-athlete has become one of his biggest feats. As a member of the cross-country team at California Lutheran, Barmache exemplifies what it means to defy the odds. Autistic athletes fear rejection from peers and are apprehensive about whether or not their body will be able to handle the rigor every athlete needs to succeed. Barmache can testify that there will be challenges, but the only roadblocks standing in your way are the ones you allow.
“Autism itself is an obstacle but I will talk about the surrounding challenges I have run into,” said Barmache. “It is very difficult for people to wrap their heads around the reality of my situation. On one hand, I am a fully capable runner. I can push my body to run miles and miles. I can lift weights. I can do hard workouts. I do not want anyone to go easy on me. The other half of it is autism creates huge roadblocks. I cannot always get my body to move how I wish it could. I need someone to help me stay on track all the time, side by side with me the whole way. Either I am fully capable of keeping up with my peer or I'm not, and if I'm not then how can I be a real athlete? People do not always understand that I can keep up with my peers, but I need special tools and support to help me access that level of achievement alongside them. It does not make me a less capable runner; it also does not mean that I need easy treatment.”
And now Barmache runs unbridled by the weight of the disorder that has plagued his body since he was two and a half years old. Barmache began running when he was in fifth grade and has been pounding the pavement ever since. A day in the life of an autistic student-athlete differs immensely from their teammates. Barmache had to find a running partner, doesn’t always practice alongside his teammates and has to preserve enough energy to fulfill his obligations in the classroom.
“My training looks a little different compared to the rest of the cross-country team,” said Barmache. “I need a running partner for every practice. I don't want that to be someone else on the team, because they need to be able to focus on their own improvement and training. So, I looked outside the team to find a partner who could keep up with me and challenge me to succeed. I was lucky enough to find Daniel, who is a former CLU runner. However, because I cannot practice without Daniel, I do sometimes have to break away from the team's schedule. I still do the same number of miles and workouts, but I might have to do them on my own when Daniel is available to run with me. Aside from that, I try to keep as close to the same level of training as any other athlete. It is difficult, and I do have to be honest with myself if I feel that it is making the rest of my life too difficult. If I am too exhausted, it can make my autism impossible to manage in the classroom and at home. I do have to know my own limits. That is a trick I learned the hard way in the spring semester of my freshman year.”
There are many luxuries Barmache cannot enjoy, such as running unassisted or being able to communicate verbally with his coach. But there is a lot he chooses to celebrate. According to the NCAA, only 5.3 percent of all high school cross country runners in the United States go on to run at the next level. Barmache knows his spot on the roster is coveted. But more importantly, he’s not running to break the school record or hear fans yelling his name from the stands. For Barmache, the bliss of running and achieving new heights fortifies his resolve.
“I do not run to beat anyone,” said Barmache. “I do not run to prove myself against other students. I just run because that is what I love to do. If you love to play a sport and it makes you happy, you should play. You may have to demand your space among your peers, and that can be a big challenge that seems harder than the sport itself. There is not always a clear and easy way to get people to fully accept you and your unique needs. However, if you are motivated to be an athlete, it will be worth it.”