Jul 11, 2020
Alexander Wiens (center) playing soccer with the Wayfinders Program (Photo courtesy of Angela Wiens).

Student with autism finds brighter future with sports

From a young age, Alexander Wiens didn’t show an interest in sports.In fact, as his mother recalls, he didn’t like participating in sports at all.

When Wiens, now 20, was in kindergarten, his parents signed him up to play in a soccer group. His mother distinctly remembers him not enjoying it.

“He hated it,” Angela Wiens said.

Playing team sports was difficult for Alex because he was born with autism. His mother said his difficulty with communication, social interaction, and sensory issues made it too hard to handle.

There was just too much going on and too many kids running around.

Recreation is important and can help people with autism improve their quality of life, according to experts.

Most find it difficult to participate in team sports because dealing with social interaction can cause stress which they are not able to cope with easily. That is why some opt for individual sporting activities such as track and cycling.

It wasn’t until his involvement in the Wayfinders Program at Fresno State that Alex was willing to give team sports another shot.

Wayfinders, a two-year program for young adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities, helps people like Alex transition into living a more independent life.

The program provides participants the opportunity to experience college life by attending classes, living in the Palazzo at Campus Pointe apartments, participating in recreational activities, and much more.

Alex’s mother first found out about the program when her son was attending Tenaya Middle School. She saw an article in The Fresno Bee about a program for intellectually challenged young adults at Fresno State.

His parents talked to him about Wayfinders, and from that point on his mother said her son was adamant about joining the program.

Despite their concerns at first of letting their only child leave home to live on his own, ultimately they knew it was right for him. The parents liked the support that the program offered, and they appreciated that it would allow their son to live independently and be challenged with different activities.

“You can’t ask for any other program that does something similar,” Angela said.

She said her son’s autism has affected his ability to communicate his needs and socialize with others.

It also limited what he could do physically, especially when he was younger. Alex needed to work with an occupational therapist to get better.

“His muscles were rather weak and (had) tremors in his hands,” she said.

But those limitations haven’t fully stopped him.

His parents were initially shocked last year when their son informed them that he wanted to participate in Special Olympics activities through Wayfinders.

He wanted to play basketball and soccer. They didn’t know what to expect. This was the first time he was going to play team sports since kindergarten.

He wanted to be engaged and try everything that the Wayfinders program had to offer. So he signed up to play.

Alex said he really enjoys playing sports such as basketball and soccer because those sports allow him to be a part of a team.

He likes interacting and sharing an experience with others, being active and learning skills that he can apply to his life after the program. It helps keep him motivated. He is now in his second year of participating in team sports.

“Before, I wasn’t that very active but now slowly over the years, I am getting active,” Alex said. “I think in some way it might have enriched me just to be someone that’s a good team player, a helpful teammate, and being brave, and having the courage.”

It has also provided him and his family with fulfilling and memorable experiences.

His parents support his involvement with sports and attend his events regularly. They started to feel like they were getting the same experience as other parents.

They now had the opportunity to attend games and cheer their son on–something they had missed out on during his childhood.

“It was kind of exciting for us,” Angela said.

This year at the Special Olympics Ripon Soccer Regional Competition, Alex Wiens was a part of the Wayfinders team that won a bronze medal.

It was an experience that he may not have had if it wasn’t for Wayfinders.

Martina Island, an activities program assistant for Wayfinders, said she believes sports can truly help students like Alex live better lives.

“I believe that through sports you learn life skills,” Island said.

Through participation in Special Olympics, students learn skills such as time management, punctuality, communication, leadership, and confidence, all skills that Island said students can later apply to their lives and in the workplace.

Island also said that it helps them improve their self-image because they are afforded the opportunity to participate in an activity that perhaps they’ve been told for their entire lives they can’t do.

“This is a place where they can say otherwise and show otherwise,” Island said.

For Alex, being involved with sports was something different at first, but it was something worth pursuing.

He hopes to apply the skills he learned in sports to his daily life after he graduates from the program next year. He also has advice for fellow and future Wayfinders students who may be hesitant about participating in sports due to their disabilities.

“I would just highly encourage people who are here at Wayfinders as students to just try and experience what’s new inside of sports,” Alex said. “Just getting to experience the sport is what mainly counts.”

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