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That Special Someone(Feb 13th 2011, 6:34pm)



That Special Someone

Published by
travis   Feb 13th 2011, 6:34pm
Eric Thompson, Oregon's Special Olympics athlete of the year, has embraced challenges while coping with autism


Eric Thompson displays some of the awards he has won, including his Oregon Sports Awards trophy for Special Olympics athlete of the year.Bob Pennell
Tim Trower

Eric Thompson has autism. To see him across a room, you wouldn't know the tall, slender, good looking young man has a disability. Only in talking with him do you notice, but even that's not a given.

Take, for instance, a speech he recently gave upon receiving a special award. Before an audience of hundreds that included sports dignitaries as well as family and friends, he took the stage.

"After I spoke during the performance," says Thompson, 24, a prideful grin creasing his face, "they said I spoke eloquently."

He pauses, perhaps reflecting on the triumph, perhaps formulating his next thought, perhaps just being done with that thought.

His mind, after all, works less predictably than others. When words come, he enunciates them crisply. Sometimes he's at a loss for the right word, and a hitch in the dialogue results. Sometimes the words are perfect but the thought takes an unexpected fork. Sometimes he doesn't understand what you say and, ever so politely, asks you to repeat it.

No one is as fluent in "Eric speak" as the family members who grew up in the Thompsons' loving home. Parents Kirsten and Kelly and four sisters have supported him at every turn, but they've also pushed him to undertake challenges. If necessary, they'd meet the challenge alongside him. If not, they'd let him go it alone.

That speech a couple weeks ago? He delivered it at the Oregon Sports Awards, a classy affair that annually recognizes the state's top athletic achievements.

Thompson, a South Medford High graduate who now is enrolled in occupational training at Rogue Community College and who works part time as a mail carrier at City Hall, received the Lou Burge Special Olympics Athlete of the Year Award.

It was presented to him by former Oregon football great Ahmad Rashad, who

has said that presenting the Special Olympics award is his favorite part of the celebration.

Eric's speech was a fine example. He worked on it for a week, brainstorming ideas with his mother, then editing it himself. There was a short thank-you sentence to open, then three paragraphs. They were concise and thoughtful. Eric's auditory memory is off the charts, and that helped.

"I memorized one paragraph at a time," says Eric, "and eventually, reviewing the speech over and over again, now I remember it."

Many would have forgotten the words by now, misplacing them as easily as they would their car keys. Eric might never misplace that speech.

"Once he gets it, it's in there," says Katie Millar, one of three older sisters. "It's amazing."

It's that way with his perfect-pitch singing, and his ability to play the piano, and his knack for reading a book and having the images play out in his head as vibrant and captivating as if they were on a movie screen.

That was part of what Eric conveyed in his speech. Autism has placed barriers in front of him, but it's also given him a unique ability to scale them.

His list of accomplishments really is quite remarkable.

In addition to competing regularly in a variety of Special Olympic sports — basketball, bowling, golf, track and volleyball — he was on school cross country and track teams from the seventh grade on, has run six marathons and attained the rank of Eagle Scout prior to his 18th birthday.

When he was 13, Eric had a letter published in the paper urging others to join a McLoughlin Middle School fundraising project. He's spoken at his church, at an autism awareness gala and before the Medford School Board on behalf of inclusion of disabled students at South Medford High.

None of this comes easily or naturally to Eric, but his mantra, encouraged — nay, instilled — by his family has long been to try new and different things, no matter how difficult.

"Our philosophy," says Kirsten Thompson, "is that we have a large family and we refuse to be held prisoner by autism."

Eric, who still lives at home, hasn't gotten a pass because he has autism. He's long been expected to pull his weight.

"We've tried to make it so it doesn't ever interfere with what he should be doing," says his mother. "We're very pragmatic about that."

That didn't happen overnight.

THE THOMPSONS MOVED to the Rogue Valley from Texas in the winter of 1990. Shortly after, as Eric approached age 5, he was identified to have autism.

Indicators had gradually surfaced. When he was 3, he knew only about eight words, says Kirsten, and his play was atypical. He didn't have the ability to pretend, he liked silky things, he would take things apart and not put them back together, he would whack toys against something or someone.

When his routine was constant, undisturbed, he was content. When it was askew, he lashed out in tantrums, sometimes throwing objects that left holes in doors.

Being touched was painful to him, so baths were traumatic and haircuts few and far between. Motorized sounds, like a blender or a vacuum cleaner, terrified him.

"The sensory issue was unusual," says Kirsten.

Even taste was difficult.

"His preference would have been to live on cereal, ham-and-cheese sandwiches and pizza his whole life," says Kirsten.

Then one day, Eric did a strange thing. He often listened to a cassette tape of children's songs. On this day, he entered his parents' bedroom without the machine, sat on the floor and made the clicking and whirring sound of the recorder starting. He sang an entire side, flawlessly, made the clicking sound of turning the tape over, sang the other side and got up and left.

"That," says Kirsten, "was the beginning of our journey to autism."

And an all-consuming journey it has been.

Speech and language therapists were critical as Eric developed functional communicative abilities. Occupational and physical therapists helped hone stunted motor skills. Teachers and an aide who was with him from the third grade through high school handled academic needs, while the family focused on social and behavioral skills necessary for mainstream life.

"I became an autism junkie," says Kirsten.

In fact, everyone in the family had roles.

Of the sisters, Katie nurtured and taught, home schooling her own kids and bringing Eric into that arena for reading (he now reads to children in the SMART program); Anna and Allison were active and joking and put smiles on faces; Lauren was the motivator, the youngest sibling who, perhaps unwittingly, drove Eric.

He had to learn to swim before she did, ride a bike, get a driver's license.

"I wanted to be the first person because I'm older," says Eric, "but I think she's more mature than I am. She is smart. I'm smart, too. In a way, like my mom says, I can't exactly get everything done before she does because a person with autism has a more difficult time.

"But it is OK to try."

Sports played a major part on several levels. Activity required him to use muscles and both sides of his brain. Playing with other kids helped his social integration.

"We stuck him in every sport and hired neighborhood kids as buddies to help him do what they were doing," says Kirsten.

Kelly, the dad, took over the hands-on role, whether it was with outdoorsy stuff, scouting, coaching or running.

"Kelly has been the quiet hero here," says Kirsten. "Eric has been able to do 99 percent of what he does because of Kelly."

In some cases, such as soccer, Kelly had to become a student before he could become a teacher capable of breaking fundamentals down so Eric could comprehend them.

Eric loved to play golf, his first Special Olympics sport at age 14, and played a mean sweeper in soccer. It wasn't until seventh grade that he took on distance running at McLoughlin.

Running wasn't especially fun, but it fit with his desire to challenge himself, to "try hard things."

He nearly didn't make it through his first middle school race.

At a meet near Bear Creek in south Medford, Eric took off with the group. As runner after runner finished with no sign of Eric, Kelly began to worry. He found a friend of Eric's, Andrea Mytinger, who had just finished, and asked if she'd seen his son.

She backtracked and found him coming around a corner into view of the finish area.

"He was ready to quit," recalls Kelly. "But Andrea ran with him all the way around a ball field, the last little area. I thought, oh my word, at a time when kids are trying to figure out who they are in the seventh grade, she put all that hesitancy aside and ran with him and finished with him. I will never forget that."

In ensuing races, the Thompson clan was out en masse, staged at strategic points along the course.

Eric has been running since, and through the pain it brings, he's discovered benefits.

Running releases endorphins to the brain that help balance his system and have allowed him to shelve some medication, says his mother. Called the runner's high, it alters mood and dulls the sensation of pain.

"The anger and frustrations disappear," says Eric.

More significantly, he's learned to push through adversity, break through the dreaded "wall." It's the point where your mind and body tell you you can't possibly continue. Each time he beats the wall, he has an experience to borrow from for his next challenge.

Simply, he says, "That's made me stronger as a man."

A defining moment came when Eric was in high school and attended the rigorous Steens Mountain Running Camp, accompanied by sister Anna.

Campers set up tents, live in them for a week with a dozen or so teammates and train over rugged mountain terrain and through sagebrush.

"It was the hardest thing I ever did," says Eric. "I learned eventually to stick together as a team, keep my eye on the goal and run through the pain.

"It was one of the first things that happened to me that changed everything about my life."

Since high school, Eric has completed at least one marathon a year — last year he did two — and annually runs in the Pear Blossom.

A highlight for both he and his father was the Top of Utah Marathon in September, an event they've participated in several times. Kelly set out to qualify for the Boston Marathon, and he did with a time of 3 hours, 43 minutes, 50.9 seconds. He'd lost Eric along the way and was surprised to hear the announcer call his son's name as he finished less than 10 minutes back, in 3:53.37.2.

Eric's previous best was about 41/2 hours.

"The thing with Eric and his autism," says Kelly, "is that when his body's tired, it's tired. He would think he needed to go to the bathroom because his stomach was bothering him or something. A marathon is quite an achievement for someone with autism to fight through and keep on going."

ERIC NOW IS WORKING to become self-sufficient. He hopes to move out on his own within a couple years and does much of his own shopping, cooking, laundry and budgeting.

The transition from boyhood to manhood hasn't been easy, in part because the friends he grew up with gravitated to colleges, jobs and families.

Special Olympics has been a constant.

"It changed my life after all my friends left from high school," says Eric. "I didn't have any friends. I was really sad and depressed."

He doesn't have a favorite sport but relishes competition.

That was evident when he was trying to outdo his younger sister years ago, and it was evident two weeks ago when he and his mother, on their way to Beaverton for the Oregon Sports Awards, stopped in Sutherlin for a Special Olympics basketball game.

They still got to the awards ceremony early, something that makes Eric comfortable, and he was able to give his speech a practice run on stage.

When it was go time, he was nervous but confident.

His final words were: "This award means a lot to me, and I accept it for all the Special Olympic athletes who compete and give their best. Thank you!"

The audience rose and applauded, an emotional tribute and the only standing ovation of the night.

Among those to rise were his family and friends.

"The fire got in his belly, so to speak," says Kirsten. "He was able to focus on the little speech he gave. It was such a moment for him and us. I don't even know how to explain it ... Here's a guy who was not able to say five words in a string, who couldn't run without tripping over himself, who didn't know how to hold a bat and was throwing hammers across the room.

"Now here's this very articulate, good looking young man. To get to this point, he didn't do it alone. You think about all the people that helped him. I can't think of one person who was not willing to reach out and accommodate him. No one said, 'No, he can't.'"

No one dared put up a wall.

Reach sports editor Tim Trower at 541-776-4479, or e-mail ttrower@mailtribune.com

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