23-year-old Sean spends several hoursin the pool each week, training for an international meet this summer in Ecuador. When he’s not swimming, there’s a good chance you’ll find him at one of his favorite hangouts: Next Step Ministries. Sean is an award-winning athlete, who is also autistic.
“He’s obsessive-compulsive, his communication skills are very poor, and he can’t process language very well,” said his mom, Emily. “On the other hand, he’s a physical savant. He’s extremely athletic, and has won first place in every sport he’s ever played.”
Emily said her son enjoys his time at Next Step so much that it’s become a good way to reward him for sticking to his rigid training schedule for swimming.
“He wants to come. It’s great to know he has something. It’s not just him in his room and four walls. I like knowing he has something that makes him happy. That gives him some sort of ownership in his own life,” said Emily.
Over the last 15 years, Sean has won nearly 50 awards for swimming, competing against athletes both with and without special developmental needs. His stepdad, Patrick, is also his coach. In June, Patrick will lead the U.S. delegation to the INAS Guayaquil Open Para-Swimming Meet in Ecuador. Sean and four other athletes from his team, the Nautical Milers, will represent the U.S, along with four swimmers from other states.
This talented athlete stands out in a crowd of Special Olympians, yet blends in quietly with his peers at Next Step Ministries. He’s a young man of few words, but since he started attending Next Step regularly last summer, he’s learning to relate better to the world around him.
“With Sean, we’re working on social skills,” said Jim Pefferly, Next Step Ministries’ job trainer. “Now we’ll see him coming into a room and he’ll greet people and say hello. His sociability is certainly increasing. He’s a joy to be around.”
Pefferly says Sean likes juggling and playing video games, and enjoys making and delivering dog biscuits to customers who purchase them from Next Step. Hope Bones is a fund-raiser for the non-profit organization, a project that provides valuable job training for clients like Sean.
Sean’s mom thinks Next Step gives her son a great opportunity to expand his world, and interact with his peers.
“Here, he’s social,” she said. “At home, it’s something we can share. Also, from the work point of view, it encourages him to listen to other people and follow directions so that maybe, if one day he gets a part-time job somewhere, it won’t be unusual for him to follow two-to-three step directions,” she added.
Autism has robbed Sean of much of his ability to communicate. But with the help of his parents, this special young man is building a life of his own, making waves in the swimming pool…and finding his voice among friends at Next Step Ministries.