SCARBOROUGH — If Jordan Flannery ever had any doubt about his decision to encourage his friend Ted Prosack to give lacrosse a try, it disappeared on a spring afternoon four years ago.
Flannery and Prosack, who has autism, were playing in an eighth-grade game. A pass came to Prosack in front of the opponents’ goal. He caught it, pivoted, shot and saw the net flutter for a most unexpected goal.
“Everyone went crazy,” said Flannery, now a captain and senior goalie for Scarborough High School’s four-time defending state Class A champions. “That was honestly one of the best feelings for everyone on that team, and everyone watching that game.”
Prosack isn’t the only autistic athlete playing lacrosse for Scarborough. Junior Austin Pietras joined the program as a freshman. Both play for the junior varsity team.
Scarborough will host defending Class B champion Cape Elizabeth on Saturday in a battle of unbeaten teams with more at stake than bragging rights. Scarborough coach Joe Hezlep and Cape Elizabeth coach Ben Raymond both work with special-needs children, and are billing Saturday’s competition as an afternoon for Autism Awareness.
“The last few years, there’s been a huge push in schools to integrate kids with autism into the classrooms,” said Scarborough assistant coach Zach Barrett, a special-education teacher at Spurwink’s Glickman Academy in Portland, “but not so much into sports.”
Hezlep, who works at Spring Harbor Academy, a school in Westbrook for kids with developmental disorders, said preconceived notions about autism often prevent parents and coaches from even considering autistic students for team sports.
“I don’t think it’s because they can’t play,” he said, “it’s because they haven’t been given an opportunity.”
“The biggest thing we’ve found is that we don’t have to make special accommodations,” Hezlep said.
MUCH MORE PREVALENT
Autism is a general term used to describe a group of complex developmental brain disorders that interfere with a person’s ability to relate socially.
According to data released in March by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, autism diagnoses are growing at 10 percent to 17 percent a year. The prevalence rate was 1 in 10,000 when Cathy Dionne, director of the Autism Society of Maine, received an autism diagnosis for her son.
“Now it’s 1 in 68,” she said. “That’s a huge jump in 18 years.”
The reasons for the increase are unclear. Greater awareness and better diagnostic techniques help, of course, but don’t explain the continued rise, or why boys are nearly five times as likely to be identified with autism as girls.
“There is no cure for autism, it’s lifelong,” said Heidi Bowden of the Maine Autism Alliance. “But that’s not to say that the child can’t make progress. Autism is very treatable, but you’ve got to get these kids early.”
Increasingly, behavioral therapy for children with autism includes athletics. The tipping point may have come eight years ago, when a grainy YouTube video went viral. It shows an autistic basketball manager named Jason McElwain suiting up for his high school team’s final home game and, to the delight of a frenzied crowd, sinking six consecutive 3-point shots and being carried off the court by students and teammates.
The J-Mac Video, as it became known in autism circles, opened minds because it touched hearts. On a smaller scale, Ted Prosack did something similar in Scarborough to pave the way for Austin Pietras, a happy-go-lucky spirit who always seems to be smiling.
“I just saw Teddy blossom in this program,” said Mark Pietras, Austin’s father. “He now actively talks to you. I think he knows who I am. It’s all about confidence.”
Hank and Elizabeth Prosack said their son has made huge strides in motor skills, hand-eye coordination and social interaction since he joined the lacrosse team.
“You see that translated into his confidence outside the field,” Hank Prosack said, “in the classroom, at home, speaking. I mean, a year ago, he didn’t speak the way he does now, and two years prior to that (it was even worse). So that has all evolved.”
Elizabeth Prosack said that her son’s path has not always been smooth, that there have been setbacks, but the support and encouragement from teammates, coaches and other parents has bolstered his resilience and helped him overcome obstacles.
“This is a child who couldn’t be touched,” she said, “and now he’s playing a contact sport with a ball flying through the air, and catching it in a basket.”
Like many kids with autism, Ted Prosack has acute sensory and tactile awareness. He’ll wear earmuffs when he goes to the movies. The buzz from fluorescent light tubes or the static cling on clothes fresh from the dryer can set him off.
“If you were to walk into a room, you focus on the people and kind of mute everything else,” Elizabeth Prosack said. “An autistic kid goes into a room and is bombarded by all the stimulus.”
Neither player had much to say to a reporter with a notepad at a recent practice. Prosack traded in his attack stick recently for the long stick of a defenseman. Why? “I just decided to switch,” he said.
Pietras, walking to the practice field after taping his stick in the upward-swirling fashion of a barbershop pole, spoke of a recent trip to see his sister Avery, a 2013 Scarborough High graduate, at Dickinson, “her college in Pennsylvania.”
At a JV game the next day in Portland, Mark Pietras pointed to the sideline where Austin, wearing a white jersey with a red 20, paced among teammates.
“Everybody comes up to him, taps him on the back, says ‘How you doing? What’s going on? Hey, Austin, put your helmet on!’ ” he said. “It’s really great to see. From a parent’s point of view, all you want is for your kid to fit in, you know?”
Coach Hezlep rotates his seniors so that one is assigned to Pietras each day, to aid in his transition from school to practice. If a shoe or any other piece of equipment can’t be found in the noisy locker room, a buddy is there to help.
As much as their teammates give, Pietras and Prosack return even more. Their friends are fiercely proud and protective.
“Becoming friends with Ted and Austin, it’s made us realize they’re one of us,” Flannery said. “They’re no different.”
He said Prosack “is a big voice on our team, always getting us pumped up for games. He’s fun to have around.”
The Scarborough players “have learned what it means to make sure everyone is included,” Hezlep said. “Yeah, there’s a uniqueness to it, but everyone’s life becomes better when everyone is involved and everyone is a part of it.”
Cape Elizabeth’s Raymond teaches special education at the high school, and also coaches soccer and swimming. One of his swimmers is now the lacrosse manager, sophomore Peter Tarling, who has Down syndrome.
Raymond is teaching Tarling how to take a face-off, and plans to put him in a game at some point this spring.
“The idea is just to make him more part of the team, less manager of the team,” Raymond said. “Not that kids would treat him any different, but for Peter to feel like he’s more of a player on the team and less of a guy who’s helping get the water or keeping track of ground balls.”
Glenn Jordan can be contacted at 791-6425 or at: