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How football unlocked the heart of a boy with autism

By James Masters, CNN
updated 10:07 AM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
Tottenham Hotspur, based in north London, has become key to the happiness of Jack. He has supported Spurs since he was a child and says football has helped him with his Asperger's. Tottenham Hotspur, based in north London, has become key to the happiness of Jack. He has supported Spurs since he was a child and says football has helped him with his Asperger's.
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Estimated that one in 68 kids are in U.S. within Autistic Spectrum Disorder
  • 700,000 people in UK with ASD
  • Sport raising awareness of Autism across the globe
  • New coaching program to help Autistic children set up in UK

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(CNN) -- "Well, that took about five minutes...probably less."

Jack sounds pleased with himself if not at all surprised.

He has just reeled off every single FA Cup winning team since 1984 -- but that was a tad slow compared to what has gone before.

Without hesitation, Jack lists every Formula One champion in the history of the sport in chronological order. In no time at all, he then reels off the champions of darts.

And for good measure, he lists each and every single world snooker winner.

Football World Cup winners? No problem. Champions League winners? Easy.

"Because of my autism, I knew all the statistics whether it be previous winners or former players," he tells CNN.

"If anyone ever got lippy at school about knowing lots about football then I could crush them with my knowledge."

It's not just various sports that Jack can effortlessly memorize -- at school he knew the timetables of all his classmates and could let them know which subject they had at any time of the day.

Without something that allowed me to make friends...I'd have really struggled.
Jack Howes

Now 22, Jack was officially diagnosed with Asperger's, a form of autism, at the age of 19 while at university.

According to the National Autistic Society, autism is a lifelong developmental disability which can affect how that person communicates and relates to others.

Categorized as a spectrum condition, which means that while all people with the condition share certain difficulties, autism affects each and every person in different ways.

"It affects the way I walk or talk, my mannerisms," says Jack as he describes the way his life has been affected by Asperger's, admitting he suffers with anxiety and as child found it difficult to make friends.

At school, he would walk around the playground on his own for the first few weeks of term.

It was only once a ball appeared in the playground that he felt able to interact.

"Football helped me because it was one of the few ways I could happily communicate with kids," he says.

"This sounds cliché, but you don't need many words when you have a ball, you just need some goals and somewhere to play.

"Until two years ago, almost all my social interaction involved or at least started with football.

"Almost all of my friendships derived from playing football either on the road I grew up on or at school, where as you can imagine I was cripplingly shy and was fairly hopeless trying to make friends."

While playing football has helped Jack integrate and make friends, something he has struggled to do in the past, it's the love and devotion to his club, English Premier League Tottenham, which has really helped him cope with his Asperger's.

Just the mention of the word "Tottenham" or "Spurs", the club's nickname, seems to bring an instant response to Jack's language.

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He reels off the names of their 1961 Double winning team without hesitation -- and then he says, "don't even bother checking that on Wikipedia."

In 2013, Spurs helped Jack get through a particularly bad bout of anxiety.

"I was lifeless at the time," he recalls.

"The only exception to feeling like a zombie was when Spurs played, because they provided a release from everything else in my life and also because it would take my mind off things.

"I'd feel actual emotion and happiness when Spurs won. I'd forget my anxieties for an hour or two because of the emotion induced by the team's results. "

Raising awareness

Jack is not alone in his pursuit of a sporting outlet -- there are many others who take similar paths in dealing with their autism.

Dan Marino, the former American Football star, opened a center with his wife Claire after his son Michael was diagnosed with autism.

The foundation, which is based in Florida, has raised more than $50 million since its inception and has its own aquatics center.

Ernie Els, the South African golfer, became involved with raising money for autism after his son Ben was diagnosed at the age of seven.

In 2009, the Els for Autism Foundation was launched in Florida with the $30 million Center of Excellence opening in March 2014.

In the U.S. major sporting bodies such as Nascar, Major League Baseball, NFL and NBA are all helping to raise money and awareness.

An estimate by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is that one in 68 children has some kind of autism disorder.

The CDC says the latest estimate is 30% higher than the total reported in 2012 which recorded one in in 88 children would be on the spectrum.

While the ratio was one to 175 children in Alabama, New Jersey's was one in 45.

According to figures provided by the British National Autistic Society, there are around 700,000 people in the UK with autism.

Remortgaging home

Briton Anna Kennedy is a woman who remortgaged her own house to set up a specialist school after her two autistic sons -- Patrick and Angelo -- were rejected by mainstream education.

She has set up two schools -- a college and a respite home -- and believes sport has made a huge difference to the children she has worked with as well as her own family.

"Angelo is severely autistic but he loves trampolining," says Kennedy of her son who also suffers from epilepsy and sensory problems.

"When he gets on that trampoline I've got my heart in my mouth when he goes near the edges, but he's fine.

"You can see the joy in his face when he's jumping so high. He just looks so free when he's on the trampoline."

As a child, Angelo rarely took part in PE lessons in mainstream school as the task of taking off his shoes and socks was often too difficult.

When he did play football, in particular, he would struggle to understand the game, celebrating when he scored an own-goal.

His brother Patrick, who is 24 and has Asperger's, took up kickboxing as a teenager and has excelled.

Kennedy has also been working with a number of Premier League clubs to help provide training for children with autism along with her senior training officer Austin Hughes, while there have been opportunities for visits on matchdays and the promotion of her anti-bullying campaign.

West Ham and Sunderland have both collaborated with her organization in recent months with discussions over the possibility of providing a safe and secure viewing area for autistic children and their families at the stadiums.

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Football player Zahir Belounis (right) is welcomed by his mother as he arrives from Qatar at Paris' Roissy-Charles-de-Gaulle airport on November 28, 2013. Football player Zahir Belounis (right) is welcomed by his mother as he arrives from Qatar at Paris' Roissy-Charles-de-Gaulle airport on November 28, 2013.
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Kennedy recalls how difficult her own son found watching football inside a packed stadium as a youngster -- the noise and crowd was too much for him and she was forced to take him out after just 20 minutes.

The work of football clubs and of school's such as Hillingdon Manor in London, which Kennedy founded, has brought about a new awareness of autism.

"Sport can be difficult because it has so many different skills involved," said Kennedy.

"It works on spacial awareness, working together and has the unwritten rule of social communication.

"It has to be taught in small chunks and some of the children in particular have a real problem with losing.

"In some schools, the taking part is celebrated, but we have to prepare them for the real world and losing is part of that world."

Outlet for frustration

It wasn't until 2010 and at the age of 23 that Jo Redmond was diagnosed with Asperger's, though the revelation did not come as too much of a shock.

"I think I was always vaguely aware even if I didn't know specifically what was different about me," said Redman, who has become an integral part of Kennedy's charity, Anna Kennedy Online.

She began kickboxing at the age of 13 on the advice of her father, who encouraged her to take part in a sport which helps with sensory movements and flexibility.

Her father hoped it would help Redman develop more confidence and burn off any excess energy.

"I just loved it," said Redman. "I was very withdrawn at the time and it took me a long time open up and speak to anyone at kickboxing but that didn't really mater.

"Kickboxing gave me something to focus on and work towards. It was an outlet for my frustrations.

"It's great for people with autism and Attention Deficit Hyperactivy Disorder (ADHD) -- it forms a structure for the week and gives me familiar goals to focus on.

"I am the last person a lot of people in my life would have expected to do something like kickboxing and this just drove me more within the sport as I wanted to show that they were wrong for thinking I wasn't suited to it .

"You shouldn't judge people from what you see on the outside, I always felt many people didn't take the time to really get to know me."

Redman's achievements in the sport are remarkable having won a number of world titles.

It is because of her ADHD that Redman believes she is able to move so quickly during a fighting scenario.

"I'm always thinking fast so that can help," she said.

"My autistic traits are also useful in that I find repetition comforting so I will practice techniques or elements of fighting to improve, I also have great attention to detail which enabled me to pinpoint what I needed to improve in my fighting.

"But one of the biggest things kickboxing has helped with is that it has made me feel I belong somewhere and that I am valued."

This weekend, the National Autistic Society will hold coaching sessions at London's Olympic Park for those learning to teach sport to autistic children.

The Active for Autism program is hoping to reach 1,200 coaches and attract 7,200 new participants into sport.

The biggest advice is to not be held back by that perception that you have to be good at something or have an interest -- try different things
Jo Redman

Redman is keen to dispel myths that surround 'special talents' or 'specific interests.'

"There is more to me than my kickboxing achievements and I have other interests in my life," she says.

"Not everyone has an obvious talent in a specialized area, some people can be really good at simple day-to-day things but often disregard it because it is not "special".

"I have met a lot of people who not only think they are not good at anything but think that to enjoy something they have to be good at it which means they don't know what they enjoy.

"The biggest advice is to not be held back by that perception that you have to be good at something or have an interest, try different things - it doesn't have to be a sport or something social, it could be something you could do on your own like writing or drawing.

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"The most important thing is what value you take from it for yourself, I might be good at kickboxing but I don't keep doing it because I am good, I keep doing it because I enjoy it and it works for me."

While those at London's Olympic Park are put through their paces by experts in the coaching of autistic children, others will have their attention elsewhere.

Tottenham's game at Hull in the Premier League on Sunday may not sound the most enticing of sporting affairs but that matters little to Jack.

Born in Enfield, not far from Tottenham in north London, the opportunity to drink in the mirth of a Tottenham victory gives him the opportunity to enjoy the final part of his weekend.

"It's hard for me to think about coping without football because I've been surrounded by football all my life," says Jack.

"As far back as I can remember, there was football on the telly, hats, scarves, posters in my bedroom and people playing football outside.

"I'd probably be a lot worse off, without football to bring me and others together. I could have become immersed in video games or something, but my social life and my life as a whole would have been a lot worse.

"Without something that allowed me to make friends...I'd have really struggled."

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