Autism on Ice

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When I’m not talking about the autism spectrum, there’s a very good chance that I’m talking about hockey. My hometown Chicago Blackhawks get most of my attention, but I’ll keep a roving eye on most everyone. I’m a diehard fan — as most hockey fans are; it’s really the sort of thing where you either love it or you don’t — and I’ve long suspected the overlap between hockey fandom and the autism spectrum is not insignificant. I also suspect the NHL has an inkling, as their proposals to prospective sponsors are built on trumpeting an audience that is educated, obsessively devoted, and tech-savvy. Not that that sounds like anyone we know.


It could be that ice hockey, with its blazing speed and use-the-whole-buffalo style of roster management, is a spectator sport that both demands and rewards a singular, razor-sharp focus in ways that others don’t. The hyper-interrupted telecasts of professional football are really just a delivery device for beer and truck commercials, and a baseball game, though loaded with statistics to digest and memorize, can certainly test one’s attention span at times. They end up being background noise more than anything else. But when I watch a hockey game, I’m glued to the screen, muttering to myself about line matchups, ice time, and any other data I feel I need to process in order to enjoy a game.

It wasn’t until the throes of the lockout that I learned there was a connection to autism right there at ice level.

Maybe it’s that the NHL my generation grew up with appealed to our inner mapgeeks with such idiosyncratic locales as Hartford, Long Island, Edmonton, and Québec City. Half the time, you needed an atlas just to figure out where your team was headed on a given night (or video game simulation), and I’ve never been one to put down a book of maps once I have one in my hands. I won my middle school’s geography bee twice, largely on the strength of knowing Canada and Europe, the two cradles of ice hockey. I don’t think many other seventh-graders knew that Canada had just partitioned the Northwest Territories to create the Inuit-governed territory of Nunavut, or that the capital of the then-somewhat-new republic of Slovakia was Bratislava (and the home of Peter Stastny, longtime all-star for the parti-mais-n’oublié-pas Québec Nordiques). My peers were pretty impressed with my first win, but I didn’t get the same adulation when I won again in eighth grade. No one likes a repeat champion, I suppose, whether in sports or geography bees.


Or maybe it’s just the outsider chic that comes with following the clear No. 4 of our four major sports (and one could reasonably argue that west of Minnesota and south of Virginia, it’s not even fourth). There are, after all, great social pressures among boys of a certain age to Like Sports, and when the cool kids who love football won’t have you around at recess, your best bet is the one that can’t really be replicated on the playground. Football bewildered me as a kid, and my hoops-shooting leaves a lot to be desired to this day. I was always a decent floor hockey player in gym class, though, since it required little more than some basic north-south movement and the discipline not to hit anyone in the mouth with a stick.


At any rate, here I am, having had spirited arguments for years about everything from defensive schemes to sweater designs among people an awful lot like myself. It’s a fine enough way to get through our bleak winters. Unfortunately, it almost didn’t get us through this winter, as a work stoppage cancelled half of the NHL’s season. The league’s ownership decided that in spite of record-setting revenues, they were still paying their players too much, so they simply refused to stage any games until the players’ union accepted massive cuts in salary, pension, and benefits. Casual observers routinely mistook this for a strike, the 1994 baseball strike being most people’s reference point for sports labor strife, but it’s an altogether different dynamic when it’s management turning labor away. Either way, this wonderful world of labor law is not particularly easy to explain, especially not for a dad who has to tell his son with autism why they won’t be watching games together in their usual seats along the boards of the Blackhawks’ rink.


Watching the Hawks’ home games in recent years, I had noticed a collection of stuffed animals along a corner of the boards. It wasn’t until the throes of the lockout that I learned there was a connection to autism right there at ice level. As his father notes, “Michael’s favorite moments of the game are when his stuffed animals go flying when the players crash into the boards in front of us.” I wouldn’t be surprised if some players, always with an eye toward pleasing the fans in this recent renaissance of Chicago hockey, made sure to deliver their hardest hits to the opposition right where they’d make someone the happiest.


Throughout autumn and early winter, I watched these labor negotiations publicly transpire, and without being able to stand in awe of picture-perfect dekes, breakaways, and one-timers, I instead found myself in awe of the public solidarity and commitment put forth from a bunch of guys who, in the best of times, would be skating around trying to smash one another into a plexiglass wall. The question I asked myself, as someone involved in the world of autism, was “where’s our united front?” It’s quite the bugbear of mine that so often, our passion and devotion for bettering the quality of life for people touched by autism is tripped up by misunderstandings, miscommunications, and differences of opinion that get in the way of effective mobilization and organization. We all have different hypotheses, approaches, and philosophies with regard to the autism spectrum, and these are debates that should be welcomed and fostered. But when the stakes are highest, we need one strong voice on behalf of the community in what has become a crowd of strong voices wanting and needing to be heard. We may be on different teams, so to speak, but at the end of the day, we’re all in this together.


Today is the first day of the Stanley Cup Final, to be contested this year between the Boston Bruins and my — and Michael Romano’s — Blackhawks. It should be a close one between two teams returning from championships two and three years ago, respectively, but with the series aligning with a busy work week for me, I’m perhaps a little more disengaged from this year’s Final than I might have cared to admit: I’ll miss games due to taping and travel, and my superstitious playoff beard had to go before I could even think of being on camera again. But if not for my own sake, I do hope that after all this difficult waiting, I’ll get to see Michael’s array of stuffed animals flying off the dashers as a well-placed check sets up a game-winning, series-winning, Cup-winning goal.

Daniel Heinlein is the host of The Autism Channel’s flagship show I Am Autistic and an inveterate hockey fan.