Phelps shares water works with children with autism

His soft brown eyes brightened as he shook my hand and we settled into the cramped room. He tucked his lanky frame under the sound booth's counter, his charming teenage-boy demeanor reminding me of one of my 16-year-old daughter's dates.

With a 30-second script in one hand, the Towson native adjusted the microphone, cleared his throat and began reading his lines.

The boyish charm melted into a steady and clear voice, and the quiet confidence of a world champion filled the room.

"I'm Michael Phelps," he began, and the words of the public service announcement became a declaration.

"If you have a family member with autism, you're faced with the challenges of finding the right treatments and support services," he stated. "Pathfinders Autism Resource Center can help you find the right answers."

Flanked by Oriole B.J. Surhoff and a WBAL cameraman, Phelps' focus was steadfast. As honorary board member of Pathfinders for Autism, he agreed to become a spokesperson for the organization that is dedicated to finding resources for children with autism and their families.

He'd seen first hand the joys that swimming can bring to a child with autism, and was eager to promote the campaign that began in April, National Autism Awareness month.

With no known cause or cure, autism is a disorder of the brain that affects 1 in 500 children. Although considered a spectrum disorder - because of the wide range of abilities of affected children - autism almost always impacts a child's communication and social interactions.

However, some children have sensory deficits as well, and crave pressure to help organize themselves if they are feeling distracted or overwhelmed - much the same way a newborn baby likes to be wrapped tightly in a blanket.

Swimming, many parents are discovering, provides a calm environment for some children with autism. The sheer weight of the water, or hydrostatic pressure, can have an amazing effect.

"Mason loves the water," Polly Surhoff explains. Diagnosed with autism at the age of 2, Mason, like his mom, began swimming at an early age. A national champion herself, Polly still swims competitively and works out at the Meadowbrook Swim Club, Maryland's powerhouse of champion swimming where she and Mason met Michael Phelps.

"It's a great sport," she says. "You can shut out the world and it's just you and the water. There's a kind of anonymity when you swim that allows you to forget who you are or what's on your mind and just swim."

That's a lot of passion for a sport that not once, but twice left Polly with no place on the Olympic teams. In 1980, she placed fourth on a three-man team. And in 1984, she placed third, but the team was reduced to two.

With true championship spirit, she still swims and directs her energies toward Pathfinders

Both she and husband B.J. are founding board members of this parent-sponsored nonprofit, whose mission is to help parents learn what other parents have discovered about managing life after autism.

With her encouragement, Phelps joined the board and helped launch April's awareness campaign through radio and television announcements.

"So call toll-free, 1-866-806-8400," Michael concluded. "Pathfinders for Autism - we're here to help."

And the room again filled with that winning presence, inspiring a hopeful determination that energized us all.

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Rebecca Faye Smith Galli - Subscribe

04/29/04, The North County News