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Autistic track star sidelined by bureaucracy

Andrew Towle, 19, has been deemed ineligible to play soccer by Ontario's high-school athletic watchdog because he has stayed too long in high school. Mr. Towle is autistic.

dave chan The Globe and Mail

In a number of ways, Andrew Towle is exceptional. He was diagnosed with autism and started high school well behind academically, but the 19-year-old recently won a place on his school's honour roll and on their track and field team.

Now he has been told he can't compete - no exceptions.

The body that oversees high-school sports in Ontario says its eligibility rules are firm. Even though Andrew makes the age cutoff, and didn't take a single Grade 9 class in his first year at Ottawa Technical Learning Centre, the federation has blocked him from competing this year on the grounds that he's been in high school too long.

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The eligibility clock began ticking the moment Andrew walked through the front doors of Ottawa Technical, the Ontario Federation of School Athletic Associations says, and his five years are up.

There are no appeals.

The decision was a shock to Andrew, his teachers, his coaches and family, who have watched him come a long way only to be sidelined by bureaucracy.

Most provinces have similar rules to Ontario's, which match a student's years of eligibility to the length of an average high-school career. Executive director Doug Gellatly says OFSAA receives about one inquiry a year from a student seeking to dispute their eligibility, and that they're told the rules are firm.

That unbending approach could be tested in coming years. The prevalence of autism spectrum disorders among students has grown, and autistic athletes are finding a natural fit and a sense of normalcy in endurance sports.

"Why be this inflexible and bureaucratic with something that's so important to these student competitors?" said Jonathan Towle, Andrew's father. "It's just very unfair."

The rule that excludes him is meant to promote inclusion: OFSAA has put a five-year limit on eligibility so that more students get a chance to participate.

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"We didn't want to get into dealing with all kinds of different circumstances," said Mr. Gellatly. "… We thought it was just better to have a clean rule, give them five years and beyond that give other kids the chance to participate."

Andrew spent his first year at Ottawa Technical Learning Centre taking non-credit courses, bringing his academics up to speed in preparation for Grade 9. It was in his third year, on a whim, that he joined one of the track team's practices.

"At my first ever practice race, I finished in last, and I told myself I got to do better," Andrew said. "So I pretty much kept on going and my goal every time was to improve."

A year and a half later, he was winning races. He was one of the top five long-distance runners in the Ottawa region and he won a spot to compete at the provincial championships.

It was about that time that his grades started improving. He made friends on the team and developed a sense of sportsmanship.

"Until running came along there wasn't really anything he could identify with, now he can say, 'I'm a runner,' " said Andrew's father. "That's really given his life a focus, it's shown him that if he works hard he can succeed at things."

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Autistic people like Andrew often have learning difficulties. Growing up, he struggled with language and socialization, his senses were easily overwhelmed and he sometimes lashed out or lost his temper.

The disorder is marked by a withdrawal from the outside world - it's Greek root, autos, means "self." Andrew's coach at the Ottawa Lions Track and Field Club, Vince Fay, believes this might explain why he has recently seen a number of autistic youth show an interest in the sport.

"I'm no expert, all I can tell you is that they seem to thrive," he said. "… Anyone who runs, you sort of go into your own world."

Andrew says he likes that there's not a lot of body contact in running. He often runs to school, has completed six half-marathons, and hopes to one day be a part of the University of Ottawa's cross-country team.

OFSAA should determine athlete eligibility on more of a case-by-case basis, according to Jim Denison, director of the Canadian Athletics Coaching Centre and a professor of physical education at the University of Alberta.

"They should have some leeway to evaluate cases as opposed to a blanket five-year rule," he said. "I totally understand why they're doing it, they're trying to do their best to … create a fair advantage for everybody, so it's a difficult situation."

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About the Author
Education reporter

Kate Hammer started her journalism career in New York, chasing crime and breaking news for The New York Times. She came to the Globe and Mail in 2008 to do much of the same and ended up investigating allegations of animal cruelty and mismanagement at the Toronto Humane Society. More

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