• Autistic teen takes up golfing, develops friendship

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    TRAVERSE CITY: Sloths eating doughnuts — awwww, that’s double-cute for teenage sloth fan Emlin Munch.

    Munch received the surprise sloths socks in the clubhouse at Bay Meadows Family Golf Course.

    They were wrapped in crinkly blue tissue paper and given to her by Olivia Rockwood, Munch’s Traverse City Central Trojan Golf team captain.

    Olivia, 16, was just showing Munch that she cares.

    It’s a small gesture, but it plays big for Olivia, 16, who has autism spectrum disorder. Social niceties like thoughtful gifts for friends don’t come naturally to her.

    Or, the fact that she needs to tuck in her shirt to match everyone else for the team picture. Or, when she first started playing golf, to pick up on her teammates’ subtle hints that her dawdling on the golf course was slowing everyone down.

    Brain scans of infants were studied to predict the development of autism. AFP FILE PHOTO

    “They were trying to tell me to walk faster, but I was disconnected from all that social etiquette. Then, once I was behind someone else who was slow and I saw how it was,” Olivia said. “It was so frustrating.”

    Olivia has had to “fight to fit in,” said her mom, Kris Rockwood.

    “If your child is blind, you can get them a cane, and everyone can see the cane,” Kris said. “But with autism, you can’t see it — your kid is just considered weird, or doesn’t fit in, and no one knows why. So they end up being outcasts. It’s the hidden handicap.”

    Symptoms surfaced in Olivia’s toddlerhood that became more obvious in school where Kris was frequently called in to “mediate” classroom fits of yelling and anger.

    “It was always about ‘it’ — whatever ‘it’ was,” Kris said. A school switch later, the new teacher recommended Kris research autism, she said.

    From then on it was a “full court press” of specialized doctors, church groups, and somewhat-forced play dates to get Olivia the treatment she needed and to fortify her weak points, Kris said.

    Kris counts herself lucky — as the child of teachers and a business owner herself — she “dug” into resources many parents don’t know are available, she said.

    Olivia’s individualized education program — a team-built special education plan — was the key to unlocking assets statewide, like the Summer Transition Program. Olivia spent seven weeks at Western Michigan University this summer in an expenses-paid program to give autistic high school students a taste of college life to ease their future transition.

    Olivia is currently active in Trashion Fashion design at school and is studying engineering at the Manufacturing Technology Academy through the Traverse Bay Area Intermediate School District’s Career Tech Center.

    “It was all about ‘how do we get this autistic child to be a working and productive member of society?’” Kris said. “As a family we want her to see her own potential and don’t want autism to get in her way — because it doesn’t have to.”

    But joining the golf team — that was a fluke of fate, a stroke-of-serendipity story that Olivia loves to tell.

    “I would draw, read, sit up in my room,” Olivia said. “I tried other things but nothing clicked.”

    She ticked “swimming,” “softball” and “golf” on a mandatory school questionnaire about her after-school interests.

    “I thought I’d end up on some kind of email list,” Olivia said. “That was true for swimming and softball, but Coach Lo (Lois McManus) called us on the phone and told us ‘practice starts in August and here’s what you need.’ My mom looked at me and was like, ‘you signed up for golf?’”

    “I thought Coach Lo had the wrong number,” Kris said.

    But Olivia and Kris shared a look of “we can do this” and decided to do just that.

    Olivia said she was used to being an outcast and so the warm welcome she got from her teammates and Coach Lo — “wasn’t what I expected.”

    “They welcomed me like a family,” Olivia said.

    McManus has been with the team for 21 seasons. Her style — direct, frank instruction with a hearty dose of caring and love for the game — meshed well with Olivia’s needs.

    “I don’t treat her any different,” McManus said — except that she likes Olivia to sit next to her on road trips, as Olivia is a diligent and focused navigator. “We treat them like our own kids.”

    Olivia’s skilled navigation has also moved her into a leadership role as the team’s captain this year. Teammate, assistant coach and friend Emlin Munch helps her out.

    “They saw leadership in me, and they saw my growth potential,” Olivia said. “I may not be the best player. But I don’t believe many people like me get this chance.”

    As it turns out, Olivia said that “she may even have some natural talent for the game.”

    Her score has gone from a 180 to a 102 “with a lot of hard work,” McManus said.

    But strokes are secondary to the other lessons golf has to teach, Olivia said. Especially in terms of connecting with people.

    “For me, it’s not about competition — I’m not going to get a scholarship or anything,” she said. “But if you play a full round — 18 holes — you feel rage together, joy and disappointment — everything it takes to make a friendship.”

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