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This College Hockey Team's Secret Weapon Is An Autistic Defenseman

”There are high moments and low moments and how you respond to those moments I think defines who you are”

Walker Aurand, like so many young men who started playing hockey when they were knee high, spent frigid Saturday mornings being schlepped to practice by bleary-eyed parents. Eventually he would live out his dream playing for a college team, his childhood, and teen years having been shaped by the game.

But hockey would do something else for Aurand as well: help him tackle autism.

Many of Aurand’s Davenport University teammates had no idea he had autism, a developmental disorder that can impair communication and social interaction, until he penned a first-person piece that ran on local hockey blog MiHockey over the summer. That his autism wasn’t obvious is a testament not only to intervention, but also to the positive impact hockey has had on Aurand.

Image courtesy Alexis Hoffman/AlexisJoyPhotography

“Autism and the severity of autism, it varies,” Aurand tells GOOD. “I have a milder form of autism now ... and that’s due to the fact that when I was younger I got put through umpteen hours of therapy.” Both of Aurand’s parents were proactive in ensuring he got the help he needed, and it didn’t hurt that his mother is a speech pathologist. “That was sort of an advantage really that my mother knew what kind of therapies to get me,” he says.

Including ice time.

“When I’m on the ice, any learning differences or autistic feelings that I have all just go right out the window,” the 20-year-old defenseman says. “The rink is a place where I’m able to kind of feel whole. I don’t think about the struggles that I’ve had or any of the challenges that I’ve faced. Hockey is where I feel like I can be myself and not have to worry about anything.”

And it’s been that way for as long as he can remember, which impressively enough, goes all the way back to when the Michigan native was just two years old and his parents took him to a rink for the first time. “My dad came on the ice with me. We originally thought he would skate with me,” Aurand says. “After about five minutes, I looked at him and said, ‘I’ll do it by myself, Dad.’”

The kid has been on the ice ever since.

[quote position="left" is_quote="true"]When I’m on the ice, any learning differences or autistic feelings that I have all just go right out the window.[/quote]

After playing for his high school team and spending a year with the Minnesota Junior Hockey League’s Dells Ducks, Aurand earned a spot with the American Collegiate Hockey Association Division 1 Davenport hockey team in Grand Rapids, Michigan, just 15 minutes from home, allowing his parents to attend his home games. Here Aurand simply thinks of himself as a college sophomore and hockey player, not necessarily a college sophomore and hockey player with autism.

Aurand’s isn’t the only example of participation in athletics being beneficial for autistic kids. There are the heartwarming highlight clips of kids with more severe cases authoring standout performances in high school basketball, youth baseball, or bowling, for instance, but there also are instances where the integration—socially and athletically—is even more seamless. Brick, N.J., high school kicker Anthony Starego, former Michigan State basketball player turned anti-bullying advocate Anthony Ianni, and former Olympic swimming hopeful Devin Ross come to mind. Aurand’s feeling of inclusion as a college athlete perhaps is more in the vein of those three examples.

That does not mean Aurand doesn’t still face unique obstacles, and certain instincts others might take for granted he’s had to hone through experience. Picking up on sarcasm, for example, was something he once had trouble with.

“I used to be awful at it,” he laughs. “If someone would say something to me and had a dry sense of humor and said it with a straight face, I’d have no idea if they were joking or not.” The interactions, particularly with teammates, allowed Aurand to become more familiar with the humor so that now he more easily recognizes jokes and sarcasm.

Image courtesy Alexis Hoffman/AlexisJoyPhotography

“But if there’s ever a time where I can’t figure it out,” he says, “my teammates are great enough guys where I can ask them, ‘Hey, he was joking right?’”

Dealing well with criticism is something else he is happy to have conquered. The year he spent playing with the Dells Ducks, which happened to be the first time he lived away from home, Aurand struggled not to take his coach’s intensity too personally.

“He was one of the best coaches by far that I’ve ever had in my entire life, but he got intense sometimes and that was hard,” Aurand says. “I had to learn that ... he wasn’t yelling at you because he thinks less of you as a person, he was doing it because he wants you to become a better hockey player and he realizes how much potential you have.”

[quote position="right" is_quote="true"]There are high moments and low moments and how you respond to those moments I think defines who you are.[/quote]

These days, Aurand wants feedback. He’d rather receive constructive criticism than praise for having done a good job. “I’m kind of a perfectionist and I always want to do better,” he says.

Even in youth hockey he wanted to do better, but that’s not always easy for a child to process, especially when autism is involved. Aurand would cry and throw fits when the other team won or even scored a goal. And while he’s grown out of that, he still can struggle with the disappointment of a loss, such as during last season’s national semifinals. After beating Robert Morris and the University of Central Oklahoma, Aurand’s Davenport Panthers suffered a 2-1 loss to eventual champion Lindenwood University in their next (and what would be final) game of the season, knocking them out of the tournament.

The disappointment was the greatest Aurand ever remembered experiencing—especially due to his desire for the graduating seniors who had made his first year on the team an amazing experience to end their college careers with that trophy. “I wanted it more for them than I wanted it for myself,” he says. “That took a little bit of time to get over, for sure. But I know it’s hockey and not everything goes your way sometimes.

“Life goes on—you just try to move on and get better from that.”

A year ago, Aurand was nervous about being accepted as an incoming freshman on an established team, not to mention taking on a full course load and adjusting to the social intricacies of college life. But he now says things couldn’t be going better, thanks in large part to his teammates. “These past two years I’ve been a part of some of the most accepting groups of guys that I’ve ever played with in my entire life,” he says.

For sure, Walker Aurand is about as thoughtful a 20-year-old as they come, able to recognize what he’s achieved thus far, put his experience to good use, and focus on his goals. While he believes his most memorable hockey career moment has yet to come (a national championship for Davenport, of course), for now, Aurand is enjoying—and learning from—the game.

Image courtesy Alexis Hoffman/AlexisJoyPhotography

“Sports in general are a lot like life. There are high moments and low moments and how you respond to those moments I think defines who you are,” he says. “Hockey has in a sense helped show me what it is I’m really made of.

“I can take the moments on the ice and apply it to real life. If I can get through this on the ice, I can get through anything else in life. Hockey has been therapy on its own for me.”

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