Kindred: Pool helps state qualifier cope with autism, life
University High School swimmer junior Josh Davis, 17, poses at Illinois State's Horton Pool in Normal, Illinois, Tuesday night (February 19, 2008). (Pantagraph/B Mosher) B MOSHER

John and Teresa Davis of Normal repeated it for years, to themselves and each other: "He'll catch up. He'll catch up."

They saw a son who was bright and accelerated in some areas, yet lagging in others.

Socially, he had no niche, no comfort zone.

They watched their oldest child play "parallel" to others instead of interacting. They noticed he lacked interest in social situations and spent a lot of time alone.

They visited doctors, asked questions. They had him tested.

The consensus?

"He'll catch up. He'll catch up."

The Davises clung to that, counted on it. Their faith in God provided strength. Yet, if their son was going to assimilate into the mainstream, find a place among his peers, their only hope was, "He'll catch up."

"We were flying in the dark," John Davis recalls.

It was a rough and wrenching flight, and at times Josh Davis appeared headed for a crash landing. His weight shot up, and his self-esteem nosedived. By age 12, he was on a path to obesity and estrangement.

He was not catching up.

But why?

The answer came during a visit to Learning for Tomorrow in Bloomington. Owner Cathy Heissler detected symptoms of Asperger syndrome, a form of autism in which people show deficiencies in social skills, often have obsessive routines and may be preoccupied with a particular area of interest. They also struggle to read nonverbal cues (body language).

Heissler encouraged the Davises to get a book on Asperger's. A few pages in, John Davis looked at his wife and said, "This is it."

"It was like opening a window into our boy," Teresa Davis said.

It all fit: the painful social experiences, the inability to connect with peers, the lack of eye contact and, emerging at the same time, the preoccupation with a specific area.

For Josh Davis, it was swimming.

Some call it an obsession. John Davis, who works in the systems department at State Farm Insurance Cos., calls it his son's "passion."

Either way, the sport has provided an avenue to acceptance and integration. A young man once desperate for hope is now a thriving, successful source of it for families facing Asperger's and other forms of autism.

"He's like the poster child," Heissler said.

Seventeen-year-old Josh Davis is in Evanston today, competing on two relays and in the 200-yard individual medley for the University High School swim team. The tall, slender junior enters the state meet physically fit, devoted to his team and one of its most popular members.

Teammates understand now why he occasionally says "the wrong thing" and often fixates on swimming and school. They realize that aside from God and family, those are his greatest treasures.

Upon learning he had Asperger's, Josh Davis told his mother, "Let's just tell everybody, and then nobody will be mean to me anymore."

Among the first to be told were the U High swimmers and their parents, and John Davis called the response "very positive."

With Heissler's help, Josh learned not to confront teammates who speak when the coach is talking. He learned to make eye contact and how to look at someone briefly rather than stare.

He learned to overcome fears, becoming a peer tutor at U High, joining the math team and, this week, agreeing to have his story told to a stranger with a tape recorder.

"He told me, 'I'm nervous about it,' but then he said, 'I think it will be good for me,'" Teresa Davis said.

"The gap seems to be getting smaller for Josh. The gap was so wide when he was young."

It was wide enough for the Davises to decide to home school their son from second through seventh grades. Socially, he struggled mightily in kindergarten and first grade.

He returned to school in eighth grade at Cornerstone Christian Academy, and he applied to U High because of the opportunity to be on the swim team. He was accepted at the 11th hour.

Principal Jeff Hill met with the Davises a week before school was to begin. A few days later, he told the family Josh had been accepted.

John Davis calls Hill "another example of someone who was willing to take a chance on Josh, and it will affect the rest of his life."

That group also includes Heissler, who provided therapy, support and encouragement, and Rob Knight, who kept Davis from leaving swimming during a difficult time socially.

His father said Josh was ready to quit the team at Rob Knight's Swim America, but Knight said, "I'm not ready to give up on Josh."

"As a parent, when someone says that to you, it means so much," John Davis said.

Knight viewed Josh Davis as "another athlete with a challenge," treating him as he would anyone on the brink of quitting.

He watched Davis begin to work hard and move ahead of swimmers who were naturally faster. Now, he calls him "one of the top swimmers in Bloomington-Normal."

Davis relishes the rhythm swimming provides. Given his history with "land sports," it offers safety as well.

He has broken his left arm twice, and his right arm and right wrist once each. The injuries occurred while sledding, roller skating, bicycling and catching a football during P.E. class.

The Davises allowed him to try sports such as baseball and soccer, but he experienced sensory overload, overwhelmed by the sounds and open space and, in particular, the heat.

The pool was the perfect outlet.

"He's horizontal and he's cool," Teresa Davis said, smiling.

Josh also has adapted to the clamor of large swim meets. He spends much of his time out of the water listening to classical music on his MP3 player.

He finds it soothing, in contrast to his brothers, Aaron, 11, and Zach, 8, who prefer loud music. Zach Davis has begun to play the drums, so Mom and Dad make sure he practices when Josh is not home.

The Davises also have a 5-year-old daughter, Hannah, who was adopted from China. It is a close-knit family in which "everybody is accepting of everybody," John Davis said.

Now, finally, the world is more accepting of Josh Davis. He said swimming has become "a natural part of life" and has helped him "focus more on my studies, too."

An honor student with a 3.92 grade point average, he aspires to swim in college and ultimately become a math teacher and swim coach.

He credits swimming for teaching him "to stay focused and be confident that I can do well." Without it, he said, "I probably wouldn't have lost the weight that I lost, and I probably would have been on bad diet habits."

"I don't know … it probably would have been more like goals to see how many videogames you can play in one day," he added.

Instead, Davis is swimming against the state's best today, seeded 27th, 28th and 29th in his events. Winning is a long shot, but make no mistake.

He's caught up.

Randy Kindred is a Pantagraph columnist. To leave him a voice mail, call (309) 820-3402. By e-mail: rkindred@pantagraph.com.

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