There was a time when Johnathan Presley felt ashamed for being autistic. He learned quickly, though, that being different wasn’t so bad.
In fact, it was something he could take pride in. What could be more empowering than being happy with who he was and realizing the same is true for everyone? That’s an awful big epiphany for a youngster making the transition from elementary to middle school, but then again, Presley, in his own way, is no ordinary guy. And he’s come to realize that’s a good thing.
“Kids would make fun of me,” said Presley, 18, now a junior at Cooper (Texas). “When I was younger, my body would just move on its own — my head, my arms, my legs would just go crazy and start shaking. I had no control over myself. So I was made fun of, called names, and I just felt shameful of myself and I felt like I was different from others. But over time, things started changing for me. Instead of feeling shame in it, I decided to take pride in it and try to be myself, instead of trying to make myself somebody different.”
Presley found out he was autistic when he was just 3 years old — an age most people have little recall about. Presley, who has an amazing recall, remembers just how overwhelming it was to find out he wasn’t like the other youngsters at the time.
“I felt that would make me different than other kids,” he said.
If you think it’s a stretch that Presley remembers so vividly what it was like to be told he had autism at such a young age, he mother, Charla, will let you know it’s a fact
“He can recall an event that happened just before he turned 2,” she said with a laugh.
He floored his family when he did just that, telling them about an incident that occurred when he was 2. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that events that happened to him in daycare and elementary school, when other youngsters mistreated him or his younger brother, Jacob, who also is autistic, still burns in his mind today. It was an incident at daycare that changed him forever.
“We didn’t like going there,” Johnathan said. “We were outcasts by the other kids who weren’t like us. I didn’t know how to fight back because I didn’t like violence. My little brother saw what happened, and I don’t know what happened, but his anger was unleashed and he took a table and two chairs and attacked them. He saved me.
“From that day on, instead of feeling shame in being what I was, I took pride in it. The main reason probably is thanks to him. He didn’t understand what was wrong with him because he was too young to understand it all. I was bigger than him, but he had to come save me. No matter what size you are or what you have wrong with you, your family can guide you to the proper path like my brother did for me.”
It was his brother’s courage that gave him the courage to stand up for himself and eventually for others not only autistic like him, but anyone who see themselves as being different.
It still took time for him to develop this new sense of self, and Charla said it started to bloom when he started to make the transition from elementary to middle school.
“Toward the end of elementary, he kind of realized that him and his classmates at that time were a little different than the rest of the mainstream kids,” she said. “He’s always had a sense of equality. Everybody is equal. No one is any better than anybody else. He’s always maintained, ‘Just because I’m different, I’m not less a person.’
“I remember him coming home and talking to us, toward the end of elementary and going into middle school, and middle school is a big transition. Being in middle school, it reinforced that, you know what, ‘I’m still a human being. You still have to treat me decent. You can’t single me out just because I have autism.’ He doesn’t like you to treat somebody different just because they are a little different.”
Following in dad’s footsteps
So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that autism didn’t stop Johnathan from playing football like his father, Thomas. Nor has it kept him from having success. He even qualified for the Region I, Division I powerlifting meet, which will be 9 a.m. Saturday at Cooper’s Cougar Gym. Following his father’s footsteps on the gridiron is a big deal to Johnathan.
“Growing up, my dad told me stories of how he played football,” Johnathan said. “He showed me a picture of the high school he went to, which was in Paris, Illinois. I always wondered if I could do football.”
Charla said Johnathan wasn’t ready for the sport when he was young, which is why he never played youth football. But it didn’t keep him and his family from doing their homework, seeing if it was something their oldest son could do.
“We did our research and we watched games, and he was like, ‘Oh, yeah, I might be able to do this,’ she said.
It wasn’t until his seventh-grade year at Clack that Johnathan finally started playing football, just like his dad. It’s something he’s continued to do since making the jump to high school. He’s a noseguard in the Cougar football program. Presley, who played on the JV the last two seasons, will make the jump to varsity for his senior year.
“It’s like a family to me,” Johnathan said of football. “It changed me in a lot of ways. I can do something to help others, because a lot of people I meet, they’re kind of like me, even though they’re not autistic. They just need someone to give them guidance, just like all the coaches here gave me guidance and showed me a new path.”
Charla has also seen how football changed her son.
“It kind of gave him an overall sense of belonging,” she said. “He was a part of something bigger. He had to learn to work with people, which is something very difficult for people with autism. They think it’s about them, and they don’t see outside of that. He had teammates and coaches, and it doesn’t revolve around him. It gave him a sense of belonging and taught him how to work alongside other people and accomplish a common goal.”
Youngsters with autism usually don’t like much physical contact. It’s kind of hard to avoid contact when you play football, especially high school football.
“Most of us don’t have the ability to adapt to being touched,” Johnathan said. “That’s when we turn a little bit violent. I’m not going to deny it. When I was younger, I had a really bad temper. I didn’t like being touched.”
He said medication helped him deal with being touched, and he said he eventually learned to cope without medication. Football, too, has helped him deal with contact.
“I’ve learned how to push through my anger management problems,” he said.
As a result, he’s become a different son for Charla and Thomas Presley — a son who is more open to a loving hug.
“Before, if you asked, ‘Hey, I want a hug,’ he would reluctantly give you a hug,” Charla said. “Now, you can just walk up and put your around him. He’s OK with it. That tactile, being touched, is not a trigger anymore. It’s not something that sets him off. It’s been a good experience for him and us, too.”
Just one of the guys
It’s been a good experience for Justin Head, too. Head is the boys powerlifting coach at Cooper, and he’s also an assistant football coach. He’s been with the Cougars for five years and, in addition to coaching Johnathan on the powerlifting team the past two years, was Johnathan’s position coach for a while when he was the defensive line coach.
“He’s good to be around,” Head said. “He can always brighten your day. When we’re game-planning and stuff, he’ll walk in and sit down with you and start asking questions. He has a love for the game, for sure.”
Head said he and other Cooper coaches don’t give Johnathan any special treatment. They expect the same from him as they do every player on the team.
“We treat them the same as everyone else,” Head said. “The offseason he goes through every day, it’s tough. Not just anybody can make it through that. The offseason our football goes through is rough, and he goes through all of it. We’ve never had to treat him any differently, and it shows. He’s strong.”
Strong and determined. Johnathan desperately wanted to qualify for the region powerlifting meet last year. He kept asking Head what did he have to do to qualify for regionals? He was heartbroken when he didn’t make the cut last year.
“Last year, I didn’t qualify for regionals,” Johnathan said. “After that, I started working out more, started getting stronger and better. I don’t ever let my body relax. I exercise every single day. My prayers were answered when I was told by my head powerlifting coach that I qualified for the regional meet. My ultimate goal is to go to state.”
Head was amazed at Johnathan’s determination, after coming achingly close to qualifying for region last year.
“He kept lifting and kept doing what he does, and he wasn’t lying when he said he lifted harder and harder,” Head said. “He’s put a lot of weight on his back. There’s no special treatment there at all. He’s doing a lot of things and undergone a lot of things that not everyone can go through. It’s not an easy program to be part of, and he gets through it every day.”
Johnathan, who competes in the super Heavyweight class (276 pounds or heavier), qualified for region with a total lift of 870 pounds, which has him sitting 13th out of 15 lifters going into Saturday’s meet. It’ll be tough for him to earn a state berth, considering the top three qualifiers qualified with total lifts more than 1,400 pounds. The top two finishers, along with anyone who lifts a pre-set qualifying total, earns a trip to the state meet.
For Johnathan’s class, it takes at least a 1,600 total lift to automatically qualify for state, which will be March 25 at the Taylor County Coliseum.
“Just to be able to lift with them is an honor alone,” Head said. “We’ve got some very strong guys. There’s going to be a lot of bars bent at this meet, and he’s going to be in the mix with them. That’s an accomplishment all its own.”
None greater, though, than the transformation Charla and Thomas Presley’s oldest son has achieved in just, well, learning he doesn’t have to be anyone but himself and learning that he can be one of the guys, whether it’s on the football field or the weight room.
“It doesn’t bother me,” Johnathan said of his autism. “I’m proud of it. I’m proud of who I am. If there are others out there like me, they can do the same thing, too. If you feel ashamed of something your whole life, you’re not going to accomplish anything.”