When Justin Etherton reached the end of the pool, he didn’t execute a flip turn like the other boys in his 14-and-under 50-meter freestyle race. Instead, he lifted his body from the water and pushed himself back in the other direction, resuming his clumsy, determined strokes.
By this time, the five other swimmers at the Fallsmead community pool in Rockville had already finished the heat. As they caught their breath, they stood in the water and turned to watch Etherton make his way down the pool toward them. And as the cheers from the crowd of parents and swimmers on the pool deck urging on Etherton grew louder, his fellow competitors joined in the shouting.
Justin Etherton’s father, Mike, was on the deck of the pool, moving alongside his 13-year-old son, stride for stroke, leading the cheers. “Go Justin!” he hollered repeatedly, cupping his hands to his mouth.
With each breath, Justin lifted his round face straight up out of the pool and smiled, listening for familiar voices encouraging him.
As a member of the Kenmont swim team in the Montgomery County Swim League, Justin races each week. And each week he finishes far behind the other swimmers. At the meet at Fallsmead this recent Saturday morning, his finishing time was 1 minute 27.01 seconds — 34.72 seconds behind the next slowest finisher and nearly a full minute behind the event’s winner.
But for Justin, finishing times are secondary to other benefits of racing in a pool. Etherton has autism, and his parents say swimming provides invaluable therapy for their son, as well as a social outlet for him as part of the 101-member Kenmont team.
“It’s been the best thing that’s ever happened to him and to us,” Mary Beth Etherton, his mother, said.
One out of every 150 children in the United States is born with autism, according to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta. The CDC estimates that 560,000 Americans under 22 have some form of autism. According to the Kennedy Krieger Institute, a Baltimore-based organization that aims to improve the lives of children with developmental disabilities, autism is among the autism spectrum disorders, which “affect a child’s ability to communicate, understand language, play and relate to others.”
The Ethertons had struggled to find a physical outlet for Justin until they discovered swimming. He played soccer, but too many elements of the game competed in his mind.
“His attention wasn’t there,” Mike Etherton said. Swimming is “a single thing he can focus on. This is like an accomplishment for him when he finishes a race.”
Rebecca Landa, director of the Center for Autism and Related Disorders at Kennedy Krieger, said swimming has an advantage over team sports for autistic children because the focus is on the individual.
For Justin, “the swim team is perfect,” Landa said. “When he’s in the water, it’s just him. He doesn’t have to be anticipating when someone’s going to pass the ball to him. That piece of social knowledge doesn’t have to be at the forefront of his mind.”
Justin’s autism is not as severe as many other cases; he speaks and converses on topics that interest him — dinosaurs are at the top of that list — and in July he leads public tours of the butterfly exhibit at Brookside Gardens in Silver Spring. But typically, he is very shy. In an interview he didn’t make eye contact and instead focused on a plastic toy he carried with him, rearranging the arms and legs of a malleable figure. At one point, he said, “This is hard for me.”
Landa, who does not know Justin or his parents, said putting children with autism in a competitive setting isn’t common, but she would encourage other families to do so.
“It’s just the simple self-confidence that one would get from being able to be a part of something and really accomplish something,” she said.
Grace Huettner’s son Billy, 12, also has autism and swims for Potomac Station in the Old Dominion Swim League in Loudoun County. Billy joined the team when his mother became the team treasurer before this season.
“The main focus isn’t to put him in the meets,” Grace Huettner said. “He’s not a competitor by nature; he’s happy with whoever wins.”
Four years ago, Natalie Liniak was looking for places where her son Jonathan, who has a form of autism, could participate in sports in a less competitive environment with other disabled children. She started Sports Plus Group, a Montgomery County nonprofit, and today it serves about 300 children with disabilities ranging from attention deficit disorder to severe autism.
Liniak said athletics help disabled children integrate with other children.
“The benefits go beyond sports,” she said. “We’ve had parents write us letters saying they no longer need [occupational therapy] at school or they no long need [physical therapy] at school. They’re able to play on the playground with typical children in a game of kickball or a game of hoops.”
Justin Etherton has taken part in activities organized by Sports Plus. But for now, he is getting everything he needs at the Kenmont pool, where he has been embraced by the team.
“Justin kind of brings the team together,” said 16-year-old swimmer Madeline Stanley as she stood with a group of Kenmont swimmers shortly after Justin’s 50-meter freestyle race.
Other swimmers quickly agreed that Justin is a valuable member of the team. “Justin is funny,” said one, while another chimed in about his “great imagination” and how entertaining he is when he “makes up things about crocodiles” in the pool. Said another, with a hint of awe in his voice, “He’s an expert on dinosaurs.”
“The team really accepts him and cheers for him and wants him to succeed,” Mike Etherton said.