Rancho Cotate’s Kimberly Rowley is part of the team

Rancho Cotate sophomore wrestler Kimberly Rowley has her hand raised by official Fred Duerr after a victory by forfeit in the 103-pound division. (ALVIN JORNADA / The Press Democrat)

Rancho Cotate sophomore wrestler Kimberly Rowley has her hand raised by official Fred Duerr after a victory by forfeit in the 103-pound division. (ALVIN JORNADA / The Press Democrat)

By TED SILLANPAA
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

ROHNERT PARK — Rancho Cotate High School sophomore Kimberly Rowley is a wrestler who has autism.

Just don’t call her an autistic wrestler.

That infers that she might be a cheerleader in a wrestling uniform or a team mascot. The kid can wrestle. She lost her last match just 9-7. She’s not treated with kid gloves by coaches who know they should allow her on the team, but have no idea what to do with her. She’s not an autistic wrestler whose teammates tip-toe around at practice.

“Kimberly knew from the first day of practice that she’s a part of a team,” said Rancho Cotate head coach Damien Mason, a Petaluma police officer with years of teaching experience who’s working to earn his Ph.D. at UC Berkeley. “We didn’t change standards and expectations for Kimberly. She rose up to meet them. The girls and boys on our team embraced her as a teammate.”

Kimberly Rowley is a 15-year-old who has autism. She is also an ever-improving wrestler thriving under the remarkable tutelage of Mason and assistant coach Andrew Wheeler.

“I met Kim and her mom at our initial meeting,” said Mason, who will get his Ph.D. in social cultural studies. “Kathi is 100 percent instrumental in everything Kim does. We talked about how Kim functions and how we can engage her. There are some things that I take for granted, like not having to explain the meaning behind the task. In our sport, we don’t typically have to do that. But we’ll do it when necessary with Kim. She works incredibly hard and is continuing to progress.”

Kim’s mother, Kathi Mathei, is thrilled.

“I don’t have words to express how impressed I am with the coaches and with the kids on the team,” she said. “I know how hard it is to work with any child who has behavior modification needs. They take time to understand and work with Kim.”

Autism symptoms revealed

The National Institute of Neurological Disorders defines autism spectrum disorder as a “range of complex neurodevelopment disorders, characterized by social impairments, communication difficulties and restricted, repetitive, and stereotyped patterns of behavior.”

“Kimberly rates high on the autism spectrum in some areas,” said her mother. “She rates lower on the spectrum in some areas. It depends. She’s on the honor roll. She struggles more in classes that require abstract thought, like English.”

Kimberly agreed.

“My favorite classes are earth science and math,” she said.

What most pleases Kathi is that her daughter is growing more independent every day on the mat.

“If she had her way, she’d never leave her bedroom,” Kathi said. “So I’ve always gotten her involved in group activities. The idea was for her to be OK without me right there with her and to learn to interact with other kids. This year, she tried wrestling.”

Oh, what a grand idea.

“She’s more communicative than I’ve ever seen her. I’ve seen so much growth in her since she started,” Kim’s mom said. “You can see that the kids like her. She’s playful. On weekends at home, she prefers solitude and quiet. We have to make her come out into the living room with us, but that starts to change when she’s out her with her teammates.

“If you had told me five years ago that she’d be doing this, I’d have said ‘No way!’”

Girls team capitan Cassidy Rodriguez said the team needs Kim.

“Kim brings us something special,” Rodriguez said. “She’s so happy. And she’s loud. We need her to be loud to keep up team spirit. I’m sad I’m graduating and won’t be able to be here to enjoy watching Kim get better and better.”

Coincidentally, Kim most enjoys what the team most needs from her.

“My favorite thing is cheering for my teammates,” she said.

One of the symptoms of autism, according to Autism Network International is a “lack of spontaneous seeking to share enjoyment, interests or achievements with other people.”

It applies to Kimberly, given her preference to stay alone in her bedroom. And it led to her first autistic meltdown as a member of the wrestling team.

Autistic meltdowns

Like many who have autism, Kimberly has experienced meltdowns — a clinical term used when dealing with autism — since she was a toddler. The Autism Factor website explained that, during a meltdown, the “child with autism does not care if anyone is reacting to them. Meltdowns continue as if having their own power and taper off slowly … No one feels in control during a meltdown. … nothing will be able to satisfy the child until the situation (meltdown) is over.”

Kathi Mathei has dealt with more than a few meltdowns.

“I remember sitting in the middle of the aisle at a grocery store holding Kim and rocking her during a meltdown when she was very, very young,” the mother remembered. “At home, now if she has a meltdown we’ll take the dogs for a walk until Kim feels better. I have to let her walk 100 feet ahead of me so I can’t hear her crying.”

A meltdown hit early in the year that Kimberly played as a freshman member of the Rancho Cotate golf team.

“The first golf tournament was on a really hot day,” her mom explained. “She was complaining. Then she just collapsed on the course and melted down.”

The little girl who was diagnosed autistic at age 2½ years, spent her childhood hiding under a table if “it got too busy,” her mom said.

There are no tables for wrestlers to find hiding.

“Oh, she’s had meltdowns during wrestling,” her mom said. “She spent six hours in the car to get back in time for a four-hour practice. She saw the kids rolling the mats up and she thought they were doing it wrong and she just crumpled.”

Mason scheduled a team bonding activity inside the Rancho Cotate football stadium. All the wrestlers, including Kimberly, were locked inside and told to find a safe way out and back to the gymnasium — as a team.

“Kimberly said it was her worst fear being locked up like that,” her mom said. “So she left the team and jumped over a fence.

“She ran back and started dressing down the coaches for how dangerous it was to lock them inside like that. It wasn’t unsafe at all. She just felt it was unsafe.”

Mason tried to talk to Kimberly.

“She solved the challenge in the stadium alone, but she left her team to do it,” Mason said. “That could’ve caused a fracture in the team. She didn’t understand what we were trying to accomplish. We told her that leaving the team wasn’t OK. She had a meltdown because she felt so bad for letting her team down.”

Kimberly’s mom was called to practice.

“I took her home and we walked the dogs,” Kathi Mathei said. “At that point in the season, she was still counting down the days until the season was over. She’d say, ‘This was the biggest mistake of my life.’

“When we talked later, she said she could quit the team or stick with it. I told her she didn’t have a decision to make. I told her that she wasn’t quitting. She went back to practice the next day and things have gotten increasingly better since.”

Winning on her own

Kathi Mathei’s plan remained the same. Get Kim to interact with others, without mom right beside her.

Mason is a skilled, compassionate coach and educator. Wheeler has worked as a para-educator with special needs children. Nothing they’d done prepared them for how to deal with an autistic meltdown.

“I’m a police officer,” Mason said. “We respond to crisis and can’t plan for every situation. When she first arrived, I hadn’t seen her meltdown. I didn’t know what we should do if she did. I tried to be prepared for the time it happened.”

At a recent practice, a teammate flipped Kimberly and she landed flat on her back.

“She had the wind knocked out of her,” Mason said, “but she was screaming that she had a broken back. She started to have a meltdown, but she recovered on her own without any support. She’s absolutely tremendous.”

Her mom was thrilled.

“She turned it around on her own,” Kathi said. “It really hurt. She didn’t understand what happened. But she turned it around and went back to practice.”

Kimberly just isn’t suited to run the 5 miles the team runs for conditioning.

“She’d come home and say, ‘Oh, they make me run and run and run,’” her mom said.

When Mason realized that a 5-mile run was too much to ask of her, he allowed Kimberly’s conditioning run to cover 2½ miles.

No. No. No. Mason didn’t make things easier for the wrestler who happens to have autism.

“If a coach has an athlete with an injury that won’t allow him or her to run, the coach adapts his workout plan,” Mason said. “You modify the workout to fit what the athlete can do. So we altered the workout for Kim. She runs 2½ miles and then does other things, like any other athlete who, for whatever reason, can’t run the 5 miles. She does situps and pushups while the rest of the team runs.”

That’s where explaining the meaning behind task, that Mason mentioned, comes into play.

“We went to the health club and I asked Kimberly to do some push ups,” her mom said. “She complained and asked why she had to do pushups. So I had her get down in a push-up position, then I laid my body weight on her and told her try to get up. She struggled and I asked, ‘What muscles were you using when you were trying to get up?’ Kim said, ‘The same muscles I use doing push-ups.’ And, she started doing push-ups.”

‘Kim’s grown so much’

Kimberly Rowley defies description and proved as much early in the season when Mason had the team run a timed mile. “If the entire team didn’t finish in a given time, they’d all have to run again,” Mason recalled.

The girl who most would guess has a problem “seeking to share enjoyment, interests or achievements with other people,” knew she had to run for her teammates.

“Kim was running that mile and shouting, ‘Don’t you punish them if I can’t finish in time,’” Mason said. “She kept running and was worried about her teammates. She didn’t quit and she sprinted towards the end … and finished in the time she needed to meet. It’s storybook stuff that people would not believe.”

There may be coaches who would’ve accepted a wrestler with autism, then shuttled her to the side. Mason did no such thing.

“All he said was that he would never put any wrestler in a position where they could be injured,” Kathi Mathei said. “He had Kim forfeit when she was scheduled to wrestle a boy. If she has to wrestle a boy now, she’ll wrestle a boy.”

It’s all part of the job for Mason. “Parents like Kathi are preparing their kids to succeed as adults. I honestly feel blessed to be experiencing all this with Kim.”

Kim’s mom knows that her challenge to prepare her daughter for adulthood is different than most. “I still worry about that all the time,” she said. “We need to make her as independent as we can. She still needs her alone time every day. But, Kim’s grown so much. She talks about wanting to make pottery for a living. ”

And, Kathi Mathei fights back tears thinking further.

“As Kim grows, I’m just along for the ride. A coach creates opportunities. The athlete has to take advantage of them,” Mason said. “Sports bring out the best and worst in people. It brings out the best in Kim. As her story goes on, it’s just a blessing for the rest of us to be part of it.”

Ted Sillanpaa can be reached at Ted.Sillanpaa@pressdemocrat.com.

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