By Alex Byington
Killeen Daily Herald
Tyler Talbott just didn't get the joke.
"Tyler! You missed two questions! Are you kidding me?!" his mother, Lori, sarcastically chided.
Although she was merely poking fun at his great test score, Tyler was heart broken over his mother's response.
"He kind of thought I was getting on to him, when I was just giving him praise," Lori said. "When I'd see his facial expressions, I could tell it hurt his feelings."
That sort of reaction used to be a daily sight around the Talbott household.
Tyler, the 14-year-old son of recently promoted Salado athletic director/head football coach Glenn Talbott and his wife Lori, was diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome - a high-functioning form of autism - in the second grade.
Asperger's, named for Austrian physician Hans Asperger who first described it in 1944, is an autistic spectrum disorder that is generally characterized by problems with social interaction and eccentric behavior.
But through his involvement in football - an act almost unheard of among children afflicted with Asperger's - the Talbotts have seen Tyler make some drastic and dramatic changes.
"It used to be very hard for him to fit in. The other kids didn't know how to relate to him," Lori said. "But the minute he stepped on the field as a seventh grade football player, he belonged to something, and I think it gave him confidence to be a part of a group."
Denise McCallon, a 20-year clinical child psychologist from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, agrees that sports could have a positive impact on children like Tyler.
"I have heard of people being able to become good at a particular sport with a lot of determination and competitive practice, (but) I haven't actually heard of anybody playing football before," McCallon said.
With his knuckles grinding into the grass, and feet churning behind him, his focus is unwavering - Tyler is going to make the tackle.
Lined up in a traditional four-point stance, the 150-pound freshman Eagles defensive tackle explodes off the line as soon as the ball is snapped.
Powering through the opposing offensive lineman, Tyler squares up and meets his target - the ball carrier - in the backfield.
"It makes me feel really good - self-confident - I want to have more of that," Tyler said of playing football. "... I feel like I have a calling from God - this is what He's calling me to do."
It was only the first of only three tackles he made during a morning two-a-day practice last Tuesday, but Tyler acted like it was No. 250.
"He's real confident - he thinks he's the best football player there is," Glenn grinned. "Which is good, and he just thinks he's the biggest and baddest thing out there right now, and that's fine for him to think that because that translates to him playing hard."
Hard is an understatement when describing Tyler's "go-until-the-whistle" approach, as he continually pursued the ball-carrier even after the play had passed him by.
Becoming a team player
Athletics have always been a huge part of the Talbott household, but because of his disorder, Tyler never seemed interested in any sports as a child.
"The fact that he's in athletics at all surprised the both of us," Lori said. "Growing up, Glenn could never get him out in the yard to kick the ball or pass the ball - just play."
Generally, children with Asperger's feature motor clumsiness along with problems processing loud noises and tactile experiences, all of which can inhibit physical activity in organized sports.
"With team sports, you have to be a team player, and in order to be a team player, you have to be able to anticipate what other people are doing and that's very hard for these kids," McCallon said. "And also, the action can move very quickly, so they have to process things very quickly, and that's also very hard for them. So, very often, it's just too much going on too quick for them to be able to keep up with."
Yet, through football, Tyler has found a way to overcome many of the limitations generally associated with Asperger's.
"If he's able to push himself beyond his comfort zone, and do things a lot of people with Aspergers wouldn't do, then he's just going to be helped tremendously by his ability to do that," McCallon said.
Glenn has always considered himself a teacher first and foremost.
That's why he was the first to realize Tyler was different.
"Even when he was little - in toddler years - I'd look at other kids in groups and he acted just a little bit different," Glenn said. "... I always just thought, 'He's not responding like other kids.'"
After both parents accepted their son was not like the other children in school, the Talbotts had their fears confirmed - Tyler had Asperger's.
"It was hard. It was sad. My first reactions were, 'What did I do wrong during the pregnancy?'" Lori said. "But, after reading about it - and we just love him so much - I came to grips that out of all the mommies in the entire world, God wanted me to be Tyler's mommy. And that's a special gift."
Glenn's initial concerns were more practical.
"My first thought was, 'Is he going to be able to do things?' I was really concerned if he was going to be able to play sports, or piano, whatever," Glenn said. "But (the doctors) assured me, 'Yes. People with Asperger's have normal lives,' They just have to go through a lot of social (adaptations)."
Making a difference
Tony Attwood, a renowned expert who literally wrote the book on Asperger's - "The Complete Guide to Asperger's Syndrome," describes children with the disorder have a "different perception of situations" with a "strong desire to seek knowledge, truth and perfection with a different set of priorities."
Along with a general social ineptitude, especially with regards to identifying social cues and conventions, Asperger's patients have a greater difficulty with management and expression of emotions.
"We always had to walk on eggshells around him - you always had to be very careful with what you said, very careful about his emotions," Lori said.
That made forming a close parental connection all the more difficult.
"It was kind of tough at first as he was growing up, I guess just to relate to him, until we figured it out," Glenn said. "We had to learn as parents, and the more we learned about it, we understand some of his reactions to things."
But it was Tyler's interest in football that made the biggest difference in their relationship, especially with regard to father and son.
"It's great. We talk a whole lot, and not just about football, he's interested in baseball, ... basketball," Glenn said. "... He's starting to get the whole gamut of the sports arena, not just football. Though that was the avenue to get him going."
Even his mother's sarcastic wit has found its way back into their relationship.
"He has now gotten to where he's starting to get stuff like that, and if he doesn't, he'll ask, 'Mom, are you joking?'" Lori said, "and then he'll laugh."
Contact Alex Byington at firstname.lastname@example.org or (254) 501-7566