At age 10, Bailey Elder was diagnosed with autism.
Five years later, the 6-foot-5, 285-pound freshman is starting at right tackle for the Stadium High School football team.
Few of Elder’s teammates know about his diagnosis. Because it’s a spectrum disorder, some people, like Elder, are mildly impaired, while others are more severely disabled, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
And that’s how Elder prefers it.
“I don’t like to tell anybody about my problems because they look at me differently,” Elder said. “I don’t like using it as an excuse, at all. ‘What, oh, I have autism. I can’t do this, I can’t lift weights, I can’t get better.’ That’s not what it is. No, it’s an excuse to get better. Because when people see me and I have this, they are like, ‘Wow, you are succeeding with that?’ ”
Elder plays football for Stadium, but attends Tacoma’s Science and Math Institute (SAMI). He also has Dysgraphia, which makes it difficult for him to write coherently. He needs a scribe to assist him with assignments.
But to Elder, these are not disabilities.
In school, he is taking college-level calculus and said he is set to graduate with all of his high school credits by the next school year (he’s been attending SAMI since seventh grade). On the football field, next to nothing holds him back.
He said he enjoys reading encyclopedias about space and weather. As long as it’s not fiction, he’ll read it. He’s also a cheese fanatic — as long as it’s “real” cheese such as Emmental or Mizithra and not American.
Elder said he wanted to be an astrophysicist — though he’s not so sure now — and eventually wants to play football for and attend the University of Washington.
Stadium coach Thomas Ford said he’s worked with at least 10 kids with autism through Special Olympics programs since 2007.
Elder’s parents asked Ford to treat their son like any other football player. Which, at first, Ford had a hard time believing he could do.
“Most autistic students that I’ve worked with were really shy, really passive, socially inept and really in situations where I was the initiator of all conversations, essentially,” Ford said. “Bailey is nothing like that.
“For me, his disability hasn’t affected him. Just outside of him needing that extra second to rethink either what happened or instruction. That is going to happen. Other than that, we really haven’t had to coach him any different, and we were very worried we would have to.”
Said Elder: “I’ve noticed that if I don’t do something right, (Ford) doesn’t tell me, ‘Oh, you did a good job.’ It’s ‘Bailey, you need to do this better, you need to work on this,’ and that’s what I need. I need to be told what I need to work on, or else I’m not going to get better.”
Most of Elder’s challenges are ones that any freshman endures — footwork, coordination, understanding schemes and technique.
But they certainly aren’t enough to keep him out of the starting lineup.
“He’s just like another one of the guys,” said Stadium left tackle John Blasco Jr.
Elder was a rotational player in the season opener against Fife, but Ford saw something that stood out — and it wasn’t that Elder was a freshman, or that he has autism.
Ford said he’s never seen a player as athletic as Elder with his disability.
Because Elder takes instruction so literally, it’s made Ford and his coaching staff have to be careful what they ask of him.
Ford said he once told Elder in the spring to line up as a nose guard on defense and “ruin the center’s day.”
“He drove the center seven yards in the backfield and runs off the sideline and he’s like, ‘Coach, do you think I ruined the center’s day?’ ” Ford said. “I was like, ‘Yes, I’m pretty sure you did.’ ”
Elder’s been thrust into the starting lineup since the loss to Fife, though he didn’t play against Gig Harbor because he traveled to Washington, D.C., to attend to the funeral of a family member.
When he got back?
“The first thing coach Ford told me when I came back was, ‘I’ve never been so happy to see you in my whole life,’ ” Elder said. “And he gave me a hug.”
It wasn’t always so easy for Elder.
He said football is what has helped him develop coordination and social skills.
“My first day ever, I had no coordination, no football IQ,” Elder said. “I didn’t know where I was; I was tripping over my own feet. I was always being overlooked and always being third string or fourth string, never getting to play and always having to be on the halftime team. … (Coaches) were always telling me I’m lazy and not working hard and didn’t realize I have a mental disorder. It’s hard for me to get the stuff down.
“Also, just the amount of remarks I would get. ‘Oh, you stand like a girl.’ I’ve gotten that one a lot. It wasn’t very fun for me at the youth level.”
His father, Scott Elder, said it was clear to he and his wife that their son had autism. But they didn’t decide to get him tested until he was 10. Scott Elder said he believes he and his wife have a high-functioning form of autism, as well.
“At first we were like, ‘I don’t know if we want him labeled,’ ” Scott Elder said. “I don’t want people to pigeonhole him or that sort of thing. But we kind of had our hunch since he was very young.
“But to him, it’s not a disability. He uses it as a skill enhancer.”
Stadium is clearly a far cry from teams that Bailey Elder has played on in the past. He said this is the best he’s been treated by coaches and teammates at any level.
He’s hosted what they call Fat Parties, where the team’s linemen get together to build chemistry. Stadium’s running back, Jamon Chambers, has 582 rushing yards (7.5 per carry) behind that offensive line through four games.
Elder said he plans to try out for the school’s basketball team this year, and he’s spent time volunteering at an elementary school in a special needs class.
“My mom was telling me that she had a suspicion that I had autism at age 8, but I didn’t care. I didn’t want it to affect me or phase me,” Elder said. “It’s just another thing to add to my story. A kid with autism is starting as a freshman. It’s amazing. I don’t like to toot my own horn, but at this point I feel I deserve it because of all the hard work I’ve done and what my parents have pushed me to do. Now it’s all paying off.”
TJ Cotterill: 253-597-8677