World Autism Day is celebrated around the world on 2 April and designated by the United Nations to highlight the need to help improve the quality of life of those with autism so they can lead full and meaningful lives as an integral part of society.
Cohen and Otoase talked about their shared experiences of living with autism and the positive role badminton has played in the life of Otoase on and off the court.
Cohen: What common misconceptions or stereotypes about autism frustrate you the most?
Otoase: Sometimes people mistreat me or look down on me, but I continue to live my life spreading awareness that people with intellectual disabilities are just like everyone else. In Papua New Guinea, there is a stigma attached to people with intellectual disabilities, especially those with autism. Many of us are locked at home and cared for by our parents. Not many of us go out in public.
Cohen: Do you find it difficult to stay home just because you have autism when you really want to go out and be in the world?
Otoase: Yes, and I have trouble hearing as well. There are moments like when I’m playing sports for Special Olympics where I’m happy to be outside, but just like anyone else, there are moments I prefer to just stay home.
Cohen: What would you most want people to understand about your autism?
Otoase: In my home country, there’s very little support or welfare services for us. People like this typically don’t go to school, and many times, their families are frustrated with them so they are neglected. I live in a disability services home where I’m taken care of by the staff. I will continue to spread awareness in Papua New Guinea through my participation in Special Olympic sports and other means including radio, TV and newspaper interviews so the government will recognise people with intellectual disabilities, especially those with autism, as full members of society.
Cohen: Let’s talk about badminton. How did you pick up the sport?
Otoase: I like sports not only because it keeps me active and healthy, but it also allows me to socialise and helps me make friends. I especially enjoy badminton because of its fast-paced nature and the teamwork component.
Cohen: That’s good! I played basketball and softball with Special Olympics, and totally understand how this could help you socialise and make friends because these sports affected me the same way. Let’s go back to badminton. What about it brings you joy?
Otoase: I’m now 57 years old, and playing badminton is a way to keep me fit and healthy. It’s been a great sport to pick up, and because it doesn’t require too much equipment or a ton of actual physical contact, I feel confident it’s a sport I’ll be playing for the rest of my life.
Cohen: Do you believe other individuals with autism would benefit by playing badminton, and if so, why?
Otoase: I’m very happy when playing badminton. I’m always with friends and it’s allowed me an opportunity to be active and social at the same time. In a world where I spend so much time alone and at the care of others, I feel my full self when I’m on the court. There’s a certain amount of calmness and relaxation I get when I play.
Cohen: How has your coach helped you improve your game?
Otoase: My coach is friendly, helpful and patient. Most of the time when we meet up, he’ll let me play and then step in when he feels like there’s a teaching moment. I’ve noticed a significant improvement in my game since working with my coach, and I would encourage others with intellectual disabilities interested in picking up badminton to find a Special Olympics coach. They can help you in so many ways and really make an impact on your game.
Cohen: How has your badminton game developed since you began training?
Otoase: We’ve got a tournament that’s coming up this month, so we’ll see! I’m hoping to show my skills there, and really hoping to represent Papua New Guinea at the 2023 Special Olympics World Games in Berlin.
Cohen: How have your badminton skills on the court helped you off the court?
Otoase: I’m still learning a lot from badminton, but I know for certain it brings me great confidence when I’m off the court.
Cohen: What brought you to play badminton?
Otoase: It’s a sport that’s super easy to pick up and brings joy. As a person with autism, I was looking for a sport to improve my physical fitness, work on my social skills, and meet new people. Badminton has done all these things for me and much more.
Cohen: Amazing! It certainly sounds like you’ve made the most of the sport and you’re truly doing great work in Papua New Guinea. Thanks for taking the time to talk to me, Raphael!
The BWF works with the Special Olympics International (SOI) to provide competitive and non-competitive badminton participation opportunities for children and adults of all abilities, including those with intellectual impairments. This echoes the BWF and Global Badminton Development Strategy for 2020 – 2024 leading towards the Special Olympics World Games 2023 in Berlin.
For more information on BWF’s projects with SOI, head to Global Development Projects – BWF Development.