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Is autism your superpower?

Sam Holness has a superpower. 

It makes him different, not like the other athletes.

It gives him, he believes, an edge, a strength that he plans to put to good use as he strives to realise his sporting dreams.

That edge? That strength? That superpower?

It’s autism.

Sam was three when the diagnosis was made, but in the 24 years that have followed, he has not allowed autism to curtail his ambitions.

Far from it, in fact.

Indeed, with his sights set on the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii – Where Champions Race – he could not be doing more to challenge perceptions and defy expectations.

“I love training and I never give up,’ Sam told The Telegraph in a recent interview, outlining his appetite to prove that autism does not have to be a barrier to achievement. “My autism allows me to be focused and not easily distracted. It allows me to train hard and smart. If other athletes pass me I want to catch them to get back in front. I shout, ‘Come on legs, go faster, get to the front’.”

Sam’s efforts are not to be underestimated and, autism or not, tackling an Ironman triathlon is a serious undertaking, this a punishing event comprising a 3.8km swim, 180km cycle and full marathon.

That the 27-year-old is tough is quite clear; as a child, his judo sensei nicknamed him ‘Super Sam’, recognising in him a relentless and fearless fighter.

“I was the first one at the dojo and the first to put up his hand to fight, even if the opponent had a higher grading or was heavier than me,” he recalled.

The nickname endures, so too that dogged determination.  

Yet there’s more. 

There’s the autism, that so-called superpower, and the other athletes who are likewise defying odds and expectations, role models such as Serna DeJesus, John Howard, Mikey Brannigan and Tommy Di Brisnay, whose own sporting exploits and achievements are inspiring Sam’s. 

There’s the support, the endorsements and the backing from global sportswear brands – including Hoka One One. 

There’s the time-consuming and relentless training programme that underpins it all, and there’s the burning desire to compete, one day, in Kone – Where Champions Race.

Then there’s the chance to inspire others. To alter perceptions, improve understanding and prove that autism can be a strength and not a weakness. 

Not bad for someone who didn’t speak until he was six years old.

“Sam is an amazing athlete,” said Anthony, the inspirational Londoner’s father and coach. “I spend days watching him train and am in awe of his commitment and ‘never-say-die’ attitude.”

But what about Sam’s superpower? What about that edge? That strength? That autism?

“Sam’s autism helps him to focus for long periods and master repetitive tasks, which may prove an advantage over neurotypical athletes,” admitted Anthony. “We’ve had to adapt our training plans to work with Sam’s autism. But it’s made easier by his single-mindedness.

“[Training for triathlon] has made Sam healthier. It has given him greater self-esteem and helped improve his social and communication skills.”

Like many, Sam’s autism restricts such skills, yet his other talents and determination to succeed have enabled him to thrive and not let such issues hamper his development, his prospects or his achievements in his chosen field. 

For some, autism can be a strength that offers an edge – in Sam’s case, a sporting superpower – and it’s important to see it as such, rather than considering it a weakness.

The crucial thing for all dealing with a diagnosis is to recognise and understand the complex disorder that is autism in order to be able to harness skills, realise personal potential and gain access to the appropriate resources, support and services.

Not all can be a professional triathlete in the making like ‘Super Sam’, who hopes to take the next step on the long road to Hawaii this autumn, when he is due to compete at Ironman Wales.

But in identifying talent, seeking opportunities, and underlining that autism isn’t an insurmountable obstacle or a problem that cannot be overcome, there’s no question that dreams can be realised, and ambitions achieved – and that a diagnosis can sometimes be the key that unlocks it all.

For Sam, sport has offered an outlet, enabling him to manage his condition and channel his skills but for others the field might be a different one, be it academic, artistic or something else altogether.

Regardless, autism can be a strength and it can provide an edge for those so minded.

Is autism your superpower?

Take our advice, consider his story, and follow Sam’s example. 

You too have the strength to succeed. 

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