A few months ago, as the ink still dried on his new World Series of Fighting contract, John Howard stumbled headfirst into a conversation he never expected to have. He was midway through a neurological exam, the kind required of 33-year-old fighters who are closer to the home stretch than the starting line, and the discussion turned to his elementary school days in south Boston. The stroll down memory lane ended up being more than small talk.
There were certain patterns doctors kept picking up in Howard’s stories, little signs that pointed towards a larger narrative, too many to be a coincidence. Howard left that day with a recommendation to undergo a series of non-invasive neurological tests, just to see if there might be something worth unraveling inside that fighter’s mind. So he did exactly that, and the results confirmed a reality the UFC veteran always suspected, an explanation for two decades of quiet frustration that Howard never had the science nor desire to seek out.This beast of a man, this professional athlete who climbed the Octagon steps 14 times over the course of 13 hard years in the fight game — he was clinically autistic. He had been his whole life.
“Now a lot of stuff in my life makes sense,” Howard told MMA Fighting, days before his promotional debut at WSOF 31. “Now I’m thinking about my life, it makes sense why I do certain things. Even to this day.”‘I WENT MY WHOLE CHILDHOOD BEING IN SPECIAL EDUCATION CLASS, BASICALLY THINKING THAT I WAS SLOW AND STUPID.’
Over 3.5 million Americans live with some variation of autism spectrum disorder, according to figures provided by The Autism Society. Those numbers climb yearly as awareness of the condition increases. According to a spokesperson for The Autism Society, a healthy percentage of those new diagnoses come to people later in life, similar to Howard’s, because as with most neurological disorders, autism spectrum disorder has few black and white symptoms, but rather myriad waves of grey that manifest themselves in seemingly infinite forms and severities.
In Howard’s case, he noticed his problems early on. Speech was always difficult for him, as were more abstract social skills like education and relationship building. He stuttered. He cried. He struggled to pronounce words. His brain retreated into paralyzing spells of fear anytime he was to forced to speak amongst groups. Gradually Howard’s head became a fog, and school only made things worse.“Growing up, I was always in Special Education classes,” he says. “I always struggled with learning disabilities. But back in the day, when I was coming up in school, we didn’t have autism, ADHD, all these things that we know about now. We didn’t have the science to understand it. So if you were any kind of handicapped, or your thoughts were flawed, you were put in Special Education automatically. I went my whole childhood being in Special Education class, basically thinking that I was slow and stupid.
“It was the hardest, freakin’ scariest thing. I was getting teased every day. People would try to beat me up. It was terrible. I was being called retard. ‘How come you’re in the retarded class? You can’t talk. You’re stupid.'”
Howard’s aunt Darlene says the abuse did not stop with the students. The teachers in Howard’s school were just vicious, if not more so. It was a different time in a different place, and Darlene remembers Howard complaining often of being called ‘stupid‘ and ‘retard‘ from those in positions of power amongst the Special Education classes, suffering insults at a time when Darlene says it was “critical for him to learn and try to get ahead in life, to become an adult.” Things even got physical. Howard recalls one teacher grabbing his face and screaming so hard, she left deep scratch marks all along his cheeks.
Read the rest of the article At age 33, John Howard finally freed by diagnosis of clinical autism – MMA Fighting