Canadian bureaucracy ends autistic track star’s senior season

Cameron Smith

Two of the best prep sports stories of 2010 focused on athletes with developmental disabilities rising to inspire others with momentous touchdowns. Now a similarly special athlete in Canada is being restrained from attempting a similar feat on the track because of a bizarre bureaucratic ruling in Ontario.

According to The Globe and Mail, 19-year-old Andrew Towle, a track star for Ottawa (Ontario) Technical Learning Centre who happens to have autism, will not be allowed to compete throughout his senior season because of a technicality which determined that he has been enrolled in high school for too many years. The ruling stems from Andrew being enrolled at OTLC in the 2005-06 school year, despite the fact that he didn't take a single Grade 9 level course in that entire school year.

Despite the fact that Towle was a high school student between 2005 and 2007 by technicality alone, the Ontario Federation of School Athletic Associations ruled that his attendance in a high school building still put him in violation of the association's strict rule that limits a student athlete's eligibility to a five-year span.

"Why be this inflexible and bureaucratic with something that's so important to these student competitors?" Andrew Towle's father, Jonathan Towle, told The Globe and Mail. "It's just very unfair."

While the OFSAA might have a strong case to bar Towle if he had used up a full four years of athletic eligibility, that simply isn't the case. The 19-year-old never walked onto a track until his third year at OTLC, when he showed up at a track team practice and was suddenly motivated to improve to be more competitive with his teammates.

Amazingly, Towle's improvement on the track also sparked a dramatic improvement in the classroom for the student with autism. A year after Towle's career was kick started at a random practice, the then-sophomore was winning races and finding himself well on his way to earning a spot on the OTLC honor roll.

"At my first ever practice race, I finished in last, and I told myself I got to do better," Towle told The Globe and Mail. "So I pretty much kept on going and my goal every time was to improve."

Now, the senior is being deprived not only of his personal outlet, but also of a motivating factor for him to constantly improve his schoolwork, as well. One of Towle's coaches said the natural role of running makes it an ideal fit for athletes with autism.

"I'm no expert, all I can tell you is that they seem to thrive," Vince Fay, the coach of Towle's club team, Ottawa Lions Track and Field Club, told The Globe and Mail. "… Anyone who runs, you sort of go into your own world."

Another Canadian prep sports official felt that the senior provides a unique opportunity for OFSAA to re-evaluate a well intentioned eligibility rule that might need softening.

OFSAA should determine athlete eligibility on more of a case-by-case basis, according to Jim Denison, director of the Canadian Athletics Coaching Centre and a professor of physical education at the University of Alberta.

"They should have some leeway to evaluate cases as opposed to a blanket five-year rule," he said. "I totally understand why they're doing it, they're trying to do their best to … create a fair advantage for everybody, so it's a difficult situation."

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