What I learnt from taking my autistic friend to a sport I know nothing about

He’s standing in his West Tigers jersey, track pants and cap with an orange over-sized foam fist. Waiting. We’re catching a bus to the ANZ stadium in Homebush. 

‘Hey Ben! Ready to watch the Tigers thrash the Eels?’ I hope I sound enthusiastic enough. 

I’m really not into rugby.

He nods earnestly.

Ben is 12. He has autism and is one of the most delightful human beings I’ve ever met. 

Autism is not an obvious disability, until you observe a person for a while. 

The way they stare at you a beat too long. The way their face scrunches in concentration as they try and find the right response to a question. 

It must be exhausting trying to read social cues all the time and not understand them. 

He’s sneaking glances at me on the bus. Perhaps worried I’ll try and engage him in conversation again. 

I’m sneaking glances at his orange uniform wondering what to say about his beloved sport. 

His Grandpa played for the West Tigers. The guy sitting next to us knows who his Grandpa was. 

‘I don’t change the team I go for even when they lose!’ he told me proudly. 

Apparently some people do. Weaklings.

‘Soo..they have to kick the ball through the big white H’s right?! The team that does that the most wins?’ I ask.

‘Yes.’

‘And..they’re only allowed to pass the ball backwards and run forward but everyone on the other team jumps on them and tries to stop them?’

‘Yes.’ 

I have a fairly rudimental grasp on this game.

The fans start piling onto the bus. Tigers and Eels. 

One older Eels fan with slicked back blonde-grey hair hops on. ‘Bring ya tissues?!’ he says to a guy in a Tigers jersey.

‘Oh yeah, come on!’ the Tigers fan responds and they playfully antagonise each other.

‘My swimming coach is an Eels supporter,’ Ben tells me. ‘Next time I see her, I’m going to ask her is she has her tissues!’

We arrive at the stadium and find a spot down the front. The number of people in attendance comes up on the screen: 55,000. Security guards pace the perimeter of the field eyeing off the increasingly beer-fuelled supporters. 

Cheerleaders dressed like slutty cowgirls run out and start dancing to annoying techno music. 

The players come up on the screen with their stats, larger than life. They’re like Greek gods, smiling down upon the crowd of screaming fans. I look around nervously and wonder if people can tell I’m an impostor; not really into this sport at all. 

I scrutinise the crowd and try to mimic them. Cheering when the surrounding Tigers fans cheer, booing when they boo.

Ben is ready. 

Every minute he updates me of how long it is until match time. 

‘5 minutes!’ he proclaims and flaps his hands; one of the more distinctive autism indicators. 

The players run out and the stadium erupts in a frenzy of noise. Ben stands up and cheers. The rugby ball, a tiny white blur sails across the field indicating that the game has suddenly begun.

Rugby, it turns out, is a great metaphor for life. You’re moving, you’re moving, then BAM: crash tackle. You brush yourself off and start again. Moving, moving BAM. Get up, repeat. 

There’s a glorious moment in the game when a Tigers player breaks out of the pack and sprints across the field to victory. 

Ben is ecstatic. He’s screaming and flapping and waving the foam fist in the air. I feel a rush of adrenaline as though I’m running too.

With two minutes of game time left, the Tigers are in the lead by 3 points. Eels supporters are glumly evacuating the stadium. 

Ben is gleeful. ‘Goodbye Eels! You have been eaten by the Tigers!’

The buzzer sounds and we scream and high five strangers and Ben looks like he might explode with joy. 

I can see the appeal now. 

In rugby, Ben is part of something bigger. 

Defined by a jersey, not a disability. When his heroes win, he wins. For someone who spends their life trying to keep up, winning must be a great feeling.

We catch a packed bus home; Ben is sitting awkwardly between two Eels supporters. 

I’m standing nearby and he keeps catching my eye as though not really sure how to react to this predicament. 

Finally, they exit the bus and I sit next to him. ‘I was sitting next to Eels fans,’ he states, concerned.

The bus rolls into our stop and his mother is waiting nearby, smiling and jumping up and down, cheering. 

Ben starts to get off the bus, but suddenly turns around to yell ‘GO TIGERS!’ to the remaining commuters.

I think I’ve found my new hero.

Cherie Lee is a writer living in the surfing capital of Australia: Torquay, Victoria. She still can’t surf.
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Cherie Lee is a writer living in the surfing capital of Australia: Torquay, Victoria. She still can’t surf.

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