Autistic Fruitland student becomes more social thanks to wrestling

Fruitland’s Brandon Stowe, right, greets his coaches after getting a close win on Jan. 2.

With a 4-2 decision win over Timberlake’s Ethan Jerome on Thursday night, Fruitland senior wrestler Brandon Stowe helped the Grizzlies in a gritty 43-36 loss to the White Tigers. One of the captains of the Fruitland varsity wrestling team, Brandon put his warmups back on, put on his gray glasses and talked to his teammates before cheering on his brother a few matches later.

Without knowing him, it would be nearly impossible to know that Brandon has autism. A lot of the people around Brandon credit his long-time involvement in wrestling with changing his life and making him more socially active.

Early detection

When Brandon was young, the Stowe family was still living in Bend. The family took Brandon to a clinic in Portland and he was diagnosed as autistic.

“He was diagnosed on both the medical and the educational standpoint on the spectrum,“ Donny Stowe, his father, said.

When Brandon was just 4 years old, the Stowe family moved to Payette and Donny said Brandon was almost completely non-verbal at that time.

“He literally was learning sign language,” Donny said. “Like he had maybe five words… He was at the point where he had to have somebody in class. He was able to start communicating on his own and then it got to the point where we were putting him in Cub Scouts and stuff like that. It took a lot of extra work.”

As he got older, Donny said Brandon was put into more sports.

“We put him in football. That was really hard,” Donny said. “Some of the kids, like the Zieglers really helped out a lot. And Jonathon Fagen he was on that team and a big help. It was really a social jump.”

Getting on the mat

In 1999, Donny’s younger brother wrestled for Fagen at Fruitland High School, which first introduced Donny to the Fruitland wrestling program. When Brandon was in seventh grade, Fagen was helping coach the middle school since his son was in eighth grade.

“When he was just starting, I was honestly worried that he would never be able to look at me and say, ‘I love you, dad.’ Honestly, I never knew… Wrestling changed his life. You would have to have seen the journey to believe it.”

As a wrestler, Fagen said it was easy to put in a lot of extra time with Brandon because of how dedicated he’s always been to wrestling, even when he was first getting started.

“Brandon wants to be good and he wants to learn,” Fagen said. “He was always willing to do whatever it takes and he’s not afraid to ask for help. He’ll stay as long as you want after practice. I don’t care who you are, if someone wants to stay and work, I’ll stay and work. And we’ve put in a lot of extra time with him because Brandon always wants to stay and work… He’s not afraid to keep trying. He’ll go and try and make a mistake and keep trying.”

Fagen said there was never any issue with communication when working with Brandon when he was first coming out since wrestling can be a very non-verbal sport.

“Wrestling is kind of a sport where the language isn’t a big deal. There’s not a lot of a language barrier,” Fagen said. “You put his foot here and his hand here and reach here. You physically can feel what you want to do, you don’t have to talk a lot. ”

Donny said it was within the first year that he started to see a change in Brandon, becoming more active and more social. Donny said he used to stand at matside for Brandon’s matches because the coaches weren’t always able to communicate with Brandon. But as the years went on, Donny didn’t have to be so close to the action. Now Donny can always be found in the bleachers for Fruitland dual meets.

By the time Brandon was on the varsity team, Donny said Brandon was completely different.

“In seventh grade, he didn’t win a match. Eighth grade, he won one or two. Ninth grade, he won like five. Then he was able to qualify for state the last two years,” he said. “This year, I’m hoping to see him place. I don’t generally even bring up the autism anymore because people know, they can kind of tell that he’s a little quirky, like he still doesn’t have his driver’s license. There’s a lot of things where you have to be around him. But he is more or less just a normal kid.”

Not only has wrestling helped Brandon personally, but it’s been a big help for the family. Brandon’s younger brother, Carter, is a sophomore on the Fruitland wrestling team and Donny said that through wrestling, Brandon is able to be a good big brother to Carter.

“When growing up, and you’re a family member of an autistic kid, it takes a lot of time with that one kid,” Donny said. “Carter kind of took it on the chin for us.”

After Carter’s dual meet matches on Thursday, the first person to greet him when he got off the mat was always Brandon, with some advice and words of encouragement.

A perfect sport

Donny said wrestling was beneficial for Brandon in multiple ways, both as a family culture that stayed positive around him, but also as another form of sensory integration therapy and staying active.

“The amount of time that [head coach Isaac MacKenzie], and Sam Eckhart and the Farrows and Jon Fagen. The amount of time and their patience. The whole wrestling culture has changed his life… There’s something about wrestling. There’s something about the sensory integration. What really helped Brandon, we had to do these certain kinds of massages, but that deep compression kind of helped him come out of his fog. I don’t know how to explain it.”

Fagen said it’s not uncommon for him to hear from Brandon and Carter asking for more workout time even when the Grizzlies don’t have practice scheduled for a certain day.

Donny also said wrestling was perfect for Brandon because of how accessible it is for all people. Donny noted how there are all sorts of wrestlers, including those who are differently abled and many who are even missing limbs.

“There is no respecter of persons,” Donny said. “And for one sport to do that, to me, like I feel that now he can enter into society and have a cognitive ability to work with others and be social. Which, before, I mean he used to hit his head until it would bleed. It’s changed his life.”

Fagen said wrestling is a very accessible sport because it’s less a sport about physical attributes than it is how hard you are willing to work.

“It’s inside you,” Fagen said. “What’s inside you? What can you get out these kids that’s inside of them that causes them to want to be better.”

Now, Donny said he recommends wrestling to any parents who have differently abled children.

“I’ve run into a lot of parents with kids who are struggling, and I say get them in wrestling. Put a label on it or not, there’s obviously some development issues some kids have. When you get that discipline. In wrestling, it’s like no other. They definitely find out who they are… If I have advice to any parent who is struggling with a kid with autism. They just think they can’t do anything. If they have any kind of functionality at all, get them in there.”

Donny said he doesn’t completely know what the future holds for Brandon yet. Brandon is planning on serving his mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints after graduation.

Nik Streng is the sports reporter for the Argus Observer. He graduated from the University of Oregon in 2015 with a master's degree in journalism, after graduating from Pacific University in 2013 with a degree in creative writing.

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