Leaving autism in his wakeHe is only a 19-year-old sophmore in high school, but already he has set a disability record for the 200-meter (218-yard) backstroke, and will represent Busan in the 100-meter and 200-meter backstroke events at the National Sport Festival in Ulsan, starting tomorrow. He also won silver and bronze medals at the 4th Swimming World Championships for persons with intellectual disabilities in Liberec, the Czech Republic, last month.
His name is Kim Jin-ho, and his disability is autism, a mysterious brain disorder that develops in early childhood and severely hampers one’s ability to communicate, interact socially or even feel basic emotions. For Kim, swimming is more than just exercise ― it’s a path to a more normal life, and it’s making waves with disabled people across the country.
“Jin-ho has a difficult time understanding instructions, and he is goal-driven, which is both a strength and weakness,” said Lee Do-hyuk, a swimming coach at Busan Physical Education High School. Mr. Lee added that, for now, Kim simply aims to pass the qualifying round.
Kim is already a sensation. People have sent him chocolates and invited him to movie premieres, and broadcasters, newspapers and magazines have run lavish features on the swimmer. He has in part benefited from the recent years of media attention on the struggles and successes of the disabled in Korea; one example is the autistic marathon runner Bae Hyeong-jin, whose life story was turned into a popular movie, “Marathon.”
Kim’s popularity is understandable. One of Kim’s recent television appearances had him doing errands and walking along mountain tracks at night. The show’s producers paid him in the form of a car to be donated to a disabled person.
“If there’s a program that will help raise awareness and provide information about autism, and if it can help Jin-ho, I’ll definitely approve of it,” said Yu Hyon-kyong, Kim’s mother. “Anywhere, even autograph sessions and photo shoots, can be a place of learning for Jin-ho.”
She added though that the media should focus on her son’s ability to overcome his disability more than his ability to win gold medals. Jin-ho, she said, has come a long way since he was found to be “different” as a 3-year-old. He took special education classes for four years, she said, but never enrolled in a school for the disabled.
“I didn’t want to acknowledge that he was autistic,” Ms. Yun said.
After spending four years in kindergarten, Kim entered a regular elementary school when he was nine. For more than a month, he went to class but didn’t interact with the other children, and his mother had to look after him in the classroom. But after 42 days, the teacher asked that Kim attend a school for autistic children, because she did not want Ms. Yun in the classroom.
When Jin-ho was 9 years old, Ms. Yun stopped taking him to special education classes and began teaching him by herself. “It was life that he had to be taught,” Ms. Yun said. She added that special education classes did not provide enough help, and that Kim was losing a valuable chance to learn life skills.
She used a strict regimen of rewards and punishments and tried to reinforce normal behavior while eliminating “maladjusted behavior.”
Then in 1996, Jin-ho began going to the Central Christian Academy in Suwon, one of few schools in Korea at that time that believed in “mainstreaming:” having autistic students take regular classes with normal children for a couple of hours a day.
The adjustment was not easy. Like many autistic children, Kim was a picky eater, and the school said it would not admit him if he refused to eat at the cafeteria. Ms. Yun solved the problem in a brutal fashion, by taking Kim to a remote mountain area and giving him only foods that he disliked. It took Kim two days of not eating to learn to accept foods other than instant noodles and fried chicken. He eventually gave in, however, and has been eating normally, his mother said.
It was ironically his problem with eating, and his mother’s solution, that made him a swimmer. Once Kim expanded his diet, his diet began expanding him. Kim ate a lot and rapidly gained weight. By the time he was 13, his mother was so concerned about his health that she took him to the school’s swimming pool. She said she noticed that Kim, normally timid, seemed confident when he was in the water.
Within a year, he was competing at a national swimming championship in an Olympic-size pool, in the city of Cheongju.
Ms. Yun worried that Kim wouldn’t be able to follow the other swimmers, put his clothes in the basket before going up to the platform, or remember to take the basket back to the locker room after the competition was over. The day before the championship, she took her son to a dormitory room, laid a blanket on the floor and setting a plastic washbowl next to it. Kim practiced putting his clothes in the bowl, jumping on the blanket (which represented the pool) and then taking the bowl to the bathroom.
The results were mixed. Kim remembered to put his clothes in the basket and take it with him. He did not, however, win the competition.
But swimming was clearly having an effect on the boy. He was gradually becoming more disciplined, tidy, well-mannered, punctual and confident. Most of all, Ms. Yun said, he became accustomed to being surrounded by normal people. Kim nowadays is more assertive and starts conversations instead of dodging them.
He has also become a stronger swimmer. Kim has won two gold medals and two silver medals in the Far East and South Pacific (FESPIC) Youth Games for the Disabled, and a silver medal in a freestyle 100-meter race at the Dong-A swimming competition, which allowed him to enter the Busan physical education school.
“I feel that he has matured,” Mr. Lee said, adding that behind the success of people like Kim was parental dedication and love. Kim’s father, a doctor, said that he wanted his son to focus more on dealing with his disability than winning medals.
“I don’t think about providing him with a comfortable life or protection,” Ms. Yun said when asked about Kim’s future. “I want him to be someone who can stand alone, when I can’t be with him.”
Ms. Yun said the hardest thing for her has been “holding her love back” for the sake of discipline.
On a Friday afternoon, Ms. Yun drove her minivan to Busan Physical Education High School to pick up her son. Jin-ho was waiting beside the school’s main gate.
Kim still has difficulty communicating. During the interview, he ignored most questions. “Mom, I’m hungry,” he said in the backseat while his mother was driving. Asked what he practiced that day, he said, “Two-hundred meter.”
Asked if he was interested in other sports, he replied, “pocketball (billiards).” He could not understand the question of what he wanted to do in the future, however, until his mother rephrased it:
“Right now you’re 19,” she said. “What do you want to do when you’re 25? Swimming, pocketball or sing in a choir?”
“Pocketball,” he said.
Ms. Yun said that until Kim started swimming, she could not communicate with him emotionally. Now he senses her feelings and tries to comfort his mother when she feels sad or depressed. “My happiest moments are when he shows feelings of sympathy,” Ms. Yun said.
by Limb Jae-un