Allison Paxton graduated from Canon-McMillan in 2018 with a secret – she was diagnosed in first grade with Asperger’s syndrome, a form of high-functioning autism.
“It was something I kept to myself,” she said. “It was not something I would tell my friends about. I was so nervous and scared and unsure about how people would react. I strived so hard to be what I thought was normal, that I never thought I should open up about it.”
Now, she’s using her story to influence change and to make history at Bethany College by organizing the community’s first Special Olympics Field Day. From 12:30 to 4:30 p.m. today, special-needs individuals from around the community will have the chance to learn how to play sports, including soccer, football, volleyball, basketball, golf, track and field at the college’s recreation center.
Paxton, a sophomore who’s studying psychology, started organizing the event in April, after seeing a friend post on social media about a Special Olympics event in which she had been involved.
“I knew it would be something that truly changed this campus,” Paxton said. “There’s nothing like this here for those individuals, and nothing like this has been done here before, so we’re making history.”
Since she serves as vice president of the student activities council, she went to the council’s adviser, Sam Goodge, the executive director of student affairs, to ask for help getting the event started.
“We’ve been putting this together, but it’s mostly been her – she’s a rock star,” Goodge said. “She’s one of those people that just doesn’t stop.”
He said one of the biggest accomplishments of the event is that Bethany is the first college or university in West Virginia to “form an official partnership with the National Office of Special Olympics.” He said they reached out to the national office because they have a college program. From there, they got in touch with state and local Special Olympics organizers.
“She’s put together a countywide Special Olympics Field Day at 19 years old,” Goodge said. “She’s really having an impact on people and encouraging people to try new things.”
And because she’s only a sophomore, Goodge hopes that she’ll have time to develop and grow the event further before she graduates.
“Hopefully, when she does graduate, someone else will be ready to step in,” he said. “Going forward, the goal is that it will happen every year.”
As a two-sport athlete, Paxton is very passionate about giving people with special needs “a fun way to try a new sport.” She now competes in soccer and track, and in high school she also played lacrosse.
“From a social perspective, I always felt different from everyone else – that made it difficult to fit in with a team,” she said.
Growing up with Asperger’s syndrome, Paxton said she used to struggle with eye contact and processing emotions. She also battled a negative stigma surrounding her diagnosis, and she didn’t want people to label her with false limitations. Sports helped prevent that.
“A lot of times exclusion is such a big issue,” she said. “I think that sports have given me a whole new perspective and feeling of worth. I think being with people that want you to do well and succeed has made me a lot less timid. There’s no ‘I’ in ‘team,’ and I know my teammates are going to love me no matter what.”
That’s the experience she wanted to share with others and what drove her to organize the event, for which more than 100 people volunteered and more than 20 athletes participated.
“Being who I am and a person with specials needs, I wanted to give people hope that they can do it,” she said. “Even if it’s only four hours here, I want them to feel special. I know they face so many obstacles on a daily basis. I think this event is going to not only change these athletes but also all the volunteers.”