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Autistic wrestler succeeding on mat for South Allegheny

| Monday, Jan. 21, 2013, 1:01 a.m.
South Allegheny wrestling coach Tony DiGiorgio talks things over with Reese Yonich during a recent match. Norma Kutscher | Daily News

Terri Linhart was like most parents with her concern about how her son, Reese Yonich, would make the transition from elementary to middle school.

In this instance, however, there was more than mere worry fueling her consternation.

When Yonich, 13, was three, he was diagnosed with the Autism Spectrum Disorder of Global Developmental Delay, a condition that impacts 1-3 percent of the population. Though he has been in mainstream schools since kindergarten, Yonich has had to have additional support like occupational therapy and special classes, including Title I reading and math.

“He likes his routine, and he needs his structure, and I was a little concerned how he would adapt,” Linhart said. “But he did pretty good with the transition over, he started to be a little more independent. ... I told him that one of the things I wanted him to do was to push socially, and I didn't want him hiding in his room all day, which is what you would say to any other kid.”

Yonich took his mother's advice and, in a somewhat surprising move, decided to go out for the South Allegheny Middle School wrestling program.

“I taught him in sixth grade, and that's how he ended up on the wrestling team,” South Allegheny varsity wrestling coach Tony DiGiorgio said. “He was talking to me about MMA and stuff like that, and I said he should probably join wrestling. I didn't think he was going it take it seriously, but he did and this year he joined.”

Yonich had never wrestled before, so he started off at ground zero in terms of technique and strategy. Fortunately for him, several varsity wrestlers took him under their wing and were patient with him as they taught him point by point what he needed to know on the mat.

“He's a good kid, but you have to work with him differently than you do any other wrestler just because of how he is,” junior 145-pounder Steve Shriane said. “You have to go over each move step by step until he gets it, but personally, he's a nice kid and he's no different from anyone else from that perspective.”

It hasn't been easy. Because he'd never wrestled, Yonich didn't know about the physical toll it would take on his body as he got into shape.

“I hoped that he would stick this out, and I told him that I wanted him to see this through for at least one season,” Linhart said. “He didn't have to be the best at it, but see what you do with it. Sometimes he felt like he wanted to die in conditioning, and he came home at night just (beat), but the structure of it and the push finally have him to the point where he wants to move forward with it.”

Dubbed ‘Roadhouse,' from the ‘Family Guy' television series by his coach and teammates, Yonich has struggled at times and was heckled at times by opponents. But he has also won a few matches, which has helped keep him focused on getting better.

“When he won his first match, he came into the room and the whole team applauded for him, and he was so proud and happy. It shows in his face how happy he is to be there,” DiGiorgio said. “What I really don't like is when we go to wrestle other teams, and you can't say to the other team not to make fun of him or he'll get beat pretty bad. The kid's autistic, and I can't yell across the mat even though I want to. But the kid has a good attitude and shrugs things off pretty quickly.”

Structure is something autistic children need. One of the characteristics is they don't take to change very well, but wrestling has not only helped Yonich come out of his shell, it's reinforced his sense of order.

“I knew what to expect of him ... and I know that kids like him like to do things repetitively, and wrestling is like that, with the conditioning and everything. We go through the same things every day,” DiGiorgio said. “If I feel like I'm pushing him too hard, I'll back off, but for the most part he does what he's told to do. He likes being with the team and camaraderie of it and feeling like he's a part of something, and it seems like he's happy.”

His enthusiasm for the sport also has translated into classroom success. Yonich usually had problems with schoolwork in the first nine weeks, but this year he made the honor roll for the first time.

“This has been good for him physically and in every aspect of what he does,” Linhart said. “His homework used to be very haphazard, but now he has a lot more pride in what he's doing and his homework is better, taking care of things at home is better and he really did a 180.”

Keith Barnes is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at kbarnes@tribweb.com or via Twitter @KBarnes_Trib.

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