Walker Aurand: the first ACHA Division 1 hockey player on the autism spectrum

Walker Aurand

When I step on the ice, I feel clarity and my worries disappear,” Walker Aurand

By Ron Sandison

Walker Aurand, a natural on ice, began skating at the age of two. When his dad took him to the rink for open skate, he was astonished to see his two year old son skating without any training.

“When my parents tried to help me on the ice, I looked back at them and said, “I’m good I can do this by myself. When I step on the ice, I feel clarity and my worries disappear,” Walker shares.

Walker’s parents Steve and Anne first realized something was unique about their son when Walker was only three months old. Lying on the living room floor looking down on the baby on the floor his Dad said “Hi, buddy, hi, buddy,” And suddenly Walker, clear as a bell echoed to his dad “Hi.”

Anne said to Steve, “I did not just hear that!” And Steve replied, “You did!”

“I didn’t know whether to be happy or go, ‘Oh My Gosh, who does that?'” Anne reflects.

Changes in routine and transitions, fine motor skills, and sensory issues led to Walker’s autism diagnosis at age three.

“I was unable to hold a pencil the right way as a child. It was difficult to read words all the way through and read quickly. Learning to tie my shoes was a pain. Change in routines for me would almost always make me feel thrown off. I had difficultly picking up on sarcasm and social cues,” Walker shares.

Walker’s parents discovered ways to help him stay calm. When he felt overwhelmed physically they would brush him or swing him in a blanket to bring relief. Certain smells of food like cinnamon enabled Walker’s brain to feel more organized.

“I’m lucky to have a mother who is a speech pathologist and worked with kids like me. This really helped me overcome some of the challenges I experienced. My parents made many sacrifices. I can’t begin to say how much they have done. They’ve given me everything. My dad was my coach and he took me to my games early in the morning. My mom always was patient with me in my school work and helped me learn to understand the social environment around me. I’m so lucky to have the parents I have. They always wanted the best for me. I wouldn’t be the person I am today without their love and support.”

Walker loved playing sports with his younger brother Branden. His parents encouraged him to play hockey.

“My parents noticed when I was little, I was happy on the ice. I had good eye-hand coordination and I can skate well. I like hockey because it is a sport that brings people together. It also highlights my capabilities and athletic talent. Hockey gives me a rush of adrenaline and a chance to be on a winning team. I think hockey’s a very freeing game. Both freeing of your body and your mind. When you’re on the ice, you almost feel like you can fly.”

One of the challenges Walker had to overcome was sarcasm in the locker room.

“I learned to adapt to the locker room environment. My brother Brendan who played high school hockey with me helped me figure out the sarcasm of what people were saying and when I was being teased. I’m very confident in myself. I believe a lot of it has to do with all the hardships I’ve had to overcome. I wouldn’t trade those hardships because they’ve helped me become who I am.”

Anne and Steve used hockey as a therapy to teach their son to spell.

“We would tie words with plates onto the net, and he would shoot at the letters, and that’s how he learned how to spell words. You might not be able to do that with every child. But for him it worked and he was motivated to do it. So there he’d be shooting pucks: C-A-T, cat, P-A-N, pan. And he eventually learned to read through some of that and sound things out. And it became his sensory therapy with the crashing and burning on the ice. It was kind of a multipurpose thing, and, you know, the bottom line is he really, really loved it,” Anne shares.

Walker Aurand with his Dad

Playing hockey empowered Walker to learn social skills and gain self-confidence.

“The number of friends I’ve made over my life is something that I’ll never forget. Some of my best friends now are people from hockey that I’ve met growing up. I’ll cherish those friendships forever and I’ll never forget how much my friends and family mean to me. I think hockey has taught me how to react to different situations and to become stronger in difficulty times through my friendships.”

During Walker’s senior year of high school his English teacher assigned a paper on “One thing you could offer to the universe to change it.” Aurand decided to finally let his peers know about his autism. In Walker’s essay, he shared, “I have autism but autism doesn’t have me.”

A family friend and local artist asked Walker, “Can I paint a portrait of you and use a quote from your autism essay and exhibit it in the ArtPrize?” The ArtPrize in downtown Grand Rapids attracts hundreds of thousands of attendees every year. After a week of contemplating, Walker agreed to reveal his autism to the world.

The day of the exhibition Walker returned from school and said to Anne, “Mom, this freakish thing happened today. I’m freaked out about it. All these kids saw my painting. My phone is blowing up. I bet I have 150 texts: ‘Is that you, Walker?’ ‘Is that you, Walker?’ Mom, I didn’t know I had friends.”

“How do you feel about all this?” Anne asked.

“I’ve decided it’s OK.” Walker replied.

Davenport University is the perfect fit for Walker.

“It’s kind of come full circle my dad was the goalie coach for the Davenport University program when it first began so I knew the program well. After playing a year of junior hockey in Wisconsin for the Dells Ducks, I made the decision to go to Davenport because I wanted my parents to be able see me play and I wanted to be close to home. My connection with the coaching staff and memories of the team as a child made DU an easy pick.

Walker's Hockey Team

Aurand wearing his #55 jersey is one of the top defense men on Davenport University’s American Collegiate Hockey Association (ACHA) Division I team.

Autism has given Walker an advantage.

“I am obsessive and as a result, I have a good work ethics and tend to be a perfectionist. I like to keep improving and that makes me work extremely hard to correct my mistakes and just keep on getting better at this sport.”

Walker is pursuing a degree in marketing and desires a career in sports media as a blogger or analytics. He also would love to coach hockey.

“My more immediate goal is to win Davenport a national championship.” Walker exclaims.

Entering his senior year Walker is reflective of his journey.

“College has given me the opportunity to grow through different experiences and figure out who I am. My hockey teammates are very accepting and been there for me. I am truly blessed with these teammates and they make me a better player. They are the reason I am excited to come to the rink every day.”

Walker shares about his autism advocacy.

“I’m someone who young kids with similar disabilities can look up too and that means more to me than any award or win. Hockey has given me a platform to be an advocate for people with disabilities and it’s helped me to try and improve the lives of those around me and I am grateful for that.”

Walker encourages young adults with autism, “Never be afraid of change or new things and don’t be afraid to fail because failure is a part of life. Life’s not easy, but if we try hard enough, we can turn adversity to our advantage. Above all else have conviction in who you are. Find what you are passionate about and go for it.”

Walker Aurand Video: https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/video/hockey-tournament-to-benefit-autism-research/vp-AAz2hWK

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Ron SandisonRon Sandison works full time in the medical field and is a professor of theology at Destiny School of Ministry. He is an advisory board member of Autism Society Faith Initiative of Autism Society of American. Sandison has a Master of Divinity from Oral Roberts University and is the author of A Parent’s Guide to Autism: Practical Advice. Biblical Wisdom published by Charisma House. He has memorized over 10,000 Scriptures including 22 complete books of the New Testament and over 5,000 quotes.

He frequently guest speaks at colleges, conferences, autism centers, and churches. Ron and his wife, Kristen, reside in Rochester Hills, MI, with a baby daughter, Makayla Marie born on March 20, 2016. You can contact Ron at his website www.spectruminclusion.com or email him at sandison456@hotmail.com

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