MacAdam: Putting the puzzle together, piece by piece

Great Danes freshman was diagnosed with autism when she was 5; head coach's young twin sons also on the spectrum
UAlbany's Taniya Hanner and head coach Colleen Mullen will face Binghamton Sunday in a game dedicated to autism awareness.
UAlbany's Taniya Hanner and head coach Colleen Mullen will face Binghamton Sunday in a game dedicated to autism awareness.

ALBANY — The puzzle pieces fell together unexpectedly, spontaneously and perfectly, a coach hugging her player when one revelation led to another.

Taniya Hanner, a freshman forward on the UAlbany women’s basketball team, had never planned to tell anyone, including head coach Colleen Mullen, that Hanner was autistic.

For one thing, what was the point? Having been diagnosed when she was 5, the 19-year-old Hanner was managing, from her spot on “the spectrum.”

As a college freshman, finding that all-important “alone time” was increasingly difficult during the fall semester. But by now, she knew how to handle her autism spectrum disorder (ASD), which covers mild-to-severe conditions that can be marked by aversion to social interaction, seemingly unreasonable repetitive behavior and intensely focused attention to a narrow range of interests.

The multi-colored jigsaw puzzle ribbon was adopted by the autism awareness movement in 1999 to illustrate the complexity of the disorder.

It’s an oversimplification to say that things got complicated for Mullen and her wife, Lauren, last fall, when their 2-year-old twin sons, Brennan and Callan, were diagnosed with ASD.

But Colleen Mullen gathered her team in the locker room when they got back from summer break to inform them of the news, so they’d know that tough days were ahead for her family, but also so they’d know that it was OK — even for college athletes tough of mind, body and spirit — to sometimes reveal their vulnerabilities to those who support them.

She didn’t have to wait for long for that advice to be accepted and acted upon. Like, immediately.

Hanner caught Mullen on the way out of the room and told her that she was autistic herself, a reciprocal gesture, since the player was offering empathy and encouragement to the coach as much as she was seeking it.

They’ll make a formidable team in the pursuit of autism awareness and acceptance on Sunday, when the Great Danes play host to Binghamton in a 2 p.m. game at SEFCU Arena that has been dedicated to their deeply personal cause. Bizzy Beez, a multisensory gym for kids with special needs, will bring its road show to UAlbany’s Hall of Fame room, and after the game, there will be a clinic for the kids.

“I’m glad I can share this story, because I was one of those kids,” Hanner said after practice on Saturday afternoon.

“It was nice that I could intertwine the story and tell it with Taniya, and linking it as just being a mom and loving your kids no matter what,” Mullen said. “You love them. And you want to do what’s right for them.

“When Taniya told me that, it was like, wow … so special. So now it became a bigger story, the hope that I have for my children, as I’m sitting there crying and upset and what’s my kids’ life is going to be. Look at her life. That’s what could be.”

Mullen and Hanner each shared their respective stories on a wonderful feature provided by their America East Conference website called AE Voices, which collects first-person essays from players and coaches under the theme “You Are Never Alone. We Are #BetterTo9ether.”

Hanner’s begins with a recounting of a trip to visit family in Atlanta when she was 5 and exhibited behaviors during a two-week stay at summer camp that her extended family saw as unusual, like watching the same movie for 14 days in a row, shaking her fingers constantly and uncontrollable facial movements.

As soon as she got back to New Jersey, her mom, Ruth Michelle Young-Smith, took her to doctors who confirmed autism that would force the family to face “a lot of challenges,” Hanner wrote.

Despite the challenges, Hanner dropped cheerleading to try basketball — “just the feeling of getting out there and feeling what I saw [as a cheerleader], the energy,” she said on Saturday — and experienced a life breakthrough when she was accepted to Roselle Catholic High School in New Jersey.

“First and second grade, I used to imagine things. Like my markers, I used to think they were people. And I used to talk to them,” she said with a laugh. “I don’t know, but I used to do those things by myself. Recess, read a book. But I also enjoyed that time by myself.

“When I grew up, I actually met a lot of people [on the spectrum], and I was like, ‘Wow, I’m not the only one.’ When I was a kid, I was thinking that I was the only one, and it’s going to be like this forever.”

Mullen and her wife, who also have an older daughter, Maggie, faced the same concern, but from a different angle.

In her AE Voices essay, she describes how they noticed developmental delays in Callan that prompted them to have him examined by a developmental pediatrician who can recognize the early signs of ASD. Although Callan’s symptoms were more pronounced, neither of the twins were hitting speech and mobility milestones at nearly the same timetable that Maggie did.

Callan was diagnosed with ASD just before this school year, and they got the news on Brennan just before the Great Danes played at home against Boston University on Nov. 20.

“When you learn of a child with a disability, you immediately go to, like, ‘Oh, we’re going to be different, and we’re not going to have the tee-ball games, and we’re not going to be able to do the quote-unquote ‘normal’ things,” Mullen said. “Or going to college, or going down the line to, are they going to have friends? All those things that you grieve, because you learn that your child is different. And that’s just in the moment, because you have this idea, but you don’t really know what your child is going to do. You don’t know what any child is going to do. That’s why I want to talk about how you don’t want to put expectations or limitations on any child.

“I didn’t need to go to that spot, but any mom just doesn’t want their children to be sad. I didn’t want my child to feel less than [other kids].”

Mullen knows the percentages on how many high school athletes become Division I athletes.

So she knows, intuitively, the unlikelihood that one with ASD reaches that level is even greater.

That’s not even remotely the point, with regard to her twins. She sees her freshman forward Taniya Hanner and her willingness and ability to not only live with her disorder, but thrive in spite of it, as a template for how Callan and Brennan, who are responding well to therapy, can enjoy a fulfilled life, in whatever form it takes.

“I say to my daughter, ‘Some people have red hair, some people have blond hair, some people have blue eyes, some people have brown eyes’ — everybody’s different,” Mullen said. “And some people’s brains are wired differently. And that doesn’t make you more or less. But regardless of that, it’s so important to be kind to one another and embrace each other’s differences.

“I hope this game normalizes that a little bit. Don’t put a stigma on it, or don’t put limits or expectations on a child. And I think Taniya is a terrific role model for that.”

That Mullen had no idea that Hanner was autistic was two sides to the same coin: There is built-in reluctance by a person to reveal it because of the lingering stigma, and there is a person’s built-in (and therapeutically amended) functionality in society that can prevent autism from revealing itself.

There’s the author of “On the Origin of Species.”

That hilarious guy who starred as Dr. Ray Stantz in “Ghostbusters.”

That teenage girl from Finland asking us to save our planet.

That cafe worker who made your lunch.

That 6-foot-1 freshman college basketball player and psychology major who used to have conversations with marker pens; those two happy little boys who are “still learning how to interact and play with” their big sister, who “adores them” …

… They all fall together in their appointed places on the spectrum, itself a piece of all of us.

“It’s good to let people know,” Hanner said. “Now, I embrace it, because I used to be so insecure about it when I was younger. Now, I’m just like, ‘This is who I am, I’m different … in a good way.’ I’m special in a good way. And disability or not, this is who I am, and I’m proud to say that.

“When I found out I had the disability, I thought, ‘Well, what do kids with disabilities do? Do they isolate themselves? Do they act a certain way?’ And I want to show people that there’s a lot of different things going on in this world.

“There’s a lot of different people.

Reach Gazette Sportswriter Mike MacAdam at 518-395-3146 or [email protected]. Follow on Twitter @Mike_MacAdam.

Categories: College Sports, Sports


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