Mother of Autistic children uses WWE as a learning tool

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January 07, 2008

There you are, sitting in a junior high school cafeteria, eating lunch with your friends. One of the hardest things about those pre-teen years is just fitting in. Out of the corner of your eye, you see a group of older kids coming toward your table; it's pretty obvious what they want to do. Bullying. But you ask yourself one question: What would John Cena do in a situation like this?

For Erin Donohue and her three sons, Willie, 12, Jimmy, 8, and Tommy, 4, of North Merrick, N.Y., the reaches of wrestling go far beyond the scope of piledrivers and pedigrees. Their interest in WWE has been a key to combating Autism Spectrum Disorder, with which Willie and Tommy have been diagnosed.

Autism Spectrum Disorder, considered one of the fastest-growing developmental disabilities, is a type of neurological disorder that inhibits communication and interpersonal skills, along with other symptoms. But Willie and Tommy are beating autism at its own game -- and WWE has been instrumental in their progress.

Two years ago, while Willie was in fifth grade, he noticed that his friends were watching wrestling. Believing that WWE could really be a way for him to connect with his peers, his mother decided to turn it on.

"We would all start watching WWE together as a family," Donohue recalled. "What the shows enabled us to do [because there are good guys and bad guys] is help him to understand different social situations."

Unorthodox? Maybe. Donohue's friends weren't afraid to express their apprehension.

"My friends think I'm crazy. They would say to me, ‘You're letting them watch wrestling?!'" she said, beginning to laugh. "But I told them it was the one thing that really got through to them."

According to the Autism Society of America, considered one of the leading resources on the subject, social skills training is an important part of treatment for those diagnosed with autism. This training teaches children the nuts and bolts of social situations. And each show -- Raw, SmackDown and ECW -- presents various ways for Donohue to teach her sons, especially her oldest, Willie, about some of life's lessons.

"If you look at the different episodes of the different shows, you can really see the various social situations that are being presented," she explained. "I'm not a professional, I'm a parent. Looking at it from that type of perspective, I see it and ask myself, ‘How can I turn this into a learning situation?'"

WWE programming, WWE.com and WWE Magazine all play an important role in the development of Willie and Tommy's social skills.

According to his mom, Tommy, the youngest, doesn't communicate often. Recently though, he's been able to say more than one word at a time -- and WWE Superstar action figures have been integrated into his therapy sessions. Tommy is in a specialized school now, and one of his aides uses the action figures as a reward. If his behavior is good or he is nice to someone, those toys are motivation for him.

"His therapist will go and play with the action figures with Tommy. They would learn the names of each Superstar along with different concepts -- in, out, under, over -- certain things that would come across as easy to those who do not have a hard time processing language," Donohue said. "But with these action figures -- something he's interested in -- we were able to teach him these concepts."

Willie uses different aspects of WWE, from WWE.com to WWE Magazine to even WWE Shop. Each provides a different skill set that Willie can apply to his everyday life.

With WWE Magazine, Willie brings it to school, and it instantly becomes a way to connect with his peers. They see the magazine cover with a picture of Triple H or Chris Jericho and sit next to Willie at lunch and begin talking. This opens up new lines of communication, and helps Willie gain more self-confidence, especially in social situations.

WWE Magazine also, in some ways, has become part of his academics.

"His teachers look through the magazine and pick out different words and vocabulary," Donohue explained. "Even with different school projects where he would have to cut out pictures -- he'd go to WWE Magazine first."

Willie also logs on to WWE.com almost every day, something that helps to build his reading and math skills. His mom turns WWEShop.com into mathematical problems. He tells her what he would like to buy, and together they figure out how much money (or how much more money) Willie would need to purchase each item. 

"Parents really need to look into anything their child is interested in, and try and use it as a learning experience to tap into their skills," Ms. Donohue explained when asked to give some advice to parents.

"WWE has helped us on so many levels. Once we started getting into it, the whole family also got into it. If [Willie] is not interested in reading or learning about what the subject matter is, it doesn't really matter. There has to be some sort of interest for him really to put his mind to it."

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