"This is his form of expression" - Meet the Galway man overcoming non-verbal autism to sail competitively
Diagnosed with non-verbal autism as a child, Conor Dodd probably wasn't expected to become a competitive sailor. JOE sits down with his father hear how he defied those odds.
"When Conor sails, he's like a horse with the blinkers on. He just screens everything else out.
"There could be pandemonium, but he knows his responsibility and what he has to deliver. It's the same with his computer programming," says Conor Dodd's father Enda, a biomedical engineer, social innovator and author.
"You find with autistic children and adults that they have an ability to focus that is extraordinary," he says.
The same goes for Conor's twin brother Eoin, who has excelled in tennis.
"It's something I'd wholeheartedly recommend to parents of autistic children; look for the activity, whether sports or something related, that engages their child."
In Conor's case, sailing became this means of engagement. Now, at the age of 21, he is in preparation to helm a boat at the ICRA and West Coast Ocean Racing Regatta in Galway Bay between 15 and 18 August. What's all the more remarkable about this is the fact that Conor has non-verbal autism.
The connection between autism and highly physical activities is one that is rarely drawn, never mind the benefits that it may have for a person on the spectrum. It's more something talked about in niche psychological journals, where its positive effects are highlighted considerably.
Sports such as horse riding and swimming, or martial arts (particularly Taekwondo) have a track record of improving an autistic person's balance and motor skills, and it's something Enda notes when talking about his two sons and sailing.
"Truthfully, my two boys had very severe sensory issues," says Enda, "They were as awkward as two left feet, but they grew out of that and grew into this."
Conor and Eoin Dodd were born 21 years ago in Galway.
Their development seemed "typical" at first, according to Enda, but by the ages of three and four, Conor was found to have quite severe communication deficiencies. He and his brother were subsequently diagnosed with autism, and received treatment in Ireland for two years.
However, both Enda and his wife, Valerie felt their cases were "so dismal" that the family relocated to San Francisco to find an alternative form of treatment.
They spent 10 years there, managing to get help from the University of California and the Disney Corportation. When the boys were 17, finally they returned to Ireland, basing themselves in Galway.
One of the notable breakthroughs came in the form of Enda's lifelong association with sailing.
Born in Queens, New York, Enda spent much time with his father, who drove a boat. He would eventually sail quite a bit himself, too, being able to operate everything from row boats to cruisers.
In turn, Enda would introduce this to Conor and Eoin, and from an early age they were out on the waters alongside him.
Clip via Enda Dodd
"Even before we knew they had any issues, we would bring them sailing and swimming," says Enda.
"In particular for Conor, the effect was just extraordinary. He had absolutely no language and no mechanism to communicate, but I just recall him grabbing the tiller of a boat. Within 20 minutes, he was sailing it. We couldn't explain it to him, it was just what he saw and felt.
"We then met a family," Enda recalls, "and they had this large boat. Conor just took to it. He would sail it up and down Galway Bay. It was extraordinary, this ability he had without ever actually being taught anything.
"We carried this on after transferring to San Francisco. They weren't doing anything competitively at that stage. It was only when we returned to Ireland that we connected with the Galway Bay Sailing Club, which was forming a team to represent Connacht in a national competition that would be held in Kinsale - The President's Cup.
"It was a multi-class race for paralympians, and both boys qualified. Conor went to sail in Kinsale. It was his first competition. He placed second nationally."
Over the course of the next few years, Conor continued to go from strength to strength in the sport, while both he and Eoin proceeded to enrol at NUIG to study software programming.
On the side, they've worked extensively with their parents in the NUIG Research and Innovation Centre, running the family's start-up, which develops language teaching tools using Disney media for hundreds of families globally.
Clip via Enda Dodd
"We set high expectations and get them out there learning things," notes Enda.
"So, between the regatta and programming our Disney language software, they're really balancing so much. Right now immediately, they're covered in paint, because they've been over at the boat from 6am doing some final painting.
"It's all trials next after that. We're gonna get them in the boat, get lead sailors around them and have it out on the bay for testing. Really though, if you were to say to me that Conor, as a seven year old, would eventually be doing this, it would have just sounded unimaginable."
"Given that he had such a severe diagnosis, Conor will be the first person to have conquered this and gone out to race in highly competitive ocean competitions. He's going to be in command of a boat, driving it and making the decisions with everybody else flowing into that.
"This is his form of expression, a physical expression," Enda says, when looking at the value of sailing for Conor.
"They're quite intelligent, and they reason with this world visually. They see the world and interpret it based on what they see. It's important that in addition to seeking to build a child's language system, you look for their talents and find what engages them."