Australian rower Chris Morgan never let his struggle with autism get in the way of his Olympic dream.
He competed at the Beijing 2008 Games, took home a bronze medal at London 2012 and represented Australia at the Rio 2016 Olympics.
“If I had a neurotypical brain I wouldn’t have achieved what I have,” Morgan says.
He’s also been national champion and two-time world champion in both sculls and sweep-oared boat classes.
And Morgan believes his attention to detail and obsessive drive to improve made him one of the world’s best.
“Being hyper-visual and super focused on details is a really good thing for finding areas to improve.”
Lonely road to diagnosis
Morgan always knew he was different from his rowing peers and was often ostracised and excluded.
“A lot of the time the way I would communicate could be misinterpreted, my way of plain speaking and my obsession with trying to improve really got a lot of people off side,” he says.
“With group bonding — my different style of interaction meant I was never comfortable and included in the everyday activities, and I’d be seen as having a go or arrogant.”
But when Morgan was diagnosed with high-functioning autism at 28 years old, things started to improve.
“Going through that process of getting everyone on the same page with the diagnosis did help with understanding,” he said.
“It made us all a bit more thoughtful and inclusive.
Small wins lead to big success
Autism spectrum disorder is a form of developmental disability and those who are diagnosed with autism often experience social, communicational and behavioural challenges throughout their lives.
Many people with autism struggle to fit into a team environment and find it difficult to cope in crowds, face disruption in everyday life and draw scrutiny.
But these obstacles lead Morgan on his journey to Olympic success.
“I faced so many challenges when I was young,” he says.
Showing others their strength
The 38-year-old is now working to raise awareness about the disability, which affects one in 150 Australians.
“Having been on the other side when you’re put in an environment that doesn’t understand you and cater for you, it can be a pretty traumatic experience,” Morgan says.
“We really need to move past the labels we and others put on ourselves.
“Life can take us so many different ways if we are able to pursue our passions and say yes to things, rather than putting limiting beliefs on ourselves.”
He’s visiting specialist schools in Sydney to share his story and encourage others during Autism Awareness Month.
Encouragement over exclusion
Chris Morgan believes people with neurodiversity should be encouraged rather than excluded from team and individual sports.
“Sport can be an opportunity for growth and shouldn’t just be focussed on the negative outcome but a chance to practice skills and learn new ways to cope in a world that sometimes isn’t so supportive,” Morgan says.
And he wants to challenge the misconceptions surrounding autism.
“Society needs to cater to everybody’s individual differences – every child should be able to participate (in sport), but make sure the support is there for them and that they are comfortable in the environment you are putting them in.
“I tell all the kids I talk to that you don’t need to do this or be that to be successful. Enjoy every day and let life take you where it’s going to take you.”
Head of Secondary at Giant Steps school in Sydney, Claire Cherrington, said the students’ faces lit up during Morgan’s visit to the school.
Being taught how to use a rowing machine and wearing an Olympic medal was also a highlight, she said.
The Australian Olympic Committee is supportive of Morgan’s work.
“The power of sport has no boundaries and plays a role to open our minds and help us to learn about others including those on the autism spectrum,” AOC chief executive Matt Carroll said.
But for Morgan, now retired from rowing and a father and engineering manager, success isn’t measured by medal counts, times or records.