By Ross Forman
Even before he celebrated his 3rd birthday, Easton Williams was registered for a “Learn to Play Hockey” program with the Kenosha (Wisc.) Komets. And at age 3, he was able to skate by himself.
But he was not instantly hooked on hockey, though his parents would joke that, based on his first name, he has to like hockey.
Personal struggles impacted his ability to play.
He was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome (AS) at age 6 and with Tourette’s Syndrome (TS) at 13.
“Although I received these diagnoses when I was a bit older, I have had issues with both AS and TS since I was about 3 years-old,” said Williams, now 16, and skating his first season for the Falcons U18 team.
AS is a neurological disorder on the higher-functioning end of the autism spectrum. Every person with AS has a unique set of challenges that can range from mild to severe. People with AS may have difficulty with social interactions, sensory issues, issues maintaining eye contact and can also have a restricted range of interests and/or repetitive behaviors.
TS also is a neurological disorder and people with TS generally have repetitive, involuntary movements and vocalizations called tics. Williams has both motor tics and vocal tics.
“AS affected me more in grade school and middle school. I got bullied a lot and had special accommodations so I could be successful in school. Now that I am in high school, the AS does not affect me as much, but the TS is much worse and much more noticeable,” Williams said. “Neither AS nor TS have ever affected my grades. I have always had high marks in school and maintain a pretty high GPA, (currently above 3.7), but if I have a really bad day with my tics, I struggle to stay focused in the classroom. I may need to take a break, walk away and come back later when the tics are not as severe.”
His AS impacts him slightly on the ice, he said. Maintaining eye-contact, for instance, can be an issue, including when a coach is talking. But, he notes, “it does not mean that I am not listening to the Coach. I’m actually able to better focus on what he is saying when I do not have to maintain eye contact with him.”
TS causes him more difficulty. “I have both motor and vocal tics and when the coach is addressing the team, I might go through a series of vocal tics which might be distracting for other people,” he said. “I try really hard to suppress my vocal tics now that I am older. My motor tics may cause me to go through a series of repetitive movements that I cannot always control. When I have to, I am able to suppress my tics, but it causes them to be worse later on. In the past, during game situations, I had a tendency to close my eyes or hold my breath when I was on the ice, (which is) not necessarily a good thing to do during a hockey game.”
Williams, who lives in Mount Pleasant, Wisconsin, is a right-handed shooting forward for the Falcons. He is a junior at The Racine Engineering, Arts and Leadership (REAL) School, founded in 2000 to help young people become excited about learning.
Personal issues have not slowed Williams’ continuing passion for hockey.
He has overcome plenty of obstacles to truly celebrate every goal he scores for the Falcons.
“Having AS and TS has not been without its challenges. AS has required me to work hard on my ‘social game,’ (and) also allowed me to be hyper-focused on my game which I think has made me successful in hockey,” Williams said. “I think my AS gives me increased visual acuity which allows me to anticipate plays and then calculate (the) speed of the other players and where they will end up as they move down the ice.”
Williams doesn’t usually like to talk about the AS or TS, but the tics, he admits, “make it easy enough to know something is going on with me.”
His Falcons coaches know his conditions, but, until this story, he had not shared all of his medical issues with his teammates.
“Most of my (former) teammates from the Komets did not address my AS and TS. It didn’t necessarily affect our relationships as they just saw me as someone with whom they have played with since mites and as a supporting teammate who gave them scoring opportunities,” he said. “Some parents are shocked to learn that I have AS and TS, probably because I am successful on and off the ice.
“It just proves my diagnoses do not have to define me, and probably why I don’t talk about it too much.
“I am sharing (my personal story) now because I hope it helps someone else, to encourage them to play their own personal game. Or perhaps this information might educate someone to help them better understand AS or TS without stereotyping someone or limit them in seeking out what they enjoy. It just might take some perseverance and determination to try harder and advocate for yourself if you are not getting the support you need from your coach or teammates. Do not let your diagnosis define who you are or limit your opportunities. Focus on your strengths and build on them; they will overshadow your weaknesses.”
Williams added, “There have been some adults in my life who do not understand, lack tolerance or the patience to see me through the AS or TS. I have learned to advocate for myself over the years and have tried to ignore rude or just plain ignorant comments. Kids often chirp on the ice or in the locker room and I have addressed some of them over the years. Their comments are a good indicator of who they are and it is not necessarily someone I will socialize with off the ice.
“TS and AS do not have to define you, or limit you or your future. I hope to go on to college, play collegiate level hockey and get a job.”
Williams speculated that his early on-ice struggles were from not yet being diagnosed with AS or TS. And early in his hockey career, his dad, Jeff, often went out on the ice with Easton, and was a team coach. “That extra support is probably what helped me be successful,” Easton said.
Another obstacle Williams has overcome this season is, changing organizations at age 16.
“I am no longer playing alongside guys who have known me since mites. I am trying to rebuild that level of trust I had with my old team who (knew) me for 10 or more years. It says a lot about the Falcons organization and the players who accepted me, afforded me opportunities on the ice and are learning to trust my style of play.”
Williams said his Falcons team has improved considerably over the past two months, and the team’s strength is its combined talent. “We have some pretty talented players and our goal is to harness that talent, add some effort and dominate opposing teams,” he said.
Williams, who skated for the Kenosha Komets U16 Midget team last season, had a career highlight then during an intense tournament game Milwaukee Gold. The Komets had just received a penalty and couldn’t afford another goal scored against them. So Williams was put on defense.
“The play was in our zone and we were battling around. The puck ended up loose behind our net. I immediately went to the puck with two forwards on me, and to burn time, I pinned the puck against the boards. I knew the ref would stop the play if I kept the puck tied up against the boards, so I held the puck between my feet, and shuffled it around the boards. I worked the puck all the way from behind our net, to the top of the circles. I had four of their players on me and two of our own players trying to support me. All I could hear was cheering from the stands, sticks clashing, and kids banging on the glass in front of me. The play ended with me burning 40 seconds off the clock, allowing our guy to get out of the penalty box and the only way the other team could get me off the puck was to trip me.”
Williams is, admittedly, a defensive-minded forward, mostly from his past days playing defense. “I am a playmaker and love to set players up for opportunities and goals. I especially like to grind away along the boards, getting into the dirty areas of the ice,” he said.
Around The Rink with Easton Williams
Jersey Number: 88 – “I chose 88 since 8 is my favorite number and 88 allows me to wear it twice. I also like symmetry and evenness, so 88 just seemed like the perfect number for me. In addition, it is the number of my favorite NASCAR driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr.”
Dream Job: “Working for a pro team as an Athletic Trainer.”
Favorite NHL Team: Boston Bruins
Favorite NHL player: Tim Thomas
Favorite app: YouTube
Favorite TV Show: Prison Break
Favorite Sports Movie: Goon
Fastest Player on the Team: Patrick Chang
Who Wins The Most Faceoffs On the Team: Will Newby
Worst local or High School Jersey (other than the Falcons): Chicago Mission – “That day-glow green is an interesting color.”
Ross Forman has written about Illinois high school hockey for more than 15 years, and is the only sportswriter to have covered Illinois High School hockey every year during that stretch. He played locally and then at Indiana University before becoming a referee. Ross was a referee for the State Championship game several years ago at the United Center. Contact Ross by email at Rossco814@aol.com.