Perhaps one of the greatest gifts a community can provide someone with special needs is a sense of belonging. For Kestrel Gordon, Gunnison has done just that.
As a sophomore at Gunnison High School (GHS), Kestrel has been a member of the Bad Girls Barrel Racing team, and most recently she joined the high school’s track team as a “thrower” — one who heaves the shot put and discus.
Her auburn hair twirled Monday afternoon as she performed warm up drills with her teammates. Seeing the determined look on her face, one might not know she has autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
“I wanted to get more involved with GHS, and I wanted to get more involved in sports,” Kestrel said.
Kestrel was diagnosed with ASD long before she entered kindergarten. ASD is a neurological condition which impacts a person’s communication and behavior. It is known as a “spectrum” disorder because people with it can have a range of symptoms in varying degrees.
Signs of autism can be intellectual — such as delayed speech development or failure to carry conversation. Or, they can manifest in behavior — such as avoiding interaction with others or needing a specific routine.
Kestrel is very aware of her condition and admits sometimes she struggles to learn. She knows that she has to ask more questions in class to be able to keep up with fellow students. But once she learns a concept, she said, she’s “got it.”
Return to a small town
When Kestrel was in seventh grade she moved to the Front Range with her mom and was enrolled in one of the largest school districts in the state — Cherry Creek.
Kestrel said she felt isolated in special education classes. She had little interaction with students that were not in her classes. After two years, her mother and her father, Spencer Gordon, decided it would be best for Kestrel to return to Gunnison.
“The difference is I have a lot more independence here,” Kestrel said. “At first it was stressful because I had so many things to get back into — like horses.”
Over the last 18 months, Kestrel has thrived, and her father credits much of her progress to community support. She has goals, such as becoming faster on her horse Digger during Wednesday night barrel races, and says she feels successful in her progress. She is encouraged and cheered by fellow barrel racers to run a pattern in less than 19 seconds.
Her father also has high praise for school district special education teacher Stacy Harbaugh, who has worked with Kestrel consistently.
“She essentially is ‘mainstreamed’ and flourishing in all aspects,” Spencer said of his daughter. “I think it’s gone great. It’s not necessarily easy, but it’s gone great.”
‘It makes me feel stronger’
Spencer believes the community as a whole also has contributed to Kestrel’s growth. He noted that Kestrel consistently comes in contact with people she knows, and that community members often reach out to him to inquire about how his daughter is doing. Such interaction, he said, is typical of a small community that cares.
On the track team, Kestrel is just like any other member. Coach Tom Kattnig said she has shown definite improvement with no special accommodations made for her.
“The improvement is definitely measurable,” said Kattnig. “She has increased her shot from around 10 feet to 19 feet, six inches and her discus throws around 40 feet.”
But beyond the physical improvement, teammate Annabelle Morrison said she’s seen growth in Kestrel’s interactions with other people.
“She’s become much more social,” said Morrison. “She’s in a sport and she’s making a bunch of new friends and she’s trying something new, which I think is absolutely awesome. … I see her opening up a lot more.”
GHS track hosts a home meet this coming weekend, and Kestrel will be part of the action. Although she has not yet placed in a competition, she values the participation.
“It makes me feel stronger,” she said. “And I have a common interest with friends. Being at school I don’t really open up and say, ‘Hey, what are your interests?’ But with teammates I know what their interests are — we talk about it.”
(Chris Rourke can be contacted at 970.641.1414 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. )