By Katharine Webster
Tyler Lagasse is running out of room to display all his medals, trophies and plaques.
He just won the silver medal in golf – the elite division – at the Special Olympics USA Games for the third time. He’s got 12 gold medals from Special Olympics Massachusetts and is a member of the organization's Hall of Fame. He’s competed in several Pro-Am tournaments, finishing third at one in 2012. And he's been featured as both a blogger and player on ESPN.
Lagasse also has an honorary ESPY, one of 24 awarded nationwide by ESPN and Special Olympics last year, for his commitment to excellence in golf and in life.
“I like golf because it fits my personality. I just want to be in a place where it’s calm, relaxed – and that way I can show my true colors,” Lagasse says.
Lagasse, an environmental, earth and atmospheric sciences major, is living with autism spectrum disorder. He could read by age 2, but was slower to speak and learn social skills. He’s very sensitive to different sounds, smells and sights in his environment, yet in a quiet place, he can focus intensely on any task, including hitting a little white ball with accuracy and consistency.
At 31 years old, he has many accomplishments to be proud of – and not all of them involve sports.
Lagasse has written a memoir of his experiences living with autism, “What Do You Say? Autism with Character,” based on the journals he began keeping in earnest after he graduated from high school. His mom, Deborah, his co-author, says that as a child, he was often more comfortable writing about his emotions than talking about them.
Ten years ago, that changed. Lagasse was asked to give a short speech at Harvard University for a celebration of the 40th anniversary of Special Olympics Massachusetts. His speech was so well-received that he continued giving talks at every opportunity.
“Speaking has really changed my life for the better,” he says. “It helps me open up about my autism. It’s made me more comfortable within myself, within my skin and within my heart and soul.”
He became a Special Olympics global messenger, spreading the message of inclusion for people with intellectual disabilities. He did a TedX talk at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library to celebrate Kennedy’s legacy earlier this year. And in September, Lagasse will keynote Special Olympics Massachusetts’ 50th anniversary celebration at the library.
Charles Hirsch, director of development, brand and marketing for the organization, says Lagasse breaks stereotypes about people with intellectual disabilities. He inspires other Special Olympics athletes as well as partners and donors.
“Tyler’s got a great personal story and a great personal message of achievement,” Hirsch says. “Here’s someone who’s spent his life living with an intellectual disability, but through some personal will and perseverance, he’s become a very accomplished young man.”
Not least among Lagasse’s accomplishments is his tenacity as a student. After finishing high school at the Cotting School in Lexington, he spent eight years earning his associate’s degree from Middlesex Community College, graduating in 2014 with highest honors.
It will take him another five or six years of part-time study to earn his bachelor’s degree here.
In class, Lagasse has a hard time adjusting to voices and accents of professors and other students, so he takes notes without processing the information. Later, he finds a quiet spot at home and reads his notes into a digital recorder, then plays them back in his own voice so that he can understand the material before doing his homework.
That made his first year here a tough slog, especially in calculus, which met four times a week. The second year, he stepped up his game.
The effort has paid off, he says. He’s a member of Delta Alpha Pi, an honor society for college students with disabilities. He’s also made concrete progress toward his goal: a job that benefits the environment. With the help of staff in Disability Services, he recently started working part-time for the university’s Office of Sustainability, where he oversees recycling of everything from lightbulbs to batteries.
“It makes me feel rewarded and fulfilled. It means I’m playing a part in the changes going on at UMass Lowell,” he says. “I feel that climate change is a real threat to our existence on Earth. All these hurricanes and things happening – all those wildfires, droughts and floods and storms that we’re having – we just can’t ignore it anymore.”
Throughout his life, sports have opened doors for Lagasse. He’s met celebrities, including two of his idols: golfer Tiger Woods and gymnast Aly Raisman. But socializing doesn’t always come easily.
“Socially, it’s pretty tough for me. When you’re going out, trying to be independent, there’s not a lot of people in college that go through what I do,” he says.
He started making more friends on campus last year when the women’s soccer team invited him to the Playing for Inclusion event. Now he sits with them at the men’s soccer games. He also loves to hit the links with former assistant hockey coach Cam Ellsworth, most recently at the River Hawk golf outing, which benefits the varsity hockey team.
And every year for the past four years, Lagasse and several other Special Olympians have been asked to speak to Political Science Prof. Jeffrey Gerson’s “Introduction to Politics and Sports” class, then shoot hoops with the students at the Campus Rec Center.
What does he want them – and everybody – to know about living with autism spectrum disorder?
“There are lots of people out there on the autism spectrum,” he says. “There are very sensitive people out there. You’ve got to be careful, because you never know when you might run into somebody who has autism.”
Yet he perceives a shift in people’s awareness. And maybe a little of the credit goes to his own efforts.
“The world’s changing,” he says. “We’re starting to open our eyes to who people with intellectual disabilities are, what they are capable of and what they like to do.”