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The X's and O's of autism: Richmond's Stroman shines on the spectrum

Richmond County Daily Journal - 4/14/2021

Apr. 14—ROCKINGHAM — When Dalton Stroman Jr. was young, his parents were concerned about his communication skills, his social skills and his anxiety.

So, when he was in second grade, they put him through some testing with the school district, and those results indicated that he was "Other Health Impaired." As a result, he was placed in the Exceptional Children (EC) program. However, academically, he was still hitting all of the typical milestones for a growing child.

"He walked at 8 months, he knew his alphabet, he knew all his multiplication tables and everything by first grade," said Janet Stroman, Dalton's mother.

Janet said they accepted the diagnosis and Dalton proceeded along to middle school, but due to some issues, he began to struggle academically in the eighth and ninth grades.

So, they had him tested again through a private service, which is when they first saw an indication that there might be a specific reason for Dalton's academic, social and verbal challenges.

"They saw something, but they really didn't want to call it autism because he was so intellectually high," Janet said.

While Dalton was seeing Dr. Tammie Gainey, Janet said Gainey wanted to have him tested again, and finally, these tests revealed that, despite being high functioning, Dalton was on the autism spectrum due to his social and verbal challenges.

"I always knew it was something, having worked with children for so many years," Janet said. "As a parent, you always want what's best for your child. I think when they really nailed it down, it was a sigh of relief for me because once you realize what's going on, then you can address it better than just being out there flying on a whim."

The autism spectrum disorder is a developmental disability, and those that are on the spectrum can go through mild to significant social, communication and behavioral challenges, according to the CDC. April is also Autism Awareness Month.

"Autism is a mystery to me," Janet said. "We can learn a lot from children and adults who have it, we really can. The way they see things and the way they handle situations. It amazes me every day. It really does."

Growing up, Dalton said he knew in his head that there was something different about him because of his social issues and communication struggles. He added that he sometimes feels misunderstood by those around him, especially if they don't know him, because he's on the spectrum.

Dalton first started playing football when he was six years old, and started playing basketball too at age 10. He knew the game and always understood what was going on, but because he wasn't necessarily as verbal or "aggressive" as the other kids, he was oftentimes overlooked despite his natural physical gifts.

"I saw it in his face that 'I'm not good enough' and it really hurt us, it hurt him," Janet said. "How do you get it across to a middle school kid that has potential but you're being told and shown that you're not good enough because of your disability or because you're on the spectrum? So there were times I had to intervene — step in and be the 'mean mom' because I have to protect him."

But, things changed for the better when Dalton went to Richmond Senior High School.

He started off on the ninth-grade team as a freshman, but then skipped JV and made varsity as a sophomore after Janet said Raiders' head coach Bryan Till noticed his potential. Till said he first found out about Dalton being on the spectrum from Janet early on.

"As I got to know Dalton early as an eighth grader coming to workouts, he at first appeared very shy but the more you communicated with him you understood it was a little more than that," Till said. "In speaking with his mother about his athletic potential she let me know of the challenges he faced in the classroom because of this."

Till said coaching Dalton has been pretty much the same as coaching any other player, with a couple of small things to adjust and be aware of.

"He does well with hands on and tactile learning," Till said. "However, when you are speaking with Dalton, it is extremely important to make sure he is engaged with eye contact and to require a response so that he is paying attention. When he is engaged, he is like most 15-18-year-old males, and the challenges they present."

Playing football for Till and the Raiders as a sophomore, Dalton was fourth on the team in receiving yards. Then, as a junior on Richmond's 4AA state semifinalist team, he led the Raiders in receiving yards, which garnered him scholarship offers from several colleges.

Despite his social anxiety, Dalton is able to perform and do what he does on the football field thanks to his helmet.

"He finds comfort in wearing that helmet," Janet said. "It helps ease his anxiety."

Dalton said playing football and being around his Richmond teammates has helped him "tremendously."

"I can communicate with them, I like being around them and I trust them a lot," Dalton said. "And the coaches, without the coaches, I wouldn't be the man that I am today without them, Coach Till, (wide receivers) Coach (Andy) Shuler."

Now Dalton and the rest of the Raiders are preparing for the 4A state playoffs, which start Friday.

After Dalton finishes up this season and the rest of his senior year, he's signed his letter of intent to play college football at Appalachian State, where he plans to study computer science.

"They have a great coaching staff and some great players," Dalton said. "I know it was the right fit for me. They have great spirit and they actually like their school. They keep it organized."

If his dream of making it to the NFL falls through, he hopes to be able to use his degree to find a career in the computer science or computer engineering field.

Having coached him all throughout his high school years, Till said he's seen firsthand how Dalton has grown as a person and improved as a football player.

"His communication and responsibility skills have grown by leaps and bounds," Till said. "He is still needing to work on this, but it is amazing how far he has come. He has also grown in confidence and that has helped him develop in the weight room and on the field. Athletically there is very little Dalton can't do and his physical ceiling is still very high. The best thing about his development is seeing him smile. It's usually a small smile, but man it makes a difference."

Dalton said he hopes he can advocate for other kids, especially those that are also on the spectrum, that have had to deal with similar issues that he has.

"Don't let them tear you down," Dalton said. "You can be the person you want to be in life — whatever you want to do. You just have to work for it and accomplish it."

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Reach Neel Madhavan at 910-817-2675 ext. 2751 or [email protected] Follow on Twitter at @NeelMadhavan.


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