The smile is absolutely beautiful but looks totally out of place.
Study the face of almost any athlete when they’re in the midst of serious competition and the expression is generally a stern set of intensity and concentration.
Not so when Anis Ben-Aoun bounces on a trampoline.
A smile so genuine and fashioned from pure joy simply can’t be contained. It breaks out no matter how difficult the manoeuvre he’s about to perform.
Ben-Aoun is autistic. What he can’t express in words comes through loud and clear when the 20-year-old Western Secondary student is performing on a trampoline.
“He’s so talented it’s unbelievable,” said Carey Vigneux, who has watched Ben-Aoun at his Winstars Gymnastics Training Centre located inside Central Park Athletics. “We’ve seen this in the past where autistic children love that bouncing and when they get on a trampoline they’re just like cats. They know where they’re going to be in the air. Their spacial awareness is terrific.”
Coach Melynda Outram has worked with Ben-Aoun for years. He started coming to her old club for the special needs gymnastics program she offered there.
“He did artistic gymnastics as well but he’s phenomenal on trampoline,” Outram said. “I could not teach the spacial awareness that he has. With autism, it’s part of the hyper sensitivity. They’re very, very aware in the air.”
He’s so good that Ben-Aoun will become the first autistic gymnast from Windsor to compete in a Gymnastics Ontario provincial qualifier this weekend in Pickering.
Vigneux thought he might be the first autistic gymnast to ever compete in a mainstream event but officials at Gymnastics Ontario couldn’t confirm that.
Allison Tanaka serves as the trampoline and tumbling program co-ordinator for Gymnastics Ontario
“I can’t say for certain but I’m pretty sure there have been some autistic athletes who have competed before although it is rare, that’s for sure,” Tanaka said in an email.
Outram credits Anis’ parents, Hela and Zine, for allowing Ben-Aoun to push his own boundaries.
“They don’t put any limitations on him at all,” Outram said. “I wish all parents were like them.”
Zine Ben-Aoun wants his son to enjoy a well-rounded life.
“He’s busy five days a week with music, gymnastics, horseback riding, there is nothing we won’t do for him,” Zine said. “We want him to be busy and to socialize with others.”
Zine said they tried gymnastics when Anis was young as a way for him to be active but initially, they were leery.
“We weren’t sure if he would be stable enough to do the motion,” Zine recalled. “Now, show him once and he can do it.”
While he doesn’t talk a lot, Anis does share that he likes the back tuck and front pike moves on a trampoline. He willingly runs through both his optional and compulsory routines for a visiting reporter.
“We underestimate these kids,” Outram said. “Just because they have a label doesn’t mean they don’t have talent and intelligence. Just because they’re non-verbal doesn’t mean they’re not gifted at something. I’m super excited that Anis is going to compete with everybody else.”
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