published Tuesday, October 16th, 2012

Sports help 12-year-old battle Asperger syndrome

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    Taylor Zimmerman is an accomplished athlete at age 12. Zimmerman plays up with older athletes playing baseball, volleyball and basketball.
    Photo by Tim Barber.
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CLAIM TO FAME

Taylor Smith, 12, has twice been named the top female player in the Collegedale Softball League in the last three years. During that time, she has played up in the league for girls in grades 7-12. She also won awards as the best three-on-three shooting champion and free-throw champion in her division during the Lady Mocs Basketball Camp in June.

ABOUT HER

-- School: Seventh-grader at Collegedale Adventist Middle School.

-- Sibling: Lauren, 4.

-- Athletic idol: LeBron James.

-- Favorite sports team: Miami Heat.

Only a handful of things in life can coax a smile out of Taylor Smith.

She might crack a grin playing video games online with her friends. The best place to catch her at her happiest is when she's protecting first base on a softball diamond.

"I catch a smirk every once in a while," said her mother, Kristi Zimmerman. "She's always been one of these girls who enjoys sports. I think it just came naturally for her."

To Taylor, athletics aren't about the competition but about challenging herself while doing what she loves.

"I just enjoy playing with other people," she said. "I don't really have to work that hard [at sports], but I guess sometimes there's work that goes into it."

In addition to softball, which she has played since first grade, Taylor, 12, also has excelled in basketball and volleyball.

That interest in team sports surprised her parents.

During their daughter's younger years, Zimmerman said, she and Taylor's father, William Smith, were struck by Taylor's intense shyness. She never wanted to attend sleepovers or birthday parties. When the family attended church, she would cling to her parents if they had to leave the room.

Even though Taylor avoided social situations, she loved watching sports on TV with her father, and a plastic ball and bat were among her favorite playthings.

So when she came home from kindergarten wanting to play intramural basketball after school, her mother was less surprised than grateful her daughter had found a social activity she enjoyed.

Taylor's shyness continued to haunt her, however, and at the end of her first-grade year, her parents took her to see a professional. Eventually, her therapist recommended the family have Taylor tested for autism.

Just before she started third grade, they received the results: Taylor had Asperger syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism that can impede social interactions.

The diagnosis wasn't devastating so much as eye-opening, her mother said.

"It was good to understand her a little bit more, understand that you wouldn't get all those facial expressions and emotions other kids have," Zimmerman said.

Zimmerman said knowing how to expect Taylor to react to situations has helped the family advise teachers and coaches how best to interact with her. As a result, she has continued to excel in academics and athletics.

At Collegedale Adventist Middle School, she makes mostly A's on her report cards. Last year, she was named to the Principal's List for high achievers.

Where Taylor has excelled the most, however, is on the courts and fields, where she puts her natural athleticism to the test.

For the last three seasons in the Collegedale Softball League, she has twice been evaluated by coaches during preseason tryouts as the league's best female athlete. Since she was in fourth grade, she has played up in a division for players in seventh through 12th grade.

Initially, Taylor was an outfielder, a position in which she wasn't able to shine, her mother said. In fourth grade, her coach tested her in the infield, and she immediately stood out as a first baseman.

Taylor said she enjoys the position's added responsibility because, "first base gets the ball more."

Although softball is her favorite sport, Taylor also has excelled in her other athletic pursuits.

At the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Lady Mocs Basketball Camp this June, she was named free-throw champion and three-on-three shooting champion for her division. Now, she is a center for her school team.

Last year, having had no experience with the sport outside of gym classes, Taylor joined her school's junior-varsity volleyball team. Her height -- 5 feet 8 inches -- gave her a powerful edge at the net, according to her coach, Arenice Fowler. This year, Taylor made the varsity team.

Parents of children with Asperger syndrome often have difficulty finding ways to encourage their children to socialize, but Zimmerman said that hasn't been a problem with Taylor. Even though she keeps mostly to herself during games, playing sports has forced her to interact with her peers, by default.

That makes every smirk, every subtle twitch of the lips during heated matches all the more special, Zimmerman said.

"She's somebody who, you have to realize, you can't go by what's on her face," she said. "She's having a good time, and on the inside, she's smiling."

Contact Casey Phillips at cphillips@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6205. Follow him on Twitter at @PhillipsCTFP.

about Casey Phillips...

Casey Phillips has worked as a features reporter in the Life department since May 2007. He writes about entertainment, consumer technology, animals and news of the weird. Casey hails from Knoxville and earned a bachelor of science degree in journalism and a bachelor of arts in German from Middle Tennessee State University, where he worked as the features editor for the student newspaper, Sidelines. Casey's writing has earned numerous accolades, including first and second place ...

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