Making a splash at the Special Olympics USA Games

Simon Van Giesen practices for the Special Olympics USA Games during a session at the Bellevue Aquatics Center. Simon, who has autism, has been swimming for a decade, since he was 14. Photo: Stephen Brashear Simon Van Giesen practices for the Special Olympics USA Games during a session at the Bellevue Aquatics Center. Simon, who has autism, has been swimming for a decade, since he was 14. Photo: Stephen Brashear

When the Special Olympics USA Games open on July 1 in Seattle, Simon Van Giesen will compete in backstroke and freestyle events at the King County Aquatic Center in Federal Way.

“This is my first time at nationals,” said Simon, who began swimming a decade ago, with both Special Olympics and other teams. Special Olympics is “really cool,” he said, because there’s no maximum age to participate.

Simon and his mom, Debi Van Giesen, who works for the archdiocese, attend St. James Cathedral.

“I think it’s really symbolic, but I think I was named after Simon Peter from the book of Luke,” Simon said, adding that Luke is his middle name. “In the book, [Simon Peter] would be depicted as fishing, and I got started [swimming] through fishing,” he said. The story goes that his step-grandmother on Whidbey Island insisted Simon learn to swim if he was going to go fishing on a boat.

Now 24, Simon has come a long way.

As an 18-month-old, Simon “lost all of his words” within just a few days, Debi said. It wasn’t until Simon was 3 years old that he was diagnosed with autism.

The road through Simon’s childhood was filled with lots of trial and error to see what would work to help him thrive. “It’s constant learning, and some [experiences] are humorous and we laugh a lot, and some were painful and we cried a lot,” said Simon’s adoptive dad, Shawn Van Giesen.

“If you had seen Simon when he was young, it’s hard to even reconcile where he is, who he is today, with that kid who was nonverbal,” Debi said with a laugh.

That’s because Simon has found his “voice” — giving speeches for Special Olympics of Washington that inform, inspire, and prompt donors to open their wallets.

“I think that’s one of the biggest gifts that Simon’s been able to bring is educating people about what autism is and how it affects … a young mind, and how to help other kids blossom,” Shawn said. “I think that’s what makes him the happiest.”

As a high-schooler, Simon Van Giesen decided he wanted to become Catholic. He was educated in the faith mostly one-on-one, and was confirmed at St. Peter Parish in Seattle’s Beacon Hill neighborhood. Photo: Courtesy Van Giesen family

‘Winging it’ to help Simon

Shawn and Debi, who had dated in high school, reconnected when Simon was 3, right after his autism diagnosis. Shawn remembers being at Debi’s house in Port Angeles, hanging some curtains for her, and looking down from the ladder at Simon and his toys. “He wouldn’t play with his toys, he would only line them up,” Shawn said. From above, he realized Simon was creating calculus equations from Debi’s college textbook. “He would run over and look in her calculus book, paging through the pages,” Shawn said.

After Simon’s diagnosis, he was referred to the autism specialty school at the University of Washington. Simon was enrolled in an experimental education unit that included 50 percent neurotypical children and 50 percent autistic children, with up to eight teachers for a class of 24. “We got really spoiled,” Debi said.

Simon began speaking again at age 4, motivated by his dad and a bag of Lay’s potato chips. Shawn would take a chip out of the bag and ask Simon to say, “May I have a chip, please?” Eventually, after watching Shawn eat the chips, Simon asked for one.

After Simon “graduated” from the UW program at age 5, he attended a variety of public schools, getting a good teacher about every other year, Shawn said. Autism wasn’t understood as well as it is now, he explained.

“There wasn’t really an autism inclusion program in the south end of Seattle,” Simon said, “so I was never in the same school as where I was living.”

At home, Debi and Shawn were trying to figure out what worked best for Simon.

“I would throw mega-tantrums because I couldn’t communicate and I was frustrated,” Simon explained in his high school senior presentation.

“We were winging it,” Shawn said. For instance, Simon was super-oversensitive to noises, so they tried putting earmuffs on him. They found “he would relax to the level where we could deal with him again,” Shawn said.

“We were continually trying new things,” Debi said. “Stuff that worked, we would keep.”

Today, she said, kids with autism get the benefit of intensive intervention from the time they’re very young. “It’s the continued time and effort with the small kids that makes them able to open up more to the world and be able to participate in life,” she said.

Through it all, “there was always the kind of backbone of ‘Things happen for a reason,’” Debi said. “I mean, you have to have the faith to say that this is going to turn out OK.”

Becoming Catholic

In high school, Simon attended NOVA, the Seattle School District’s alternative school, where he enjoyed studying science and history. He’s still a big history buff and is into genetic family research, and he and his dad enjoy fishing together.

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Simon Van Giesen carried the torch for the opening ceremonies of the 2017 Special Olympics Summer Games in Everett. This year, he’s swimming in the USA Games that open July 1 at the University of Washington. Photo: Courtesy Van Giesen family

Simon began swimming when he was 14, for both Special Olympics and youth teams. Although NOVA didn’t have a PE program, he was allowed to swim for Franklin High School. “And you lettered!” Debi said.

It was during his high school years that Simon decided to get more involved in the Catholic Church. As a child, he didn’t attend religious education classes because “he really couldn’t follow along with that much stimulus going on around him,” Debi said. As a high-schooler, he was educated in the faith mostly one-on-one, and was confirmed at St. Peter Parish in Seattle’s Beacon Hill neighborhood.

Although Shawn isn’t Catholic (he was raised in the Native American traditions of his mother’s side of the family, the Shoalwater Bay Tribe) he is supportive of Simon’s faith. “He’s chosen Catholicism … and he’s grown even more with that faith,” Shawn said. “It’s very structured, which is what he needs.” Simon, who has been adopted by the Shoalwaters, is also attracted to Native culture and its respect for the earth, Shawn said.

Along the autism spectrum, Simon is considered to be high functioning, Debi said. He has good organizational skills and, although timid about learning new things, “he’s also adventurous in that he will get out there and do things that we don’t expect,” Shawn said. Simon recently took up ballroom dancing, which has helped his motor skills and confidence, his dad said.

“He’s really a roadmap for how to be successful,” Shawn added. “I mean, he has two jobs, he has his apartment downstairs [in the family’s West Seattle home], he has a dog, he’s an excellent public speaker.”

Simon just celebrated his fifth anniversary working for the city of Seattle, where he does filing, database and archive work. In the afternoons, Simon works the front desk at the Special Olympics of Washington office in downtown Seattle.

“It’s a pretty relaxing hike to get in between two skyscrapers,” he said of his midday “commute.”

Simon has been a Special Olympics athlete leader since his senior year of high school, when he was trained in public speaking and spent time on the Special Olympics Youth Activation Committee, which works to increase inclusion in high schools.

When Simon gives a speech for Special Olympics, he often closes it by saying everyone needs to use the abilities they were given, because they are a gift.

“It’s kind of in the similar phrase like saying the Lord has created us special in our own gifts,” he said.

Jean Parietti

Jean Parietti is the local news editor for NWCatholic.org and features editor for Northwest Catholic magazine. You can reach her at jean.parietti@seattlearch.org.