Karla Fisher: a Mom, Sr. Program Manager, and Professional Football Player

Elesia: Football, wow! Please share how you first became interested in the sport?

Karla:  When I was a child, I did not really have my own friends so much as I hung out with my older brother and his friends.  My brother was fiercely protective of me and so it worked out pretty well for me as I had these “friends” even though I was smaller and female than they and did not have to go out and make any friends of my own.  I was not fast or very coordinated in any athletic event compared to these older boys but when we played street full contact football (the kind where you do not wear pads or helmet), I was fearless.  Being small was a benefit as I could hit low and being hypo-sensitive turned out to be a benefit as well as I could hit hard too.  I did not realize that I was hypo-sensitive at that time but not feeling the pain like the other kids played a big part in my ability to tackle, hit and go back for more.  I loved those days and remember fondly those moments of triumph.


You mentioned that you first tried out for a football team in junior high. How did that pan out for you? And if you could go back in time, would you have handled anything differently?

Karla: I was a determined Tomboy in the days when that was really not acceptable at all.  My mother tried all manners of making me be female, but I was intent on being me.  Outside of my obsession with horses, I was only interested in playing with my brother and his friends and associating with the male world.  I did not know I was on the spectrum until just this year but looking back I realize that in those days I was completely unaware of the concept of normal gender societal paradigms.  I also did not care about them in as much as I did know of them.  That is just as it is today.  I simply do not identify with being “female” in the traditional sense of wearing female clothing, makeup etc or having traditional female roles.  I identify with being me and I am a person.  My person happens to be more “guy” than “girl” in a gender societal sense as evidenced by my work in a predominately male dominated field as well as my participation in male dominated sports.  Of course I have the girl physiology so I am technically female but when it came to trying out for a football team in junior high, it never once occurred to me that it was something socially unacceptable.  Boy was I wrong about that.  The team and the coaches ridiculed me from the field and they were very cruel.  That experience is one of my most painful memories I had as a child as I was so completely unaware of why I was so wrong.  I only remember being wrong and being confused. When I got to high school, I again wanted to play but was smarter now about how to go about trying out so I went into the coach’s office and asked if I might play.  I remember he laughed at me and was very adamant that he would not allow me to be on the team.  At that point I gave up my dreams of ever playing.

Honestly, I do not know what I could have done to prevent that scenario.  Back in those days women had very specific roles and places in the world and the gridiron was not one of those places.  There were no laws to protect a female’s right to play football.  I suppose if I was not on the spectrum that I would have known better than to actually go out on the field with the boys like I did for tryouts, but again, I would likely not have been interested in trying out in the first place as I probably would have been more interested in attracting a boy for the next school dance instead.  Being on the spectrum is exactly the thing that allowed me to desire this very male thing at a time when that was essentially “unheard of” otherwise.

Fortunately, today females are almost always permitted to play on male teams in junior and senior high school.  My own daughter played as a linebacker on her high school team while I supported her on the sidelines.  Just last year, she wore my home jersey on the sidelines while I played in her hometown of Los Angeles on a woman’s football team in a woman’s professional League!

I think it is safe to say that we really have come a long way in the past 35 years.

Elesia: How did you learn about the Portland Fighting Fillies, and what did it take to try out for and make the team?

Karla:  In life there are often these moments that can only be described as “pivotal” and the day that I stood outside the little local store in my small town and read the bulletin on the window was one of those moments.  The advertisement I was reading was about a football team starting up in the area.  But this was no regular football team.  It was a woman’s full contact professional football team.  I called the number on the advertisement and got connected to the Head Coach.  I knew that I was too old to actually play but I wanted to contribute to this in some manner given my history with the sport. I figured I could do some office work or game setup or something.

The coach informed me that another tryout was happening that very day and asked me to come out.  I laughed and told him that I was 46 years old and too old.  He asked me if I was an athlete and I told him that I was currently preparing for a bodybuilding competition so exceedingly athletic and fit.  He again told me to try out like the rest of the players.  While the idea sounded completely stupid on one level to me, another part of me figured that I might go out just to actually get a chance to tryout.  I remembered back to the day in Junior High when I was so cruelly ridiculed off the tryout field.  I figured, “Why not?”

I only had a few hours to get my things and go out to the tryouts.  That was probably a good thing since I was already exceedingly fit and the lack of time gave me also a lack of time to worry.  Still my heart was racing as I drove the 1.5 hours to the tryout field.  On the way to the field, I picked up my dear friend and personal trainer David Wayne who offered to come out with me and “coach” me through the tryout.

The tryout was like any football tryout with the timed sprints, time agility tests and strength tests.  It was challenging but I brought my sufficiently “ripped” body, my determined mind and my own personal trainer to that field.  The results were amazing as I exceeded all expectations for what a 46-year-old athlete might be expected to do.  The coaches were surprised and I was too.  I believe I came in at the top 10% of all the females who tried out in fact.  So when the coach announced that I was on the team, I did not feel as though it was just handed to me because they needed players.  I felt like I had really earned my chance to play full contact football.

That was an amazing day and that entire evening I kept going back and forth between pure excitement and pure terror.  I kept saying over and over again….  “I can’t believe it”, followed almost immediately with, “Gulp! What have I done?!!”

A lot of people assume that people on the spectrum are too clumsy to pursue athletics seriously. What’s your response?

Karla: I mentioned already how slow and clumsy I was prior to grade school but I did not really understand the depth of my inability to be athletic until I hit grade school and team sports started at recess.  They had this process whereby two captains were selected and those captains selected teams.  I was always one of the very last people to be selected for any sporting team.  Perhaps some of it was because I was socially awkward but I also know that I came in last at most of the races and track events too.  It was really quite pathetic how unnatural I was with using my body in an athletic way.

I talked to other people on the spectrum who say that bicycling, running, etc is like their “stimming” thing.  I have to agree that exercise makes me calm just like pacing or rocking does for me.  As such I was always drawn to things that were very physical despite the fact that I had very little natural talent for physical things.  Interestingly, as I spent more and more time doing physical things and playing sport, I got better and better to where I could be a contributing member of a team.  This “goodness” eventually led me to being a contributing member of an elite team (such as the USMC) and a professional team (such as the Portland Fighting Fillies).  As with everything, it takes practice and a good plan with reasonable goals but it is possible to achieve some level of competence despite natural talent.  Today in my peer group, I am considered an elite athlete.  I feel very happy with achieving that status but especially happy given from where I come.

I am not kidding myself here.  I know I am not (and never will be) a star player on these teams.  If I make starting player on any team, I have worked really hard for that role.  As a 47-year-old ASD member of a professional full contact football team, I have to understand my role on that team and also understand the meaning of the word, “team”.  Every person on a football team all the way down to the young person running the water out to the players, serves a valuable role on the team and such it is with me.

If during a game, I stand mostly on the sidelines encouraging the starting players and go in for them when they need a break for some of the plays that is a valuable role on the team.  If I only play 5 plays during a game but am there for every practice that is a valuable role for the team.  The team could not be without these members anymore than the team could not be without the members who are out there scoring all the points.  In 2010 (my rookie season) I got my picture taken and subsequently placed in a professional sports page magazine web site and in that picture I am blocking for our star running back.  The picture was about her running the ball but I was in there blocking.  On that play in that picture, I knocked out the player coming at me and ran across to block yet another one.  At the same time all 9 other players on our team were performing their respective roles.  Together we made 15 yards on that play.  Each and every play is like that.  One person has the ball but we all move it together.  Even the players on the sidelines are part of each play.  When our team won the division championship last year, I took my place in the “championship” picture as a contributing member of our team with great pride. 

Elesia: Have you run into any specific physical challenges being a player on a professional women’s football team and also being on the autism spectrum? If so, how did you overcome any obstacles? 

Karla: There are lots and lots of challenges that one must overcome to do anything at this level but ASD challenges make the achievement just that much more “fun”.  I have worked my whole life to maintain fitness and to be athletic and it has never come easy, but full contact football raises the bar from anything I have done in the past.  I have played all manners of other sports including softball, basketball, endurance running, cross country running and served in both the US Army and USMC.  None of these things place the amount of stress on the body that football does for me and this takes into account that I am the oldest member of the team by nearly a decade.  Football requires amazing body awareness, footwork technique, speed and strength which you must somehow all balance in your training regime. Additionally it requires perfect nutrition such that your body can repair from the injuries it ultimately incurs during a game and sometimes practice.  When you add the difficulties that sometimes come with being on the spectrum a number of adaptations have to be put in place in order to survive in such a sport.

Personal physical attributes that I am going to attribute to ASD are my exceptionally poor proprioception and equally poor reaction skills as well as my hypo-sensitivity.  Over the years, I have had to adapt my training program to purposely increase awareness of body in space and time and also to increase reaction times.  I work regularly with local area trainers to help me in these areas that seem to be so natural to other athletes.  I also am exceedingly hypo-sensitive so I have to make sure that my trainers and coaches understand that I may not know if a bone is broken or be a good judge of whether I am okay to play after an injury.  I have a personal Physical Therapist who understands this about me and I see my Chiropractor at least 2 times a month during game season to make sure I have nothing broken or otherwise out of order.  After games I must ask a friend to help me examine my body for cuts and bruises that I may not realize exist.  One might successfully argue that I should not be playing such a sport with this condition and I even have a friend who regularly says, “Where there is no feeling there is also no sense.”  She might have something there.  LOL!

Because this is a professional team, we travel.  We play in Las Vegas, Utah, California, and all over the Pacific Northwest.  I cannot imagine any ASD athlete who might be able to survive a 9 or more hour long trip on a bus or van with a team full of high-energy athletes.  Okay so maybe those sorts of ASD Athletes exist somewhere but I am not one of them.  I made it clear to my coaches and team members last year that I could not be part of that process because I had to save myself.  As such, I must respectfully bow out of the team travel and then fund my own trips to the games.  Sometimes I fly to the games and other times I drive by myself but I never have travelled with the team and will not do it this season either.  I even bought an RV last year so that I can drive and have my dog with me while avoiding staying at the hotel with the team.  I love my team but I have to love them in my own autistic way which sometimes means from a distance.  This is very expensive and I do really miss out on a lot of the “fun” that the rest of the team has, but it simply is not an option for me.

Coaching me is very challenging due to my language processing issues.  Some days as I have to ask many clarifying questions to get a picture of what my coaches are talking about in my head before I get what I am supposed to do.  With respect to language processing and my skills, I have learned that I miss as much as 20% of all non-technical conversations due to literal word translations or context switching.  Football practice and coaching language is no different.  Besides asking a lot of questions, I try to always go last when we do drills so that I can see another team member (or several) physically do the thing that the coach just told us to do and then I mimic them.  The same conversation skills issue happens when I am out with my team at team events, parties, dinners, or otherwise not on the field. There is a lot of banter and kidding around that just simply escapes me.  I sometimes hang out with them and socialize but it is very tiring for me to do and as a result I must keep my time short with them in order to preserve myself for my daytime job.  I know they all love me and respect me despite my “slowness” in this area so it is all good but sometimes I wish I had just a little bit more ability to integrate and hang out with them off the field.

I think the most challenging thing about having ASD and playing football is my sensory hypersensitivity.  Being on the field with the noise of the crowd on the sidelines, the whistles, the sudden movements and the violence is sometimes very stressful and I sometimes find myself shutting down or checking out.  That said, it is one of the best therapies I have ever had for focusing through these issues.  If the ball is snapped and I happen to be floating around in my little autistic world (AKA shutting down due to the over stimulation) it is likely that I will be knocked down before the end of the play and brought back to the game and to the “now”.  Talk about great incentive to focus!  LOL!  Of course this can also be very dangerous in this context and I have a personal promise to myself to never play a game when sensory issues are very high. 

Elesia: Is there anything I haven’t asked that you would like to share?

Karla: I think it is safe to say that with ASD, there is always a lot of “adapting” that one does to achieve any sort of milestone.   When I look back at my life I see a lot of strategies that I implemented to prevent meltdowns and co-morbid conditions.  Some days I feel completely disconnected from the world and unable to integrate.  Some days I am unable to function to my potential.  And on those days, having ASD discourages me a little.  Most of the time, however, I feel like it contributes to the whole of who I am and I am okay with it just as I am okay with me.  Besides playing football, I am a Senior Engineer at Intel, an avid classical guitarist, bodybuilder/trainer and horse ranch owner.  I am a wonderful mother and have raised two incredible young ladies who are graduated from college and pursuing advanced degrees.  Deep introspection confirms that I am these things because of my ASD  just as much as despite my ASD.  And while I know that Autism Spectrum Disorder is the more formal name, I tend to think of it as Autism Spectrum Derivative as I try to compute the rate at which my adaptations (y) occur in relation to staying ahead of the game (x).  Just because Math is fun and sometime being silly is fun too.

Thanks so much for the opportunity to be a part of this page and this cause.  I am available to anyone wishing to contact me via my hotmail email account:[email protected]

Karla’s Webpage ASDCulture.