TAMPA — When Bucs offensive tackle Donovan Smith is having a bad day, he only needs to see one smiling face to turn it all around.
Smith’s 10-year-old nephew Aiden Thomas can be on the other end of a Facetime call, or he can talk to him with the help of an electronic device that speaks for him by typing and pushing buttons. No matter the means of communication, his nephew’s smiling face brightens Smith’s day.
“If (Donovan’s) upset because he had a bad game, Aiden can speak to Donovan on the (device),” Smith’s brother and Aiden’s father, Dwayne Thomas said. “He’s there smiling and they start talking and you get that smile out of Donovan. It’s giving him that extra push to put it behind him and get out and go the next day. He’s a great kid. He’s just full of life.”
Aiden has nonverbal autism. Beyond saying the occasional goodbye, he can’t speak. But he’s an inspiration to all those around him, no one less than Smith, who enters his fifth NFL season this year having started all 64 NFL games he’s played with the Bucs.
Since joining the team, Smith, 25, has used his profile to help raise awareness about autism, and on Monday, he will host his second annual Donovan Smith Bowling for Autism event at Pin Chasers on N Armenia Avenue in Tampa. One-hundred percent of the proceeds will go to the local chapter of Autism Speaks, an organization dedicated to autism awareness, research and support.
About 25 Bucs teammates have committed to the event, and Smith plans to put a player at each lane, but it's far from the only thing he's done locally. Smith worked with Autism Speaks to take several autistic children on a trip to LegoLand in Winter Haven. He's walked beside Aiden at the organization's annual Tampa Bay benefit walk.
“He’s been great,” Smith said. “He’s probably one of the happiest kids I know. As long as he’s got his McDonald’s and his iPad.”
In each of his four NFL seasons, Smith has honored an Austism-related organization on his cleats through the league’s well-publicized Cleats for a Cause campaign, but it’s clear his involvement goes beyond flashy shoes.
“When Donovan Smith first reached out to us we couldn’t have imagined how much he was going to do for Autism Speaks and our families,” Autism Speak’s Katy Moreno wrote in an email. “His kindness and compassion are truly incredible and shine through in the fact that he created true bonds with the kids and adults with autism he invited to his event. Individuals, who he remembers year after year and allows to be a special part of everything he does with Autism Speaks.”
Said Smith’s brother: “I think it’s changed Donovan as a person. He’s a lot more mature. When he first got drafted, it was something he wanted to do from the start. He could have gotten behind a lot of things, but this was important to him.”
Smith’s involvement of course rises from Aiden, and he’s taken away a lot from it as well.
“You just really get a feel for the different ends of the spectrum with autism,” Smith said. “There are all these different types of things where you’re able to just learn from being around. Some kids they don’t like this, some kids there’s things they can handle and other things they can’t. You’re just learning along the way. That’s why I think it’s cool because not only am I able to get out there and raise awareness, I’m still learning as I’m going through as well.”
Smith saw his brother go through a lot as he learned of Aiden’s autism. His didn’t cry much as a baby, but Thomas didn’t think it was anything abnormal. But when Aiden still couldn’t talk when he started taking his first steps at the age of 3, he grew concerned. Initially, doctors diagnosed Aiden with pervasive developmental disorder. The silence continued, and they eventually diagnosed him with nonverbal autism.
Aiden doesn't need words to brighten up a room, his father said. He's outgoing, and warms up to people quickly, and gives big hugs. He loves playing catch with his uncle, and recognizes him on the football field when he watches games on TV.
"He loves being around people," Dwayne said. "He loves smiling. He loves doing things with people. When Donovan's over at the house, he's like, 'Come on Aiden, let's run, let's race.' He likes to play."
He notices things others don’t. He won’t allow anyone to leave an item behind. He has a strong memory, identifying places along drives to know where he’s going. He can maneuver an iPad well, whether it’s playing race car games, or watching cartoons or pulling up one of his favorites, the Law and Order opening song.
“He’s just really bright when it comes to technology and stuff,” Smith said. “He knows how to maneuver through all of that, YouTube and online and find things. I’ve caught him watching trucks driving down I-95 and he’ll realize where he’s at. When he knows where the exit is at where he’s going home, he’ll get excited. He’s just in his own little world but it’s great.”
Aiden uses an iPad like device to help him communicate. He continues to take speech classes, but in a lot of ways, Thomas said he's a lot like any other kid.
“I’ve been around him from day one, and I’ve just seen his growth in being around other people ... He has to give everyone a hug. That’s his No. 1 thing right there and it just brightens everyone’s day. You could be having a bad day, once he gives you that hug … With my brother and me, he makes you go harder.”
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @eddieintheyard.