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Eric Peterson, Published April 24 2013

Cobbers wrestler to share story of perseverance over autism

Moorhead - When Ben Cousins was in fifth grade, he stepped on the bathroom scale, which gave a reading that spurred him to change.

He weighed around 190 pounds.

“I thought, ‘What am I doing with my life?’ ” he recalls.

Cousins was being picked on and bullied due to his weight and also because of his autism. He was diagnosed with the disorder at 2 years old.

“I thought he would be living with me forever, and I was scared about that because I couldn’t live forever,” said Kim Cousins, Ben’s mom.

At 5-foot-9, 157 pounds, Ben is in peak physical condition these days, a freshman at Concordia College. He was a member of the Concordia wrestling team and wrestled 19 matches in his first season.

Ben will share his story Friday. He’s the keynote speaker for the North Dakota Autism Center’s AuSome Evening Gala that begins at 5:30 p.m. at the Ramada Plaza Suites in Fargo.

“A disability doesn’t mean you can’t do something. It means the way you do something is a little bit different from the rest, and that’s nothing to be ashamed of,” Ben said.

“My main message I want to send is that there is hope for anyone, no matter how severe a disability is. Everyone can be something special.”

Soon after Ben stepped on that scale in fifth grade, he dedicated himself to working out and eating better. Ben bought an exercise bike. The pounds melted away, and he joined wrestling in sixth grade because his dad, Tim Coughlin, had wrestled.

“The sport of wrestling has really helped me,” Ben said. “Wrestling is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It’s made everything else a little bit easier for me.”

Ben didn’t talk until he was nearly 4 years old and had problems with people touching him when he was younger. Kim had to warn people not to get on their hands and knees around Ben for fear that he would charge at them.

“He literally knocked a teacher unconscious,” Kim said.

Ben persevered through those challenges to excel in both academics and athletics by the time he reached high school.

In his senior year at Bloomington Kennedy, Ben advanced to the Minnesota state wrestling tournament at 152 pounds for Class 3A. He was an “A” honor roll student, a member of the National Honor Society and was crowned homecoming king.

Sandy Smith – who is North Dakota Autism Center’s volunteer executive director – hopes Ben’s story will inspire others.

“It gives all parents hope,” said Smith, whose son has autism. “There is always that hope that my kid can be like Ben.”

Even though Ben had achieved so much in high school, sending him off to college was tough on Kim.

“I cried for a month,” she said. “It was just the hardest thing I have ever done. I didn’t know how hard it was going to be until I drove away.”

While he’s getting more comfortable with it, Ben said it’s still a challenge to socialize with people his own age.

Ben credits Concordia wrestling coaches Clay and Matt Nagel for helping him through his first year of college.

The coaching staff is one of the reasons Ben chose Concordia.

“Clay is a person who really cares for you as a student and a human being as well as a wrestler,” Ben said. “It was a welcoming environment that I needed.”

Ben aspires to be an All-American by the end of his college career. Matt Nagel said the potential is there.

“One of the most unique things about Ben is he doesn’t use autism as a crutch,” Matt said. “He’s just a great example. He’s done all the right things. … He’s got to come outside of his box so far, and for him to be able to deal with it is so impressive.”

Kim is “extremely proud” of Ben, knowing how hard he has worked in his first year of college. The academics have been a challenge.

“I have driven up there many times when he is really struggling,” Kim said. “From what I understand, you don’t see many autistic kids make it into college for four years and succeed. He’s going to have to work hard, but he is willing to do that.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Eric Peterson at (701) 241-5513.

Peterson’s blog can be found at peterson.areavoices.com