Documentary focuses on swimmers with autism


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EAST BRUNSWICK – Showcasing the triumphs and challenges faced by three young men with autism, the East Brunswick Library served as the host to the  screening of “Swim Team.”

Director-producer Lara Stolman’s debut documentary follows Michael McQuay Jr., Robert Justino and Kelvin Truong, all of Perth Amboy, who fall on the autism spectrum.

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The Jersey Hammerheads swim team – founded by McQuay’s parents, Maria and Michael – is featured and the film depicts how Michael McQuay coaches his son, Michael McQuay Jr., as well as Justino, Truong and other teenagers with autism as they compete in three swim competitions.

“I, myself, have a child with autism and when my son, who is 11, was younger, he ran and we had a pool in our backyard and I was concerned. My husband and I thought it was very important that he learn how to swim as soon as possible,” Stolman said during the April 18 event. “Not that many people know this, but drowning is the leading cause of death for children with autism. So swimming is important for our kids.” 

In the process of trying to find the right instructor, Stolman said she learned the McQuays were starting a swim team.

“Coach [Michael McQuay] said that his ‘team is going to dominate the competition.’ No one talks that way about children with autism or developmental disabilities and I, as a mom, was so incredibly inspired by his positivity and just high expectations, I wanted him to be my coach; so the idea for the film came together really soon after meeting him in person,” Stolman said. 

Michael McQuay Jr., who has a passion for animals, said when he is underwater, he swims like a fish, comes up to the surface like a dolphin or a seal and swims fast like a whale.

“I am not like other teenagers, I’m autistic. When I’m swimming I feel normal. It feels amazing when I swim,” he said.

Michael McQuay said when his son was about 2 years old, he stopped talking and liked being alone.

“I got involved with the swimming for Michael and then it turned into more than that with all the other kids. … Coaching the Jersey Hammerheads changed my whole life. It’s given me a lot of hope for the future of my son and other … special needs kids. The hope is you can see what these kids can do,” McQuay said.

After competing in the New Jersey Special Olympics State Finals, Michael McQuay Jr. was chosen to compete in the Special Olympics USA games, a national competition that occurs every four years. He won two gold medals, one silver medal and one bronze medal.

Aspiring to be the next Michael Phelps, in the film Robert Justino competed for three swim teams that included the Scarlet Aquatics Club, the Jersey Hammerheads and for his school, Piscataway Township High School. He said he wants to design video games.

“Meeting these other moms has been a learning lesson for me and it has taught me I am not alone,” his mother, Rosa Justino, said.

Truong has autism and Tourette syndrome, and struggles with controlling his anger.

Encouraging their son to join the Hammerheads, Truong’s father, Stanley, said, “We see his reduction of tics and anger through swimming.”

In the film, statistics are presented about autism in New Jersey that had been verified by the nonprofit organization, Autism New Jersey, according to Stolman: One in 26 boys in New Jersey is diagnosed on the autism spectrum. New Jersey has the highest rate of autism in the country.

“Autism New Jersey actually confirmed the statistics and provided an explanation, because a lot of people ask, ‘Why in New Jersey are the numbers so high?’ The numbers, by the way, that are in the film, the 1 in 26 boys, that comes from a [Center for Disease Control and Prevention] (CDC) study in 2016,” Stolman said.

Stolman said Autism New Jersey went on the record and explained one reason why the numbers of children diagnosed with autism are so high is because New Jersey does more data collection than other places.

“New Jersey has a history of being more vigilant with autism detection [and] diagnoses. There are great early childhood programs in New Jersey. Families know that New Jersey is a good place to go to access doctors, specialists and services,” Stolman said. “When I lived in New York before we moved to New Jersey, I heard that about New Jersey. So New Jersey is collecting more data, we know that.”

Stolman said Autism New Jersey explained it collects their information about diagnoses not just from medical records, but also from school records.

“Not all states participate in these national CDC studies; so the one that we used, the 2016 study, didn’t have a full participation by all 50 states. I suspect that people are becoming savvier about the autism criteria for diagnoses. I suspect that we will see the numbers in other states rise up to come closer to what’s in New Jersey,” Stolman said.

All of the parents expressed a common frustration, which is the state does not have enough programs or job options for their children once they graduate high school.

“I was just at a corporate screening at Comcast. …They have tens of thousands of employees and they have a whole division dedicated to diversity and inclusion and they have a staff of people and they decided they wanted to host a screening of ‘Swim Team’ and talk about hiring more individuals with disabilities in their company,” Stolman said. “This is just happening, that companies like that are talking; they’re maybe not walking the walk like we like them to, but they’re getting there. I have seen movement and I am hopeful.”

Stolman said there is a cultural shift in acknowledging people with autism have something to offer to the workforce.

“When I say people with autism, I don’t just mean people who have extraordinary talents and abilities because those folks always have something to offer that was easily identifiable and recognized. I think there is a cultural shift happening in that companies are starting to understand that there is a diversity of the spectrum and people at different places on that spectrum have things to offer, as well,” Stolman said.

The film is available on YouTube and Netflix.

Contact Vashti Harris at

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