To those who don’t know her, Katie Thompson, a senior at Yosemite High School, could be seen as a somewhat quiet person. Shy, even.
But behind that reserved, thoughtful demeanor lies an award-winning artist, a self-taught yo-yo master, and perhaps most recognizably, a Badger softball star known simply as “The Beast.”
“I like that name,” Thompson chuckled. “It suits me.”
Thompson, a catcher, has amassed more than 20 home runs, most while playing travel ball, and a batting average above .400 in her four years behind the plate. Along the way, she’s earned two stints, so far, on the North Sequoia League’s All-League team, and was twice awarded defensive player of the year.
Plus, she’s done all that while maintaining a 4.0 GPA, earning numerous awards for her poetry and artwork - including the cover of an upcoming book about John Muir - and volunteering as a coach for the Yosemite Blaze youth softball team while giving free catching lessons.
Oh, and these accomplishments have all come while being autistic - a diagnosis she received at 3 years old.
“I don’t feel limited by it at all,” Thompson said. “It’s not a disability, it’s a different ability.”
Elizabeth Adkins, Thompson’s mother, said her daughter is considered to have high-functioning autism, but that doesn’t mean things are easy. While relying on patience to navigate the challenges of school and the softball field, everyday functions that most take for granted can be a tall order for Thompson.
She showed hints of the Autism Spectrum Disorder at a young age, Adkins said, before that initial diagnosis. She was later diagnosed by a psychologist for Bass Lake Joint Union School District in fourth grade, after she was brought out of homeschooling.
Thompson also has Auditory Processing Disorder, meaning words, and the way her mind processes them, can sometimes be difficult. And her acts of “stimming” - self-stimulation such as talking to herself or rocking back and forth - made her a target for bullies.
But that hasn’t slowed down “The Beast.”
“I am definitely competitive, for sure,” Thompson said. “When you’re out on the softball field, or in many parts of life, you’re focused on one goal. For autistic people it can be like having tunnel vision ... There’s been a few kids that bullied me, but I just moved on. You ignore it, and move on.”
With April being National Autism Awareness Month, Thompson and Adkins want to help others understand that autism is often misunderstood. Thought by some to be a sort of disease, autism is instead a neurobehavioral condition that affects language and communication skills, and can range from mild handicaps to severe disabilities.
“If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism,” Adkins said. “Because every person with it is different in the way they handle their challenges.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates one in 68 children have autism, including one in 42 boys and one in 189 girls. One of the most common signs of autism is an increase to all senses, including sights, smells, and sounds.
“I still have a hard time in crowds, with loud sounds and lots of commotion,” Thompson said. “But I’ve learned when I can deal with it and when to walk away.”
The softball field is one place where Thompson never feels the need to withdraw, and it has provided her a comforting place to be herself. When just talking about the sport, her eyes immediately light up with passion and a fierce devotion to the game she loves.
“I feel most comfortable out on the softball field,” Thompson said. “I love it. It makes me feel more open, and it’s a good way to make friends.”
During her final season as an eighth grader with the Yosemite Girls Softball League, Thompson achieved her first home run, the only one for the team that season. When she arrived at Yosemite High for tryouts, then coach Larry Rich asked her to take on a difficult task - transition from first base to catcher.
“She wasn’t afraid of the ball like a lot of young athletes can be,” Adkins said. “So he asked her if she’d be willing to try it, and that’s interesting because not every coach was on board with that. But he wanted her to try it, and the rest, as they say, is history.”
“I just catch the ball and keep my eye on the runner,” Thompson added. “That’s all that goes through my mind. It’s a reaction, and I’m pretty good at it.”
Thompson’s dedication to the game has earned her a verbal commitment to the team at Reedley College, where she will attend this fall, to possibly major in psychology or art. She said less than 1% of girls with autism move on to college, and she hopes to break that barrier while keeping the spirit of “The Beast” alive and well.
Outside the game, Thompson has been hard at work in extracurricular activities and on her art, one of her favored hobbies. A dedicated artist, Thompson works in a wide variety of mediums, has been featured in numerous exhibits including at the Ansel Adams Gallery in Yosemite National Park, and designed Yosemite High’s softball logo which is still used on practice jerseys.
“Art has been a passion of mine since I was a toddler,” Thompson said on a scholarship application. “Creating art is relaxing for me, but it feels even better when people are inspired or moved and feel good in some way by my artwork.”
One of her creations will be featured on the cover of “John Muir: A Miscellany,” set to be published at the end of May.
And she has one more goal in mind. Asked if she’ll be able to live her dream at her mom’s alma mater Fresno State, as part of its heralded softball team that won a national championship in 1998, Thompson answered with a smile.
“We’ll see in two years.”