Shawn’s Story: Spreading Change Through Education


Shawn Wheelock loves video games, Star Wars, bowling, and sports, but one thing he can’t stand is the ‘R Word’. Shawn has autism, but he says “that’s not who I am”.

Shawn was born into a military family. His birth parents weren’t able to give Shawn and his sister the care that they needed, so the children were taken in by their aunt and uncle, Jim and Anabelle Wheelock. Shawn says that he didn’t speak until he was four years old, after moving in with Jim and Anabelle and attending a speech school. He wasn’t diagnosed with Autism until he was a teen and recalls that his aunt and especially his uncle had a difficult time wrapping their head around what this meant at first. Still, they never gave up. “I would not be here today if they were not in my life,” Shawn says, and he considers Jim and Anabelle his parents.

Shawn had a difficult time in school at first. High school, in particular, was daily torment. At one point, Shawn’s head was slammed against lockers by bullies. After this, he refused to go back to school, telling Anabelle that he felt “unsafe”. At his lowest point, he even felt like he didn’t want to live anymore. Anabelle called the school, but when no effort was made to stop the bullying, she told them that Shawn wouldn’t be returning. Shawn transferred to Armstrong High School, where things finally started to change for the better. For the first time, Shawn had access to special education classes. He was able to ask for help and connect with other students with developmental disabilities. He graduated high school, attended college and got a job at a Minnesota restaurant. He has been able to rent his own apartment for the past 14 years with daily assistance from Anabelle and Accord’s Family Support Services.

In 2006, Shawn began to compete in Special Olympics. At first, he had a hard time being away from his family for competitions, until one of his teammates told him: “you’re with family. We’re brothers.” Through Special Olympics, Shawn gained an extended family and support system. He has 41 medals proudly hanging in his apartment and more friends than he can count across the country. Shawn is now a Global Ambassador for Special Olympics, helping to spread the mission of inclusion for all people with intellectual disabilities across the globe.

Shawn’s medals from Special Olympics. Photo courtesy of Shawn Wheelock.

Shawn believes that the way to achieve a more inclusive society is by educating students at a young age. He says that middle school students are the ideal age to speak to because they are the most receptive to change. Shawn isn’t afraid to stand up for people with disabilities or take the time to have a conversation with someone who may not understand what living with a disability is like. If he hears someone using the “R Word”, he will stop them and explain why the word is hurtful to people like himself “even if it takes two hours”.

Shawn is a gamer, black belt in karate, a Special Olympics medalist, a Global Ambassador, a public speaker, and a disability advocate. He hopes that one day, the only “R Word” will be “Respect”.