Bryson is considered to be one of the most memorable students to attend Gunsite Academy, an elite firearms training facility in Arizona. He won the hearts of the entire staff, and his instructors pitched in to purchase him a Gunsite Raven, the academy’s famed and honored logo, for his pistol. Bryson will also be speaking at a local NRA dinner in May to discuss his experiences. What is it that makes him so exceptional? Bryson is neurologically different than most others. He has autism spectrum disorder.
Photo by Jane Anne Shimizu, Gunsite Academy
People with autism tend to view the world differently and sometimes have advantages over others due to their unique perspectives. Individuals with autism are all different with some requiring high levels of support and others living independently. Temple Grandin, known for her work in animal husbandry, has autism spectrum disorder and is a spokesperson for the disorder. I truly believe that Bryson may become as or more illustrious as Temple when it comes to autism advocacy, unless his planned gunsmithing career keeps him too busy.
Bryson was born and raised in Flagstaff, Arizona. He lives with his mother, Andrea, who strongly advocates for her son. Bryson has struggled, as most with autism do, with sensory issues, social interaction, anxiety and difficulty regulating emotions. His mother explained that he would get overwhelmed with frustration and she would end up with holes in the walls. It has been a struggle at times to help him calm and recover from such overwhelming emotions.
That all changed when Bryson was introduced to shooting after the Boy Scouts recommended an NRA First Shots class. When Andrea was told by his caseworker, Nick, that a Gunsite class might be beneficial to him, she made sure that he got the opportunity. Nick realized the potential and set his genius idea in motion while Andrea advocated for her son and made sure it happened.
Andrea admitted that she was nervous about Bryson taking a pistol class. She was envisioning the worst, as we all do when we worry. She didn’t know what to expect. Bryson was worried himself. He did not believe he could keep up, especially in an adult class. He was the youngest in the class at age 13 and there were no other children. But he wanted to learn shooting skills and Andrea wanted him to learn life skills as well. Bryson took the class, but no one had counted on just how much he would learn and accomplish because of it.
Photo by Jane Anne Shimizu, Gunsite Academy
Bryson proved that he could handle the firearm safely by learning and adhering to the four safety rules. His mother said that now she sometimes gets worried glances from others when she hands Bryson a gun, but she just smiles at them knowingly.
While no one expected one firearms course to change Bryson’s life, it is common for people with autism to excel in highly structured environments. Gunsite Rangemaster and Instructor Il Ling New said that Bryson was likely comforted by the precise steps and strict rules allowing him to control the firearm, his outcomes and that small portion of his environment. The training is designed to build as students start with basic skills and continue to progress. This type of instruction can be very logical and therefore calming for people with autism. This basic learning structure was beneficial to Bryson outside of course content, too. He was also learning social skills, self-calming skills and confidence. What I didn’t expect was to learn what happened after the class was over.
During training, he would return home at the end of the day with no difficulty regulating his emotions or behavior. After training, not only did this continue, but it improved. After months of training, Bryson stopped having emotional breakdowns and there were no new holes in the walls. He also began to communicate to others when he was feeling emotional, enabling others to help him self-regulate or provide self-soothing prompts. He also started to listen to requests and instructions at home and was able to move away from electronics and clean his room in favor of trips to the range.
Photo by Andrea MacIntosh
Bryson’s muscle tone in his arms improved, something he struggled with in the past. Before training he couldn’t speak in front of others and now, he has spoken at board meetings to advocate for his rights especially as they apply through the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act). He is planning more public speeches.
Andrea says there are no limits except the ones we impose on ourselves. We can all relate to her statement. Once we switch from believing “I can’t” to “I can,” we can change our lives. I credit the Gunsite tradition and facilities, Bryson’s instructors (Schylar Cloudt, Guy Coursey, Jerry McCown and Charlie McNeese) and other staff for providing the best training in the world, but I don’t think anyone could imagine the extra benefits Bryson found from taking the class. The ability to overcome and succeed, and the confidence gained through such experiences can be life changing to anyone of any age and ability. It certainly has changed Bryson’s and Andrea’s lives.
We could all benefit from a little more confidence and a little less self-doubt. The therapeutic opportunities gleaned from Gunsite are just as important as the top-notch shooting and self-defense skills. Bryson and Andrea are inspirations to us all, and I hope more people will follow their lead by shedding any self-imposed limitations.
The author is an MA, WV Licensed Psychologist, Licensed Professional Counselor WV, Nationally Certified Counselor, NRA Instructor, Outdoor Writer