World Autism Awareness Day: Star athletes to know ahead of Paris 2024

On World Autism Awareness Day, held every year on 2 April, we are celebrating four Para athletes with autism who are preparing to take the spotlight at the Paris 2024 Paralympic Games 02 Apr 2023
A female Para swimmer claps her hands in the pool after finishing her race.
Para swimmer Jessica-Jane Applegate of Great Britain has won a total of seven medals across three Paralympic Games.
ⒸAdam Pretty/Getty Images

Para athletes with autism have put on exciting performances at recent Paralympic Games and delivered moments to remember.

The Paris 2024 Paralympic Games, set between 28 August and 8 September 2024, will include competitions with athletes with autism in Para athletics, Para swimming and Para table tennis. 

As we mark World Autism Awareness Day on 2 April in the pre-Games year, we want to introduce you to some of the most talented athletes with autism and showcase their sport journeys on the way to Paris 2024.

Para athletics 

Michael Brannigan (USA) 

Brannigan made his Paralympic debut at Rio 2016. @Buda Mendes/Getty Image

Michael Brannigan shot to stardom at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games, where he captured the gold medal in the men’s 1,500m T20 in his Paralympic debut. He was diagnosed with autism at age 3, five years before taking up running through the Rolling Thunder Special Needs Program, a non-profit organisation based in New York. 

The 26-year-old athlete showed great potential since he was young. When he was in eighth grade, he was already named to the high school varsity track and field team and was named the Sports Illustrated High School Athlete of the Month for February 2015. 

At the Tokyo 2020 Games, Brannigan missed the podium, finishing fourth in the 1,500m T20. He bounced back quickly, however, and picked up three gold medals the following year at the 2022 Virtus World Cross Country Championship. 

Kaitlin Bounds (USA) 

Bounds is aiming to make her Paralympic debut at Paris 2024. @Bob Bettancourt

Kaitlin Bounds started running when she was 14 years old. She was inspired watching Brannigan race at Rio 2016 and was selected to compete the following year at the World Para Athletics Championships in London. 

More than five years since first representing Team USA, Bounds is now gunning to make her Paralympic debut in Paris. At the 2017 World Championships, she finished fourth in the 800m T20 and eighth in the 1,500m T20. Last year, she picked up a gold medal at the 2022 Virtus World Cross Country Championship in the 4K short course cross-country race. 

The USA athlete has faced and overcome numerous health challenges since her birth, undergoing a heart and lung bypass surgery when she was just one day old. In addition to her autism diagnosis, she also developed asthma when she was young and has embraced running as a way to feel strong.

Para swimming 

Jessica-Jane Applegate (Great Britain) 

Applegate captured three medals at Tokyo 2020, including the gold medal in the mixed 4 x 100m freestyle relay S14. @Lintao Zhang/Getty Images

Two-time Paralympic champion Jessica-Jane Applegate has been a major force in the pool for more than a decade. For the British athlete, who has won a total of seven medals across three Paralympic Games, the pool is much more than a place where she competes. 

“It is a feeling of peace, happiness and silence. Just hearing the water as your hands glide through is just amazing. It’s what I love most about swimming,” Applegate said last year in the second season of ‘A Winning Mindset’ podcast series

Applegate has Asperger’s Syndrome, which is a form of autism spectrum disorder. She won gold in the women’s 200m freestyle S14 in her Paralympic debut at London 2012 where she competed as a teenager. 

Nine years later, at Tokyo 2020, she captured the gold medal in the mixed 4 x 100m freestyle relay S14, along with two bronze in the 200m freestyle S14 and the 100m backstroke S14. In March 2023, she was named to Great Britain’s team for the Manchester 2023 Para Swimming World Championships set to take place between 31 July and 6 August. 

“I’m looking forward to Paris 2024. I just keep my fingers crossed that I’ll make the team,” Applegate said in the podcast series.

Para table tennis 

Florian van Acker (Belgium) 

Van Acker captured the bronze medal in the men's singles class 11 at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games. @Lintao Zhang/Getty Images

Two-time Paralympian Florian van Acker was introduced to Para table tennis in 2007 and has been in love with the sport ever since. 

He topped the podium in the men’s singles class 11 at his first Paralympic Games in 2016, beating Australia’s Samuel von Einem in the final. Celebrating his biggest win in the sport thus far, van Acker pumped his fist many times and hugged his coach before raising the Belgian flag in front of cheering spectators.

The athlete began his life as an orphan in Romania before being adopted by a couple in Belgium. He was three and a half years old when he arrived in Belgium.

At Tokyo 2020, van Acker finished with the bronze medal after losing to von Einem in the semifinals. He picked up another bronze at the Andalucia 2022 World Para Table Tennis Championships last November.