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Man with autism outgrows swing set, gifted new one

CBS News logo CBS News 3/29/2019 Caitlin O'Kane

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Cobey Thomas cannot stop using his custom-built swing set. Cobey, who is 6-foot-10 and 200 pounds, has nonverbal autism, and swinging is his "thing," his mom Jenifer Thomas tells CBS News. He's always been big, but there was a point when Cobey became too big for normal swing sets, and he was distraught. 

"We always had a big swing set in the backyard, or we'd go to the park ... Cobey had no interest in sitting still," Thomas said. "But then he started getting really tall." 

a man standing next to a fence: cobey2.jpg © Jenifer Bright Thomas cobey2.jpg The 23-year-old from Knoxville, Tennessee graduated from school in 2018. He used to swing at school, but toward the end of the school year, his mom noticed he started getting welts on his legs. "He would come home and there would actually be blood on his blue jeans," Thomas said. "He's nonverbal, so he couldn't tell me what was wrong, but I could kind of tell."

After watching her "gentle giant" try to swing at a local park, Thomas knew her theory was right – he was now too big for typical swing sets. She told Cobey he couldn't swing any more or he would get hurt, and he was devastated. Because he is autistic, Cobey doesn't do well with change, his mom said. Losing his ability to swing caused behavioral problems, which included not sleeping. Thomas knew she had to do something.

a child playing baseball on a swing: Cobey Thomas was always big, but last year he grew too big to do his favorite activity: swing. © Provided by CBS Interactive Inc. Cobey Thomas was always big, but last year he grew too big to do his favorite activity: swing. "I thought the easiest thing to do is to start making 200 phone calls," Thomas said. She called every contractor and handyman she could, hoping one would be willing to build her a custom swingset. 

"I'd say, 'Well, he's 6'10'', 200 pounds, he functions on maybe a 3-year-old level,'" Thomas said. "They'd go, 'Oh heck no.'" Thomas said she kept getting turned down, but she kept calling different contractors day after day. "It became a vendetta. It became a mission," she said.

Then one day, an old friend recommended a contractor named Adam Ellis who works at Mr. Handyman in Knoxville. Thomas said when she called Ellis, she realized he was a "super guy," but thought he would still turn her down like everyone else had. 

"He was out here the next day," Thomas said. She was pleasently surprised. Ellis and an engineer measured Cobey and figured out the proportions of the swing set. Then, they got right to building.

After a few days, the swing set was ready. It was around Christmastime, so Ellis's team put a huge red bow on it. Thomas didn't know how Cobey would respond to the new swing set, but he took to it immediately.

a group of people in a forest: After six months of struggling, Cobey was able to swing again – thanks to a local handyman who custom built a new swing set for free. © Provided by CBS Interactive Inc. After six months of struggling, Cobey was able to swing again – thanks to a local handyman who custom built a new swing set for free.

"I'll never forget the day," Thomas said. "I had this moment of bliss ... but then it was over." She figured the swing set would cost somewhere in the thousands. She was happy it was finally built, but dreading having to pay the expense. 

When she asked Ellis how much she owed him, he said "Merry Christmas." It was Mr. Handymans' gift for Cobey — free of charge. The mom was speechless. Since Cobey doesn't do well with change, the six months after school ended were difficult and this gift was more appreciated than Ellis will ever know, Thomas said.

Thomas said seeing her son happy again was a moment that would melt any mother's heart. "He got on it and he's not been off," she said. She regularly posts videos and photos of her son swinging, even when it's dark and cold out. She says she continues to share this story because she wants others to see how a simple swing set can hugely impact a person with autism.

"You know, April [Autism Awareness Month] is coming up," Thomas said. "I hope we can concentrate a little more on the adults."

"If this [story] does anything at all, it will raise awareness for the adults with autism that get forgotten." The mom said she'd like to see older people with autism get just as much attention and support as children with the disorder.

She also hopes parks start becoming more inclusive for people of all ages and sizes, since many autistic people like to play, but some may be too big for children's playsets. When Thomas would bring her son to a park, some people wouldn't understand why such a large person wanted to swing. Autism awareness could help this lack of understanding and promote acceptance, she said.

"Many people with autism get left behind," Thomas said. "I'm going to make sure Cobey's not. If this is his legacy, I'm good with that."

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