What's Up South Texas!: Boy on autism spectrum dominates the game of Scrabble

By Japhanie Gray - Reporter

SAN ANTONIO - To many people, Scrabble is just an average board game, but to one autistic 9-year-old boy, it is a passion that he has mastered.

Ricky Rodriguez was diagnosed with autism at 18 weeks. He has been interested in words and spelling since he was a toddler.

“He started off reading and that transitioned to playing on apps and on the phone and then to Words with Friends,” said Guillermo Rodriguez, Ricky’s dad. “Then he started reporting some really big numbers and at first we thought he was just exaggerating but then you start to look at some of the games he is playing and then you are like, wait a second. He is playing like some real words. Like some serious words. He is wining against other people online.”

That’s when they introduced Ricky to the game of Scrabble.

“He started beating me easily,” Guillermo Rodriguez said. “It was pretty impressive to see a 7-year-old beat dad. That translated into beating mom and then grandma who is a far more avid Scrabble player.”

The family then explored ways to challenge Ricky.

“We found out there is a local meeting at the Lion’s Field here in town where the Scrabble community would meet weekly and get together to play with different people,” Guillermo Rodriguez said. “Then we started to advance more and found out about different tournaments in Texas. He doesn’t always win but he does win. In one tournament he actually walked away with second place in his division.”

Ricky’s mom, Erin Rodriguez, said it’s all thanks to his early years of him being so great at words.

“Back when he was 3 years old, his favorite book was the dictionary and we had five dictionaries and he would open them up, and even to this day if you give him any dictionary, atlas, blank sheet of paper --  he goes to town on it,” Erin Rodriguez said.

She said she is always amazed at the kind of words he spells.

“I’ll see the word and I am like ‘There is no way that is a word,’” Erin Rodriguez said. “Like DJIN. I am like ‘That is not a word’ and then you look it up and ‘Oh, it is a legitimate word!’ He knows way more words than we will ever know.”

Erin Rodriguez also credits Ricky’s knowledge of words to his two older brothers’ similar abilities to be specialized in certain areas. Those brothers also have autism.

“Around this time, my oldest was practicing for the spelling bee,” Erin Rodriguez said. “When Ricky was in kindergarten he was spelling words like pancake but then when he got to the first grade he started studying words up to the eighth grade spelling bee list and was able to spell all of those words and we were like wow that was incredible.”

Erin Rodriguez said Ricky having autism hasn’t been a major obstacle in his life, but he improved.

“He has come a long way,” Erin Rodriguez said. “He used to get really upset when he lost at games but now he’s done a complete turnaround in the last three years. He is really good at losing now and when he wins big, we are all super excited. More excited that he is because he’ll be like ‘OK.’ With all of my boys, I try to find the things they love the most. The things they are very passionate and specialized at. Their strengths. This Scrabble stuff is like his baseball or soccer and it would be interesting to get other kids like his age interested in. He is like the lone wolf because at all of his tournaments there are no single-digit-aged people.”

Her favorite memory of Ricky demonstrating his maturity overtime was at one of his tournaments.

“It was one of the tournaments that he got a big win in and he pointed out a mistake that an opponent made,” Erin Rodriguez said. “He was like ‘Wait!’ and he proceeded to recount her score on a word he knew she accidentally didn’t give herself enough points for. At first, she appeared to be a little annoyed that he was recounting as if he was questioning her, but that started to change as he passed the number she had announced for herself. He said cheerfully, ‘That’s 11 points more for you than you thought, so Merry Christmas!’ I was so proud of him for being so fair.”

For different tournaments, Ricky practices with his mentor, Matt DeWaelsche, who is also a Texas Scrabble Hall of Famer and the director of the San Antonio Scrabble Club.

“I think his vocabulary is amazing especially for a young player,” said DeWaelsche. “I think he can be a really good play one day if he continues to work hard like he is doing. He can be a really good player.”

He said many are surprised to see Ricky at tournaments sometimes.

“He is really good at maximizing points at overlapping plays,” DeWaelsche said. “He does a great job with those. He just pounces and sometimes older players he plays get a littler flustered or frustrated but for the most part I think he is well received.”

Ricky said he is thinking ahead for his life.

“I would really like to become a cook someday,” said Ricky. “I never really cooked anything except toast. I also want to be an author.”

Ricky, who is also very good at geography, and playing the piano and the cello, has already started writing some of his books.

“One book is about a girl named Jane who has magical encounters,” Ricky said.

Ricky has competed in Dallas, Austin, and in January, he is going to Duke University for a tournament. In July he is going to the national tournament in Reno, Nevada.

Now he wants other kids his age to be more involved in the game of Scrabble.

“When you want to do something, you do it,” Ricky said. “I really love Scrabble. It is really fun and I would love it if other kids would come to the Lion’s Field to play with me.”

If you know someone like Ricky who is making a difference in the South Texas community or who has a unique story, send us your tips. Contact Japhanie Gray on Facebook or @JGrayKSAT on Twitter. You can also send your tips to KSAT 12 & KSAT.com on Facebook.

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