When Mike McQuay Jr., an 18-year-old with autism, was growing up, the place he felt most safe and calm was in his parents’ backyard pool.
“We’d take him to the mall and he would get overloaded with sensory issues from all the fluorescent lights and crowds,” says his mom, Maria McQuay, 50. “But when he’d come home, going in the water really soothed him.”
Now a college freshman at Middlesex Community College in Edison, NJ, Mike’s swimming is more than calming exercise. He might soon be competing with neurotypical peers — those not on the autism spectrum — as part of Team USA. Depending on the success of his trials, he aims to swim at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.
Mike’s inspiring story is being told in the new documentary film “Swim Team,” showing as part of the ReelAbilities Film Festival, which celebrates people with disabilities and runs Thursday through Wednesday at JCC Manhattan.
The movie, directed by Lara Stolman, who has a 10-year-old son with autism, focuses on Mike and other members of the Jersey Hammerheads swim team, which was formed to cater to teens on the spectrum.
“When I swim I feel great,” Mike tells The Post. “I feel comfortable in the water. It is something I love to do and I am good at. Swimming has made me confident in myself.”
Confidence is something Mike had lacked.
In the documentary, filmed in 2014, Mike’s dad, Michael McQuay, recalls how his son — who had difficulty communicating, displayed repetitive behaviors and was socially isolated — was practically written off by doctors after his diagnosis at age 5.
“He was never supposed to talk, write his name, swim — but here he is, 11 years later, and look what he’s doing,” Michael says.
The breakthrough came around the time Mike was 10 and his parents realized that his aquatic talents not only kept him occupied, but helped with his social life.
“Kids like Mikey don’t have friends and tend to spend a lot of time in isolation, playing video games and that sort of thing,” says Maria. “Competitive swimming really opened him up socially because he was able to mix with others his age.”
He joined various swim teams for people with special needs before the McQuays decided to form the Jersey Hammerheads in 2014. They recruited multi-ethnic teens on the spectrum and trained them with high expectations and zero pity.
Mike was such a standout that he wound up representing the state of New Jersey at the Special Olympics 2014 USA Games in Princeton, NJ, winning two gold medals.
“We are so proud of him,” says Maria.
Now he competes in regional competitions for an elite team, Scarlet Aquatics, alongside neurotypical swimmers. His dream, he says, is to make the Olympic team — and be selected for the World Games.
“It makes me happy about myself,” he says.
His mother hopes the film will inspire other parents of kids with special needs.
“Our message is that life with autism is not a death sentence.” she says. “Although I cry a lot over the hurdles we still face, I can look back and think how far we’ve come. You can never underestimate or give up on your child.”