A story about autism and acceptance
By John J. Muto, Los Angeles Harbor College Student
When I became a freshman at San Pedro High School, Kenny and I attended the same school for the first time in a long while. Kenny was a senior and he was autistic.
The disorders associated with autism are characterized, in varying degrees, by difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication and repetitive behaviors.
Last year, the National Institute of Health merged all autism disorders
into one umbrella diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder.
People with autism sometimes have communication problems which stems from tiny delays in the perception of speech, or from imprecise pairing of spoken words and gestures. In Kenny’s case, this resulted in him speaking fast–so fast that people had difficulty understanding him.
In high school, I had friends. I was on the school’s baseball team. I had a social life. I was embarrassed to be seen with him. So I avoided him, despite my mom’s instruction to say “hi” whenever I saw him.
I never spoke to him while we were at school. We were brothers and attended the same school, but our lives and our worlds were separate. Yet, I watched him. Whether it was during our late morning 20 minute nutrition break or our early afternoon lunch break, Kenny sat alone and no one said a word to him. Not even me, his own brother.
I felt convicted. When the school year ended, I thought a lot about his lonely lunch periods. There were a lot of nights I lied awake thinking about how terrible a brother I was to Kenny.
One night, tired from wrestling with my conscience, I resolved to be a better brother to Kenny. I began to spend my nutrition and lunch periods with him and began visiting him in his class which housed other special needs students.
As my relationship with Kenny deepened, my desire to befriend the other special needs students in his class deepened too.
I wanted to be their friend. I wanted to get to know all of them and hang out with them every chance I had. I treated them like I treated my friends. I wanted them to know that they are normal; they have autism but they are still regular human beings, like the rest of us.
Once I got to know all of them, I recognized that, like everyone else, they act and enjoy the same things that regular teenagers do. This was not for service hours for school or for having everyone think I was a nice person. This was for Kenny, who had never had a friend.
Several years ago, my mom and I decided to combine my passion for baseball with our desire to create a supportive community for families and their autistic members. We called it the “Challenge League Game.”
Every mid-April, we invite autistic students from throughout the Los Angeles Unified School District and San Pedro community to play a game of baseball with San Pedro and Mary Star high school student players and former players from the Los Angeles Dodgers baseball team.
The major leaguers usually acts as the pitcher for the game, but perhaps what’s more importantly gained is that high school students, autistic or not, gets to talk and interact with each other over the game of baseball.
Aside from the experience of playing baseball and making new friends, the students going up to bat get to hear the names announced by an announcer over loudspeakers and then go home with a “Challenge League Game” t-shirt.
This past year, former Dodger player, Maury Wills, donated $1,500 to the Challenge League baseball event.
My mother and I want to make jerseys for the autism kids that play in the game. We want their names to be on the back of the jersey.
This coming April, will be our seventh year hosting the Challenge.
Spending time with autistic students has changed my life. I love baseball, but I have no aspiration of becoming a baseball player in the major leagues. I do, however, aspire to join the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Community Relations Department.
Major League Baseball is a major supporter of Autism Speaks, a national advocacy organization that sponsors autism research and conducts awareness and outreach activities aimed at families, governments, and the public.
Through Autism Speaks, I hope to combine my two greatest passions: baseball and serving the autism community.
I want to raise awareness for autism disorder during the season and provide special opportunities for families and individuals affected by autism. I want people that are affected by autism to participate in various baseball activities, including throwing out the first pitch, announcing “Play Ball!” and singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”
If I am able to get my dream job of working for the Dodgers; I would like to eventually have the autism baseball game be at Dodgers Stadium instead of having it at a recreation park like we always do. I would also like to have some of the Dodgers’ players go out to the community and socialize with autism kids all over the Los Angeles area. The impact they would have on these kids are unspeakable.
There are a lot of non-profit autism organizations all over the world that are raising millions of dollars trying to find a cure for autism. But something that I think that can be more beneficial for people who have autism right now is to engage them. Be a friend to them , and get to know them.
Strong and enduring friendships within the autistic community are rare. Kids who are not autistic take for granted the ability to form friendships and enjoying life with others on their own.
I’ve learned from spending time with Kenny and volunteering in special needs classes the power of a simple hello and act the act of remembering names in the autistic community. It’s a great feeling when a connection is made.
So I ask you, the next time you see someone that has autism, will you make a difference in their life?
If you’d like to learn more about the “Challenge League Game,” call (310) 874-1189.