Few things bring communities and people together like sports. Rosters of any professional sports teams have people from all walks of life and backgrounds. While incredible strides have been made to increase diversity in athletic leagues over the last few decades, the question of accessibility and opportunity for different populations remains. Specifically, what opportunities are available, and what solutions are being explored for people whose struggles may not be clear on the outside?
Like many other mental health issues, autism spectrum disorder is not easily identifiable just by looking at a person. Individuals with autism struggle with a variety of developmental and communication issues, and it is an issue that is not going away any time soon. In fact, according to Sports Illustrated, “the incidence of autism is one in 68 children — hundreds of thousands of kids in the U.S. More surprising, boys are nearly five times more likely than girls to be diagnosed.”
Today, more than ever, autism has been in the spotlight. No longer is it an unknown and silent struggle as it might have been years ago. Due to extensive research and the ongoing work that members of the autism community have done to raise awareness, we now have a much more clear understanding of what the disorder means.
Taylor Duncan knows these struggles all too well, having been diagnosed with autism at the age of 4. He dealt with speech and sensory issues, social anxiety and a wide variety of social challenges due to his diagnosis. Still, Duncan was an avid sports fan early on and desperately wanted to join local baseball leagues. After having, according to Taylor, “one good year of youth baseball,” a change in coach turned out for the worst, as the new coach told Taylor what no kid never wants to or should ever have to hear. The coach told Taylor’s mother that he “has no business being on a baseball field because he is an injury risk due to his autism.”
This was not enough to stop Taylor from pursuing his dreams of being able to play on a baseball team. After intensive work on his mechanics and skills, Duncan transitioned to slow-pitch softball due to the lack of baseball programs available in his neighborhood. And despite his autism diagnosis, Duncan proved effective as a recruiter — he was even able to start his own team and build a full roster.
Not content to just bask in his own positive experiences, Duncan immediately started working on ways to use these experiences to help others with similar struggles. This is why, in 2016, Taylor started the Alternative Baseball League for kids with autism and other special needs. Although the first team was based in Atlanta, Duncan’s efforts have helped the organization grow and spread across the country.
One of the cities where Taylor and his foundation is finalizing a new team is Philadelphia. After Duncan’s appearance on Baseball Tonight last year, he received a lot of interest from people around the country wanting to form an Alternative Baseball team in their respective states.
“We were on ESPN’s Baseball Tonight as well as the Today Show. Since those appearances, we had a lot of interest come to us about starting an Alternative Baseball team, and Philly was one of the locations. Philly is a big baseball town, so we wanted to bring a team there,” Duncan said.
Since announcing that Alternative Baseball wants to start a team in Philadelphia, there has been no shortage of interest, as Duncan already has a full roster and manager signed. In fact, there has been so much interest that there is potential for multiple alternative baseball teams in Philadelphia.
“We already have a manager, Kristina Downing, signed with the paperwork, who will be bringing a team to Philadelphia later this month. She’s great, and we are very excited,” Duncan stated.
Downing isn’t becoming the manager just to coach; it is far more important to her than just that. Downing is also doing it for her son, who will be participating as a player in the league as well. Downing knows how important the ABL is for kids across the country who have been discriminated against due to their disability.
“When we lived in Georgia, a well known organization discriminated against us and wouldn’t let my son play on the team. The same situation also happened to us in South Carolina. We felt joining alternative baseball was the right move because they don’t discriminate against anyone, ” Downing expressed. Like Duncan, she wants to be a part of the solution.
While kids with autism should be allowed to play all sports, it’s baseball in particular that appeals to kids on the spectrum. According to the International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards, baseball is attractive to those on the spectrum given the outdoor environment, slower pace and analytics that are involved in the game.
This information reinforces the importance of Duncan’s work on behalf of the ABL. No matter the race, gender, body makeup or disability, everyone should be able to play the sport that they desire.
If you find yourself being discriminated against or know of others being discriminated against playing a sport because of a disability, don’t stay quiet. It’s important to speak up to get the respect that you deserve. That’s what Taylor Duncan did in 2016. Three years later, his Alternative Baseball organization has skyrocketed and gained national attention.
Interested in joining Alternative Baseball? Check out their website by following the link below: https://www.alternativebaseball.org/join