Source: NJ Herald.com
Taylor Duncan always felt like he had to prove he belonged on the baseball diamond. It began at age 4, when he was diagnosed with autism. Not only did he have to overcome speech and anxiety issues, he also had to face what he described as the negative social stigma that came with his diagnosis while playing sports.
“Coaches didn’t want to deal with me because of the diagnosis, so they denied me the opportunity to participate,” said Duncan, now 25. “I’ve had to fight for my opportunities through the years to be able to prove that I belonged with others my age who are neurotypical.”
Duncan heads a national movement: He wants to bring Alternative Baseball, the nonprofit he founded in 2016, to neighborhoods across the United States, including New Jersey and the New York metro area. The organization’s mission is to make baseball accessible for those with special needs ages 15 and up. Despite the pandemic, Alternative Baseball has grown from 20 to about 70 teams. Duncan had begun talks to start teams in Hoboken and Jersey City. He expects the team to launch next spring, if not sooner.
Inclusive sports programs had its origins nearly 30 years ago in Lincroft, New Jersey: Challenged Youth Sports, founded by Paul Hooker was inspired by with a child who used a wheelchair and wished she could play baseball with her brother. He is currently creating an inclusive program within the Lincroft Little League system.
Another such program is Rally Cap Sports, which has expanded with chapters at 19 universities in eight states including Seton Hall University and Ramapo College. The organization plans to expand to more schools. The student-run chapters are supported by Rally Cap, and students run programs for their nearby communities.
“It’s very important to have sports available for people beyond just the childhood age,” Sims said. “It gives them the chance of community, gives them the chance to be healthy and to be active … and recreational sports are super, super beneficial.”
Esposito, one of the directors at Autism Speaks, said sports programs targeting young adults with special needs have slowly grown, but there is still a huge need. By expanding inclusive sports programs for people of all ages, everyone in the community wins, she said.
“Inclusive sports programs build stronger communities,” Esposito said. “That’s why I think we’ll continue to see them increase and become more diverse — not just baseball or softball, but seeing it expand into other sports.”
Arianna Esposito, director of lifespan services and support for Autism Speaks, said sports programs targeting young adults with special needs have slowly grown, but there is still a huge need. By expanding inclusive sports programs for people of all ages, everyone in the community wins, she said.
After years of facing adversity, Duncan now says, “The fight was worth it.”