COLUMBUS (WCMH) — An entrepreneur from Georgia wants to give people with autism and special needs who are living in central Ohio a chance to play on an organized baseball team.
Taylor Duncan was diagnosed with autism when he was a four years old. As he grew up, the diagnosis limited his ability to join organized sports teams in any meaningful way. Duncan says “preconceived notions” of what he could and could not do kept him off the field. Eventually, more and more opportunities dried up for him.
He didn’t qualify to play on Special Olympics teams either because he is relatively high functioning.
“For people like myself, on a certain segment of the autism spectrum, who scored too high on a certain test, we didn’t qualify for the other programming either,” explained Duncan.
This frustrated him to the point where he decided in 2016 to start his own league geared specifically for people 15 years and older with autism or special needs. He named his league Alternative Baseball.
The league adheres to Major League Baseball rules, and each player is unassisted while playing.
Since starting the league, it has grown thanks to national coverage by ESPN and other nationally broadcast programs like the Today Show. The exposure had an immediate impact. A few short years after debuting, the league has nearly 40 teams across 18 states.
“I think what Taylor has done is really incredible,” said Arianna Esposito, Director of Lifespan Services and Supports for Autism Speaks. “The fact especially that really struck me is that one: it’s not just autism but it’s all special needs, and that they are following the rules of Major League baseball.”
Esposito said the league gives all of the players participating a generalized knowledge that allows them to fit into any pickup game without having to be treated differently than another player.
For years Autism Speaks has been working toward raising awareness about autism. She says now is the time to take the next step.
“It’s time to shift to understanding and acceptance because when you understand what autism is and the needs of the autism community and you accept them for the incredible people that they are, and all of the great things they bring to a team, to a community, to a workplace, to a neighborhood, it helps reinforce that idea that they need to be included,” said Esposito. “We need to get them the supports that they need to be successful.”
Duncan says the support he needs is volunteers. He needs people willing to be managers, umpires, and those willing to support the effort to give their time so people like him can experience something that could change their lives.
“Man, we live in a rough world right now, I think we can all agree with that right now, but the fact of the matter is, what we need is unity,” said Duncan. “I still think we’re capable of uniting together toward a cause. When we’re united together toward a cause, especially to open up more opportunities to those with disabilities, and open up more opportunities in general, I mean we all have the power to really make positive change in society both in our own big and small ways.”
The league will help the volunteer managers locate fields to play on and provide them with some equipment. Duncan also said they are starting to reach out to manufacturers of baseball bats to see if they can get some wooden bats donated to the league.
He says this will help them begin to build relationships with the business. For Duncan, this is more than just providing people with a chance to play the game, it’s a chance to grow as a person.
“We win together, we lose together, we adapt to situations together, we work as a team together,” said Duncan. “We’re building those teamwork skills needed for success in areas such as employment off the baseball diamond as well. [It’s] so much deeper than wins, losses, and statistics.”
Esposito says those skills are important.
“It helps, one, for skill building, right? So that’s part of what Taylor’s organization does, it’s not just about sports and learning how to play baseball, but it’s also social skills, life skills, all those additional things, and when you have a diverse group of people together, it helps really to foster that development further,” said Esposito. “It can be really challenging for adults with special needs to find and maintain their employment and often it comes down to those soft skills, those socialization skills and techniques that make the difference between staying in a job for two weeks and staying in a job for 10 years.”
Duncan wants to see the league expand to Columbus and central Ohio as a whole. Due to the pandemic, he has put all games on hold until next year. He hopes there is enough interest to get teams in place with full rosters to start in the Spring of 2021.
“It just takes that one chance, that one opportunity for somebody to say, ‘Yes we’ll give you the opportunity to absolutely do your best,’ and the sky’s the limit as to what could be accomplished for sure,” said Duncan.