Milo is a robot purchased by the Belleville school district to help students with autism, designed to teach younger students. NorthJersey
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.”
With the support of his family and mentors, Duncan was able to overcome those challenges — and play. With their support, he also did far more.
The Dallas, Georgia, native now 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.
After years of facing adversity, Duncan now says, “The fight was worth it.”
Those in the special needs community say that programs such as Alternative Baseball play an essential role to help teens and young adults with special needs. That's because programs and services for such people — especially sports and recreational programs — drop off sharply once they finish high school.
That happened to Duncan. He realized services for those with autism and other special needs plateaued. So he founded Alternative Baseball in Cobb County, Georgia, near where he lived. He started with only a handful of players. After setting up a second team nearby, the effort caught national attention.
“It went from a local awareness campaign to prove to others that yes, we can do the same things as everyone else, to a solution for a national need,” Duncan said.
Soon he heard from families across the country, including in the Bronx and Queens, on Long Island and Staten Island — population centers he could not believe faced a services drought similar to the one in his small town of 13,000 people.
“It’s like you drop off a cliff almost, regarding availability of services, because so many of them have age caps, and in a lot of areas they don’t have anything to start with,” Duncan said. “That’s when I realized we need to be taking this to as many places as we possibly can across the U.S.”
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That figurative cliff is one that experts, advocates and families of people with disabilities are all too familiar with. Arianna Esposito, director of lifespan services and support for Autism Speaks, said K-12 programs available to families with autism, in particular, including therapy and day programs that help young adults find jobs or educational opportunities, “quite literally fall off a cliff” once a student graduates from high school.
“When you drill down to something really specialized like a sports program, it is extremely rare” to find programs after high school, Esposito said. “There is a huge lack of group recreational opportunities and sports for teens and adults with autism.”
There has been a slow increase for these types of programs in recent years, Esposito said. But as the COVID pandemic eases, there's a great need for all people to feel they are part of a community as the world opens up — something sports can do.
"The opportunity to have a league that is accessible — is inclusive — can be really life-changing," Esposito said.
The pandemic has provided Alternative Baseball a blessing in disguise. The forced shutdown put a pause on programming, but the downtime let Duncan push for a national expansion. Because it takes six months to a year to form a team, he has been recruiting virtually, promoting his organization aggressively.
“We can’t just sit back and let something die because a pandemic is happening,” Duncan said. “We have to do everything we can to keep everybody engaged."
Since the pandemic began, Alternative Baseball has grown from 20 to about 70 teams.
In 2018, Duncan began talks to start teams in Hoboken and Jersey City. He expects the teams to launch next spring, if not sooner. The local effort is actively recruiting players, coaches and volunteers to join virtually.
Alternative Baseball teams travel to other regions for games, play on traditional high school fields and follow the same rules as the pros. The program supplies equipment and resources. In some markets, the organization has gotten former Major League Baseball players to participate in events — something Duncan hopes to mimic nationwide.
The program caters to young adults, ages 15 and older, with no cap on age. There are some players in their 60s.
“We’ve gotten a lot of players signed up for a possible team in Staten Island,” Duncan said. “So we’re hoping that we can bridge the gap from Philadelphia to Hudson County with new opportunities.”
This month, Rally Cap Sports, a nonprofit that provides recreational sports programs for people with special needs, ran its first youth sports program in New Jersey since the pandemic put its events on hold. RallyDays are hourlong sessions for children, ages 7 and up, who participate in different sports stations on Sunday afternoons in Lincroft. By fall, the nonprofit hopes to resume programs elsewhere in the state, said Executive Director Luke Sims.
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The nonprofit is the spinoff of an initiative that began in Lincroft 31 years ago, when the organization's founder, Paul Hooker, struck up a conversation with a girl who used a wheelchair. The girl expressed her dismay at not being able to play baseball with her brother. Hooker decided to help that little girl and others like her by creating an inclusive program within the Lincroft Little League system. The program was inspired by Little League's Challenger Division, founded in 1989 for those with physical and intellectual challenges.
The Lincroft program eventually spun off into Challenged Sports, and it has grown to include a variety of sports programs year-round. About five or six years ago, Sims joined the organization and led a major rebranding and expansion.
In the past year, Rally Cap has expanded, with chapters at 19 universities in eight states. In New Jersey, there are chapters at Seton Hall University and Ramapo College, in addition to the Lincroft program. 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.
Rally Cap does not put an age limit on who can participate. Organizers recognize there is a need for programs like theirs, especially as teens get older.
“That’s the next big thing that special needs organizations are trying to solve,” Sims said. “Over the last 20 years, a lot has developed for children with special needs. What to do for people with special needs when they age out and get beyond 18 is the big issue right now.”
A growing number of organizations are working to establish programs that provide job opportunities or training to young adults with special needs job. That’s why organizations like Greens Do Good — a hydroponic vertical farm in Hackensack that employs adults with autism — sprang up in 2019, and No Limits Café in Red Bank — which trains and employs people with intellectual disabilities — opened in 2020.
Sports offer a unique opportunity for those with special needs to be part of a community.
“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.”
Melanie Anzidei is a reporter for NorthJersey.com. To get unlimited access to the latest news, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.