Archived Outdoors

Baseball for autistic youth planned in WNC

Taylor Duncan prepares to take a swing during a recent game. Donated photo Taylor Duncan prepares to take a swing during a recent game. Donated photo

The fresh cut grass, the din of the crowd, the white chalk lines on the dusty dirt infield — every year, millions of American kids suit up and take to diamonds across the country to play baseball, for decades considered the quintessential outdoor American pastime.

As such, it hasn’t always been as inclusive as it is could have been, especially for people on the autism spectrum. 

“I can’t believe it’s taken 200 years to get to this point,” said 23-year-old Taylor Duncan, who founded the nonprofit Alternative Baseball Organization in 2016. “Thanks to those who have helped me throughout the years, my mother, my teachers, my coaches and my mentors, I’ve been able to get where I am today to provide an opportunity, and we’re excited to be expanding everywhere we possibly can.”

The ABO makes the thrill of competitive baseball available to teens and adults with autism and other special needs, in an accepting environment that encourages participants to be the best they can be while also instilling in them the confidence to fulfill their dreams on or off the field. 

“We strive to bring that authentic baseball experience,” Duncan said. “We play strictly by major league rules, wood bats, dropped-third strike. The only adaptation is the size of the ball itself, which is slightly larger and much softer.”

As someone on the autism spectrum, Duncan knows firsthand what it’s like to be denied the physical and social benefits that organized team sports can provide. 

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“I had a lot of developmental delays when I was younger and because of that I was often put out of traditional youth sports just because I wasn’t ready for it then,” he said. “Then as I got older, I faced a lot of preconceived ideas of what people think is possible versus what isn’t.”

Those preconceived ideas can sometimes be as inhibiting to the development of people with autism as the condition itself. 

“Our individuals are capable of more than people think,” said Kim Moore, program director in the Waynesville office of A Small Miracle, a statewide agency providing an array of support and services to children and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. “They’re very intelligent, and very aware of what’s going on in the world.”

Moore has worked in the I/DD field since graduating from Appalachian State University with a bachelor’s degree in psychology 1993, and has been in Waynesville since 1997. 

She explained that A Small Miracle’s services, furnished through Medicaid, often involve a one-on-one worker that teaches social skills, self-help skills and the like, but there’s also a service that helps people with autism establish more natural “unpaid” relationships, like by making friends through a membership at a gym. Alternative Baseball, she said, could also support that aspiration. 

“I think it really will help with their sensory adjustment, especially with crowds,” said Moore. “In a sport like baseball, players are usually a pretty significant distance from each other on the baseball field. The earlier you expose people with autism to environmental factors, to crowds, to trying to communicate with others, the more they can adjust later in life.”

 

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ABO founder Taylor Duncan is honored as a ‘Community Hero’ by the Atlanta Braves this past April. Donated photo

 

Duncan said that when he first came up with the idea of the ABO, some people were puzzled because nothing like it had ever been done before, even suggesting there wasn’t enough demand to make the league viable.

Today, there are more than a dozen ABO teams competing from coast to coast, including several in greater Atlanta, a few in the Chattanooga area, several in Florida, and in Philadelphia, Phoenix and Washington, D.C., with teams as far away as Tacoma beginning to form. 

“We want to be able to offer this opportunity in as many communities as we can,” said Duncan. “Obviously, first we’re targeting the southeastern region, but we’re always looking for new coaches and managers and volunteers anywhere, because every person on the spectrum deserves the opportunity to play baseball without preconceived ideas and perceptions.”

The closest team to Western North Carolina right now is the Carolina Crusaders, in Chesnee, South Carolina. Duncan, originally from Dallas, Georgia, hopes to add many more in the coming years, including one in Sylva and Waynesville.

Moore thinks it’s possible here, but may take some time as awareness builds. 

“I do think it would take a lot of grassroots effort,” she said. “In Waynesville, we could probably pull people from Asheville over this way and that may help.”

In an era where travel youth sports is big business, parents have shown great willingness to drive players to weekend tournaments hours and hours away from home, suggesting that an hour’s drive might not be too long of a trip for the chance to play on an Alternative Baseball Organization team. 

“We start by founding teams to establish leagues, and if there’s only one club, they play amongst each other,” said Duncan. “If we get one going in Waynesville, or in Sylva then we will start looking for a manager/coach in Asheville or Black Mountain or somewhere else easy to travel to.”

Teams typically practice for about 90 minutes a week, including warm-up stretches, batting practice and fielding drills. The games are umped by real umpires and game experiences are tailored to the ability level of each individual player. ABO coaches strive to teach the physical skills, but just as important for many with autism are the social skills they’ll build by being part of a team.

“I have found that there are eventually really good employment opportunities for individuals with autism,” Moore said. “With that exposure then they can see what people with autism can do, and help them develop in their own communities. That’s one of the connections the community can make when they watch the teams play.”

Duncan said he’s already seen examples, just in the three years ABO has been in existence.

“We’ve had some who have wanted to go out and find work, to get behind the wheel of a vehicle, all because we’re showing them, yes you can, and you will,” Duncan said. “There was one person who started in our program, and eventually his social skills improved through the sport, because we do a lot of team chemistry work. It improved so much that now he holds down a part-time job at a restaurant.”

Perhaps due to stories like that, the ABO hasn’t gone unnoticed, especially by major media outlets. 

This past April, in fact, was a busy month for Duncan, who appeared in a segment about the ABO on NBC’s Today Show. Days later, he told his story on ESPN’s Baseball Tonight and in Sports Illustrated. Around that time he was recognized as a “Community Hero” by none other than the National League’s Atlanta Braves and also presented a TedX talk in Atlanta — a pretty big splash for someone who said he had issues with anxiety and speech, due to autism. 

“You never know what’s going to happen,” Duncan said, “unless you give someone an opportunity to try to show what they can do — and the support they need — so they can grow to be able to do much more.”

 

Get in the game

The Alternative Baseball Organization is a nonprofit sports league for players ages 15 and up with autism and other special needs. Taylor Duncan founded the league in 2016 after years of being unable to play traditional youth sports due to his own issues with moderate autism. 

Duncan’s looking to add more teams to the dozen or so that already take the field, and he’s got his sights set on Sylva, Waynesville and other Western North Carolina communities. 

To learn how you can help make Duncan’s dream a reality — as a coach, a player, a volunteer or a donor — visit www.alternativebaseball.org and then contact Duncan at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or at 770.313.1762.

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