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Life in fast lane helps teens with autism

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Inspirational teens: Ahmani Peets, 14, left, with his father Anthony Peets and 16-year-old Canadian go-kart racer Austin Riley. Austin and Ahmani both have autism (Photograph by Akil Simmons)

When Austin Riley started racing go-karts, he never imagined it would bring him to Bermuda. He was 7 and only agreed to try the sport after his father pleaded with him to do so.

“All right,” Austin said, “I’ll do one lap around the track and then we’re going home.”

But once the Canadian schoolboy — who has autism and ADHD — started racing at a track near his home in Toronto, he would not stop. His father, Jason Riley, had to jump in front of Austin’s kart to halt him. He was furious until he saw the joy on Austin’s face.

“I’d never seen him smile like that,” said Mr Riley, who had struggled to find something to help Austin improve his physical co-ordination and make friends.

“We tried soccer,” he said. “He kicked the ball into the goal right off. I thought that was an awesome moment, until he came over and said he wanted to go home.”

Ice hockey was also a disaster. Then a flyer about a go-kart track appeared in the mail. At first, Austin was not interested.

“At that point he felt he sucked at everything and he wasn’t interested in trying anything new,” Mr Riley said.

But after that first ride, he never looked back. Now 16, he has won numerous races, including coming third in the Canadian National Championships last year. Most of his competitors are adults, twice his age.

The Rileys visited Bermuda last week to help to raise awareness of autism and race with the Bermuda Karting Club. They were invited by school counsellor Anthony Peets, whose son Ahmani, 14, has autism and also loves racing go-karts.

His enjoyment of the sport prompted Mr Peets to look up autism and karting online, where he found YouTube videos of Austin.

“I showed the video of Austin at Ahmani’s school last year as each year I do an autism awareness assembly,” he said. “I shared with the students that I would be working to have Austin come to Bermuda. At that time I had not made contact but knew he would be inspirational.”

Mr Peets said there were similarities between Ahmani’s experiences and those of Austin.

“One of the things Ahmani did have to work to understand is that after the checkered flag is waved you have to go off the track,” he said.

“This was similar to Austin’s first experience with karting. He now has full understanding of what to do.”

He is hoping that Austin will return to Bermuda regularly, adding: “The main thing is about awareness. We wish for the community to understand that autism is a spectrum disorder.

“Visualise a circle and the many points on the outer edge. When you meet a person on the spectrum you must remember that all persons on the spectrum have nuances and uniqueness.

“Austin’s tagline was perfect — even though you have autism, it doesn’t mean you can’t do great things.”

Ahmani has bookmarked all of Austin’s racing clips and studies his track performances. The two were thrilled to finally meet, although they were both a bit shy at first.

“Both boys have bonded and Ahmani will travel to Canada to watch Austin race and to experience some training,” Mr Peets said.

“Austin shared before he left, ‘Anthony, you are my second dad’. How cool is that? We have built a for ever lasting bond.”

While on the island, Austin spoke at schools and churches about his experiences. He had a simple and heartfelt message: if I can achieve my dreams and overcome my fears, so can you.

After his presentation at the Berkeley Institute, students spent more than 30 minutes asking questions and sharing details about their own lives.

“It was inspirational,” Austin said. “They were all into the story and really paying attention to what was going on.”

On Sunday, at the Bermuda Motorsports Park at Southside, St David’s, Austin finished third in the tag senior event racing against adults, and second in his first shifter race.

A shifter kart is a high-end kart known as a “pocket rocket”. It can accelerate from zero to 60 miles per hour (96.5km/h) in four seconds and can reach top speeds in excess of 105mph.

Austin really came into himself when he embarked on a tour of North America a year ago.

“We were on the road for 87 days,” Mr Riley said. “We did over 25,000 kilometres. He raced at 12 tracks he’d never been to before and podiumed 11 out of the 12 times.”

They also did 29 school presentations, something that was hard for Austin.

“He really struggles with going to new places and meeting new people,” Mr Riley said. “At the beginning of the tour he had a lot of anxiety and meltdowns.

“It was very hard on all of us. When we were leaving New Orleans, Louisiana, we almost turned around and went home because it was so hard for him.

“At the first school presentation he gave, he was so uncomfortable he wouldn’t even go into the gym while we were presenting until the end.

“Eight weeks later we were in Calgary, Alberta, getting geared up for a presentation. Austin tapped me on the shoulder and said he would speak. He stood up before 1,000 children and spoke. It was the proudest moment of my life.”

Austin told the students: “Like some of you, I have had trouble finding my way in school and in life.

“It wasn’t until I started to follow my dreams that I stopped listening to everyone who said I couldn’t do something did my life started to change.

“Racing changed my life. It has made me who I am. It makes me feel free. If I can follow my dreams then so can you.

“If I can face my fears then so can you. Just because you have autism doesn’t mean you can’t do great things.”

He was emboldened to continue and this year toured Australia with his father.

Funding Austin’s racing career is not easy for his father. A motor and chassis costs anywhere between $10,000 and $12,000 and Austin goes through three chassis a year.

“You don’t win any money in go-karting,” his father said. “You get a trophy and a pat on the back. I fund it by working really hard. My whole life, apart from work, has been about finding funding to keep Austin racing and to keep us visiting schools and changing other children’s lives.”

Austin and his father started their own charity, Racing with Autism.

Part of the money goes to keep Austin racing and part goes to helping other children with autism take up the sport.

“I tell other parents that Austin has a very special gift and we are very fortunate,” Mr Riley said. “Your son might not have that same gift. The key is to finding what really drives them.”

For more information about autism in Bermuda, visit www.bermudaautism.bm. For more information about the Bermuda Karting Club, see bermudakartingclub.com

Pole position: Austin Riley started racing go-karts at 7. The sport boosted his confidence and he has gone on to win numerous races (Photograph supplied)
Track star: Austin Riley racing his go-kart. The teen is proof that having autism does not mean you cannot achieve great things (Photograph supplied)
Leading the pack: Austin Riley racing his go-kart. The teen is proof that having autism does not mean you cannot achieve great things (Photograph supplied)