Dozens of high school players and coaches from across the state, each representing their respective teams who will participate in this weekend’s ninth annual Autism Awareness Baseball Challenge, gathered inside the Edison Elks Lodge for an information session last month.
The meeting, spearheaded by former Highland Park star and Rutgers University assistant coach Mike Garlatti, served as a primer for this weekend’s event, which Garlatti started nine years ago.
As the father of a child with autism and through his position as a scout with the Colorado Rockies, Garlatti continues to use baseball to heighten awareness about the nation’s fastest-growing developmental disorder.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the identified prevalence of autism spectrum disorders nationally has increased from 1 in 110 to 1 in 68 since Garlatti’s Autism Awareness Baseball Challenge began in 2007 as a grassroots effort.
One in 45 children in New Jersey – 62 percent of whom are boys – are on the autism spectrum.
Autism is a lifelong neurological disorder that impairs a person’s ability to communicate and relate to others. It’s broad spectrum of characteristics range from severe detached and isolated behavior to extreme verbal and hypersensitive behavior.
The Autism Awareness Baseball Challenge has blossomed from eight teams at its inception to 32 – four of which NJ.com currently ranks among its statewide Top 20 – from 11 different counties.
A total of 16 games will be contested on Saturday and Sunday at North Brunswick’s Community Park, with doubleheaders taking place on adjacent fields at 10 a.m., 1 p.m., 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. each day.
“From a scouting perspective, as you get teams from all over, it becomes an event that you want to come see because you are going to see a lot of players at one site,” said John Wilson, a veteran scout for the Minnesota Twins who was a guest speaker at the Elks Lodge.
“It has a purpose, so it’s not just a baseball event, but an event that can spread the word and educate kids about how fortunate they are to have the ability to be able to play a baseball game, where there are others not as fortunate. It put things in life perspective, and I’m just really honored to be a part of it.”
Those at the Elks Lodge last month were able to put a face to the statistics thanks to Garlatti’s keynote speaker, a father of four – including two former Greater Middlesex Conference baseball players – whose story mesmerized attendees.
One of the man’s sons graduated in 2009 as a two-year starter, while the other baseball-playing son, who is on the autism spectrum, graduated a year ago from a different high school.
The 2014 graduate impressed his coaches, homering in a preseason game as a senior to earn a spot on the club as a designated hitter and pinch hitter. A 13-pitch at-bat during last year’s conference tournament that resulted in a walk, however, supersedes the aforementioned 416-foot round-tripper as a way of illustrating the player’s ability to battle.
The keynote speaker’s third child graduated third in her class from yet another GMC high school and went on to earn a master’s degree in special education, a tip of the hat to her two brothers, including the youngest, a 13-year-old, who is also on the autism spectrum.
The 13-year-old, who was at the Elks Lodge last month and who will throw out the first pitch at one of this weekend’s games, is “mostly nonverbal autistic” and “communicates with sign language,” according to his father.
“He doesn’t make eye contact very well,” the boy’s father said. “He stimms (stimming in a person with autism refers to behaviors such as flapping, rocking, spinning or repetition of words) or might make sounds a lot. It’s like he’s locked in. According to his teachers, he has great receptive language, but very poor expressive language. Just because he can’t communicate outwardly to you doesn’t mean he doesn’t understand.”
The boy’s stimming, which occasionally broke the mystifying silence of the Elks Lodge that Sunday afternoon, provided appropriate background noise as the players and coaches listening to his father were “locked in” on every word.
“It’s powerful putting a face to it,” said North Brunswick star Eric Reardon, who belted his conference-leading fifth homer of the season earlier this week. “You can hear all the facts about autism and then you go and meet a parent who lives it every day, you really get an understanding. These people (with autism) are just like you and there shouldn’t be any reason these people should be treated differently.”
The message Reardon took was exactly what the father wanted to convey to those at the Elks Lodge.
“I think that’s the most important thing,” North Brunswick head coach Ryan Lillis said. “Although some people can’t verbally connect to you right away, it’s important to go over and say ‘Hi’ and it’s important that you are talking to them. I think our kids really got that message. It really struck home with them, and it struck home with me, as well.”
The keynote speaker said coaches from North Brunswick and Highland Park, who since volunteered along with their players at a Buddy Ball event with special needs children at a Middlesex County baseball complex, made a point at those training sessions to greet his son.
“Both times a coach from Highland Park and North Brunswick made a beeline to my son,” he said. “They tried to engage and talk to him and it really meant a lot. It’s a hard life when your child doesn’t speak, but it can be made better when you have people that care.”
The inaugural Baseball Challenge featured just eight teams from Middlesex County. Players wore specially designed “Autism Awareness” T-shirts only during pregame and volunteers circulated brochures with information about autism. The event was used, not as a fundraiser, but to heighten awareness.
During this year’s Baseball Challenge, players will wear more elaborate “Autism Awareness” jerseys with numbers on the back for the entire game. Tax deductible donations will be accepted at the gate with all monies going to a foundation Garlatti has established to benefit those in need. Volunteers will continue to educate spectators at the event, which is contested annually during Autism Awareness Month.
Those diagnosed with the disorder – puzzling for it has no known cause – are as varied as the colors of a rainbow, reflecting the multi-colored puzzle piece symbol that has universally been adopted to promote autism awareness.
Players from participating Baseball Challenge teams exchanged “autographed” colored puzzle pieces during last month’s information session. The players asked relatives, friends, teachers and classmates to sign the puzzle pieces in exchange for a donation to the foundation Garlatti created. Small change was as acceptable as dollar bills.
All participants are encouraged to wear their “Autism Awareness” jerseys to school this week to stimulate conversation among classmates about the event. Garlatti implored those players to share one message about autism with their peers.
“We are honored that people want to be in it,” Garlatti said of the event. “The coaches are behind it and the players are behind it, which is impressive and something I’m most proud of.”
Autism Awareness Baseball Challenge
At North Brunswick Community Park
Sayreville vs. Monroe, 10
Millburn vs. South Plainfield, 10
Colonia vs. Marist, 1
Holy Spirit vs. North Brunswick, 1
Spotswood vs. Robbinsville, 4
Weehawken vs. Middlesex, 4
South River vs. Plainfield, 7
Steinert vs. St. Joseph, 7
Westfield vs. J.P. Stevens, 10
Metuchen vs. Bernards, 10
Edison vs. North Hunterdon, 1
Woodbridge vs. Hillsborough, 1
Old Bridge vs. Elizabeth, 4
Barnegat vs. Somerville, 4
Christian Brothers vs. St. Peter’s Prep, 7
Red Bank Catholic vs. Pope John, 7
Staff writer Greg Tufaro: email@example.com