MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — In a packed gym on a Saturday morning, the atmosphere is downright raucous.
With every basket, the crowd goes wild.
Every basket. Even the opponent’s.
“That’s something that you’ll never see at another sporting event,” said Stephanie Bakke, with a laugh.
Because this sporting event is unlike any other. Every one of these kids has autism.
“I like that it’s active, that you get to shoot hoops, and it’s a lot of fun,” said 13-year-old Nathan Wong. “And there’s the audience clapping.”
“I mean, you heard the cheers,” said Eric Nelson, a behavioral therapist and referee for the games. “You heard it. I mean, it’s great.”
The Minnesota Autism Center started the league when it started its school three years ago. For most of the children in this program, it’s their first experience with team sports. They play a 12-week schedule on Saturday mornings from January through March.
“One of the things about autism,” said Kelly Adams, whose son Roman is in the league, “is that can be really challenging is to pull them out of their world and into our world.”
“It’s outside of their box,” adds Bakke, whose son Ben also plays.
So they get them out of their box by teaching them to box out.
“Learning how to pass to each other, learning how to interact with each other, learning how to initiate and say, ‘I’m open,’ which is a brand new concept to them, to initiate,” Bakke said. “It’s that kind of spontaneous interaction. And for the first time, even today on the bench, I was next to one of the players, and I literally heard him spontaneously saying — this is a child that doesn’t talk a whole lot — but I heard him say, ‘Come on defense, defense, arms up!'”
“I mean, these are such extraordinary victories for families like ours. And I’m telling you,” Nelson said, “we have success stories for every single kid on that court.”
Stories that now number more than 100. And translate off the court.
“It gives them a sense of accomplishment and pride,” Adams said. “When you see their faces out there when they make a basket or they hear the crowd cheering for them…and people are like, hooting and howling, that’s incredible for kids and that’s such a self-esteem boost.”
“The most fun part of playing here is seeing all the staff and the students clapping for us when we get a hoop,” Wong said. “I feel proud.”
The Minnesota Autism Center is hoping to open another school soon. For more information, visit mnautism.org.