When Taylor Duncan was 4 years old he was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. Anxiety, sensory issues and other people’s perceptions came with that diagnosis and kept him from experiencing one of his great loves — baseball.
“Growing up I had a lot of developmental delays that cost me the opportunity to play typical baseball,” Duncan said.
He watched baseball intently, an avid Braves fan growing up in a suburb of Atlanta. He remembers seeing Randy Johnson pitch a perfect game against Duncan’s home team in 2004, and today Duncan admittedly follows “more college baseball than football.”
Duncan, 25, found a way to turn his passion for baseball into a way to help others who, like him, didn’t get as many opportunities to participate in America’s pasttime. In 2016, he founded Alternative Baseball, a nonprofit organization that provides an authentic baseball experience for teens 15 and up and adults with autism and other special needs.
“With the help of my mom, teachers, mentors, and coaches who believed in me, I’ve gotten to where I am today in my life: To live with the goal to inspire, raise awareness, and acceptance for autism and special needs globally through the sport of baseball,” he said.
The program aims to help players gain social and physical skills for success in life on and off the diamond, Duncan said. It began with a single team and slowly grew to two thanks to word of mouth. Then he was featured on ESPN’s Baseball Tonight and the Today Show. He’s even given a TedxTalk.
Alternative Baseball had grown to about 20 teams in 12 states before COVID-19 hit the U.S., which halted games and practices, of course. In the meantime the number of teams has grown to clubs in more than 30 states. The Southeast branch currently has teams in Shreveport as well as Alabama, Mississippi, Florida, Georgia and South Carolina, he said.
“A lot of teams are getting started and rebuilding,” Duncan said.
Duncan said he’s been working with interested volunteers in the Shreveport-Bossier area and Alexandria to start teams, and he wants to add other parts of the state like Lafayette, Baton Rouge and New Orleans to his roster. The goal is that players would not need to travel to play.
“Whether you live in a small area or a large metropolis, everyone deserves the same opportunity to be accepted for who they are, to be encouraged and to accomplish something,” Duncan said.
The organization provides equipment and resources to help a new program become successful, but it does require help from volunteers. They fill important and diverse roles ranging from manager and assistant coach to photographer or organizer.
“We must find the coach/manager in order to begin,” he said.
Duncan is looking for those with baseball experience, and “disability experience is a huge plus” but not required, he said.
“They just need patience and the willingness to help players be their best possible version,” Duncan said.
He’s also looking for available baseball fields or sports complexes interested in partnering to make this a reality in more communities. And of course, they need players interested in joining the league.
“Players can be of all experience levels,” Duncan said. “We take them from where they start out at (whether they require to be pitched to slow overhand or hit off the tee), and help develop their physical and social skills.”
Alternative Baseball is meant to enhance available resources for those with special needs, which often are lacking for teens and adults. Many services plateau as those with autism graduate from high school.
“The disability spectrum is quite humongous, and it’s impossible for one service in an area to cover those in the entire spectrum,” he said. “There are nowhere near enough services for high-schoolers and adults. In a lot of suburban and rural areas, there are no services for those to continue their path toward independence. Many travel to find the limited services which may or may not be available to their specific needs.”
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Alternative Baseball games are played following the “old school” Major League Baseball rule set from the 1990s, including the four-pitch intentional walk rule that was expired four years ago, Duncan said.
They use wooden bats and an adapted ball, which is larger and much softer than a typical baseball. The league is co-ed and no assistants or “buddies” are on the field with players.
Find more information on the organization and how to get involved at AlternativeBaseball.org.
Contact children’s issues reporter Leigh Guidry at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @LeighGGuidry.