College basketball history was made this month when Kent State University center Kalin Bennett became the first Division I (as in highest level) player with autism to score in a game.
And the 6’11,” 300-pound freshman had another historical moment last fall when he became the first person with autism to sign a national letter of intent to play basketball with a Division I school.
These firsts — particularly the signing of a letter of intent, which is generally tied to an athletic scholarship — are more significant than the YouTube moments in which a child with autism or another disability is put into the final seconds of a middle school or high school game when the outcome is already clear.
While those moments are heart warming and often wonderful as they teach lessons about kindness and inclusion, they don’t by themselves signify a shift in how those with autism should be viewed by society or by themselves.
Bennett’s pair of firsts sends the message that those with autism can achieve a great deal more than they and many others might have assumed.
“For my mom to see it was really big for me,” Bennett told The Associated Press after the game. “To let her know that everything you’ve done has not been in vain.”
Bennett was diagnosed with autism at nine months old. Doctors told his mother, Sonja, that her son would never walk or talk. Sonja arranged for a therapist to come to their house three times a week, and Kalin Bennett eventually started banging on pots and pans to communicate. He learned to walk at age 3 and began talking at age 7, according to Sports Illustrated. After attending a basketball pep rally at school in third grade, Kalin Bennett decided he wanted to play basketball.
While his mother was nervous, a doctor as well as Sonja’s husband both thought it would be good for him.
They were correct. Kalin played AAU basketball, middle school basketball and high school basketball — getting better at each level.
He said his goal is to continue to improve.
“Coach has been pushing to me and pushing me to be better than I am the day before,” Kalin Bennett said. “That’s why I want to achieve and show consistent improvement.”
For the record, Bennett entered the game with six minutes left to play, and he finished with 2 points, two rebounds and one block.
That’s not what really matters. As Bennett said, he wants kids to believe in themselves “first and foremost,” and he knows he is setting an example for children with autism — and everybody else.