This story is part of the 2020 Project, a special men’s health project that examines the lives of 20 different 20-year-old men across America. To learn more about the others, click here.
BEFORE THE GAME TIME The men’s basketball locker room in Kent State is usually billed. Music sounds. Sporty ligament tears. Teammates scream and cheer. But Kalin Bennett, the team’s six-foot-eleven-inch center, is calm. He checks the game plan. He has game material in his head. He scurries through to where any player might be on the court at any point during the game.
It’s the same preparation that helped Bennett lead Little Rock Christian Academy to a successful 2018 season. It’s the same preparation that helped him hit a left-handed hook in his debut game for Kent State in 2019. And that same preparation does not help understanding autism as a disability, but just as a different way the brain can function.
Bennett is a person with autism, also known as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), a set of developmental problems that can affect communication and socialization. His mother Sonja realized that her son was different from what he was. “He wasn’t focusing on me and didn’t want me to hug him,” she says. “He just wanted to sit in the corner and rock.”
In 2008, the prevalence of ASD among eight-year-olds was one in 88. By 2016, it was one in 54. The increase could be due to more doctors knowing the criteria, says Zoe Gross, director of operations at Autistic Self Advocacy Network.
When doctors diagnosed Bennett, people told Sonja that he needed to be “institutionalized” and that she “needs to understand that he will never, never do that”.
While it’s still unclear what causes ASD – genetic factors can play a significant role – Gross says girls, women, and people of color are “underdiagnosed”. ASD is no more common in white children than in black and Hispanic peers. However, Black and Hispanic children are often diagnosed later, in part due to a lack of access to ASD experts. This delay can lead to missed treatment options, which can affect long-term quality of life.
Sonja found a pediatrician who recommended therapy programs, and she developed other strategies herself until her son could speak, which he did at the age of seven. When Bennett was eight, he watched the 2008 NBA Eastern Conference semifinals between the Boston Celtics and the Cleveland Cavaliers. “I saw LeBron James dive in and said, ‘I can; I want to do that, ”he says. There is a saying in the Bennett household: “Can’t is not an option,” says Sonja. And so Bennett’s older sister Kay began playing basketball with him. “[My family] gave me a chance, ”he says. “You had my back from the start.”
Until two years ago, he didn’t talk much about being someone with autism. Part of it, he says, was because he didn’t understand it himself. When he started playing on a team in 2014, Bennett was “in his shell,” says Sonja, and was uncomfortable with his Arkansas Hawks teammates. But he was comfortable with the ball and had a knack for free throws and blocking. He had a knack for math, too, and his coach at the time figured out how to use numbers to communicate games to him – a method Bennett uses to process the game today.
Then, one fall evening in 2019 on Link Year, a high school-college Bible program, Bennett shared his story with his teammates. He chose to include his autism in the narrative. “You hugged me so quickly,” he says. “You never stopped supporting me.”
Since then, Bennett has set up the SpeKTrum50 Foundation (50 is his Kent State number and his favorite number since third grade) to advocate better understanding of autism. He founded ktech50.com, assembled a board of directors, and hosted a meet and greet with three school-age autistic basketball players in his home state of Arkansas. “I want to help children who are different not to feel different,” he says.
“As a 20-year-old, I’ve matured a lot,” adds Bennett. “I love who I am. I may have autism, but I love that part of me. “
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