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Motor Mouth: Autistic teen racer leaves doubters in the dust

Driving.ca logo Driving.ca 2017-05-19 David Booth
© Provided by Driving.ca

This could be the story of almost any car-mad teenager. First, there’s the almost life-long passion — now shared between father and son — for racing. Then there’s the seemingly otherworldly skill gleaned from racing since the now-teenager was in short pants, a basement full of trophies proof that said otherworldly skills are no fluke.

And the family pickup truck, a barely two-year-old Chevy Silverado, already showing 145,000 kilometres, testament to a father’s devotion to his son, the last two summers spent criss-crossing North America — from East Coast to West; Canada and the United States — visiting every go-kart race track the family could find. The son, freshly armed with his G1 licence, chauffeuring his father — an electronics firm salesman — from client to client in the family’s Volkswagen Golf GTI, just so, as with all teenagers obsessed with cars, he can spend more time behind the wheel. In other words, all the typical hallmarks of a teenaged need for speed.

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Except for one thing. The obsessed teen in question — the one racing (and winning!) in karting series across North America — is autistic. And, diagnosed with “high-functioning” autism when he was 12, Austin Riley is now celebrating his recent 18th birthday by competing this weekend in the opening round of the incredibly competitive Micra Cup at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park in Bowmanville, Ontario.

<span style="font-size:13px;">Austin Riley will be running the number 20 car in the Nissan Micra Cup</span> © Provided by Driving.ca Austin Riley will be running the number 20 car in the Nissan Micra Cup

It’s a long way from being told, at age six, that he had ADHD and would never have fine motor skills. You wouldn’t know, for instance, watching him easily keeping up with more experienced drivers in his first test in his red, white and blue Micra race car, that he still can’t tie his own shoes, that he can’t use scissors properly and that, when writing something simple – even his name – he still needs a large piece of paper so he can laboriously draw, letter by letter, A U S T I N in large, sprawling script. And yet …

Austin’s brain is incredibly agile. After watching a movie just once, he can recite the script back verbatim, his memory so exact that, when he watches a movie a second time, he often does so without sound: ”What the point? I know what they are going to say.”

Above all, though, Austin — named after Austin Healey, his dad’s favourite English roadster — loves cars. His first word was “Ferrari.” As a toddler, he didn’t want to sleep with a teddy bear but rather a die-cast model car, every night a different scenario involving a race, a dealership or an auto show playing out in his Uxbridge, Ont., bedroom.

When he was six, Austin saw his first supercar — a Shelby Cobra. He laid down on the ground right next to it “because it was the best place to hear the engine when it started,” recalls Shane, his 30-year-old cousin who has followed Austin everywhere on the family’s Racing with Autism tour, that has so far visited Canada, the U.S., Bermuda, the United Kingdom and even Australia. At every school or racetrack visited, the same simple message is preached — autism is not some form of life sentence.

Yet, it almost never happened. Anxious, as all parents of autistic children are, to find some activity that would keep Austin busy (“and out of trouble!” says Jennifer, his mother), his parents tried everything including soccer (Austin kicked the ball once and then never bothered to kick it again) and power-skating (he immediately fell to the ice and stayed there for the remaining 55 minutes of the one-hour lesson). In desperation, father Jason showed him a flyer for a karting school at Goodwood Kartways in nearby Stouffville. Austin wasn’t interested. But, his parents insisted, promising — and this seems to have been the real enticement for Austin — to go for ice cream after the session.

The ice cream parlour never did see the Riley family that day, Austin all but refusing to leave the track. Far from being timid, Jason says, Austin seldom took off his foot off the gas, spinning off, according to the father, at least 20 times. “I never saw a smile on his face like the one I saw that day,” he recalls.

More surprising, perhaps, was that Austin revealed a talent for racing almost immediately. In his first race, he finished next to last, but by the end of the summer he had moved up to third overall — against 200 competitors — and was, beams a proud papa, “by far the youngest.”

<span style="font-size:13px;">Austin Riley prepares for practice in Mirabel, Quebec</span> © Provided by Driving.ca Austin Riley prepares for practice in Mirabel, Quebec

It was just the beginning of Austin’s success. In 2014, he graduated from the Skip Barber Formula Racing School, the first autistic person to do so. In 2015, he won the CRKC Sunday Series Championship at Goodwood. And last summer he finished second in the extremely competitive Ron Fellows Karting Challenge, as well as in the Eastern Canadian Karting Championship.

And, listening to Austin in the pits (he’s so much more confident about speaking to strangers since he’s been racing, his parents report), you’d almost think autism was an advantage.

“I’m probably more focused on the track than the other drivers are,” said the budding Micra Cup racer — sponsored by the Groupe Touchette Pirelli, ELS for Autism and Azure Racing, by the way; yes that’s a deliberate shout-out to some very deserving sponsors. And, like every teenaged racer, Austin dreams of one day competing in Formula One. Asked what he needs to make it there, Austin’s succinct, one-word answer is no different from any budding racer making his way up the ladder: “Money!”

Of course, battling autism isn’t easy. And battling is definitely what Austin does every day. Change — as parents of any autistic child know — does not come easily. Any time his routine is disrupted adds to an already high level of stress. “What time will we be there? What time is the first driving session? Where’s my new race suit? Mom, are you sure you didn’t forget to order it?” are on constant repeat for the five-hour drive to Mirabel, Quebec, for his first test session.

Yet, even that anxiety has been diminished by racing. One of the surprises from Austin’s Racing with Autism tours has been that gradually, almost imperceptibly, the time he has spent on the road preaching the gospel of inclusion has also made him less nervous about change. Indeed, at the end of the most recent tour, Austin began speaking in front of audiences, a load Jason used to carry exclusively. And, after he got back from the first tour, Austin’s teachers were astounded at how much more outgoing he was for having spent the summer touring the kart racing circuit.

And that, in the end, is Austin’s ultimate triumph. He may, or may not, win the Nissan Micra Cup championship (though seeing him mix it up with vastly more experienced Cup racers at the recent ICAR test, you wouldn’t want to bet against him). And, even if he does, who knows how much farther he’ll go with this obsession for racing. Much more important is how, in growing emotionally himself, he’s become a role model for others with autism and, with his incredible journey, he’s changing hearts and minds one (rather speedy) lap at a time.

With files from Nadine Filion.

David@davebooth.ca

@MotorMouthNP

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