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Different, not less: love of sports helps military child with autism

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Danielle Quilla
  • 509th Bomb Wing public affairs
“Strike! ... Ball! ... Strike!”

With each call from the umpire, a vigilant statistician marks small tallies on a clipboard in the home dugout. Although he isn’t wearing a Tigers’ baseball uniform, he is representing his high school team by sporting a cardinal red baseball cap.

Andy Martins is a 17-year-old sports enthusiast and one of the managers of the Warrensburg High School baseball team. Andy has autism. This is his second year on the team, and this season he is responsible for counting pitches.

“This is an important task,” said Andy’s mom, Laura Martins, sitting in the bleachers, as she does for most of Andy’s games. “There is a limit on the number of baseballs a pitcher is allowed to throw during a game to avoid injury. Coaches need to know when a pitcher reaches that limit, and Andy will let them know.”

For Andy, however, the job means so much more than counting. It’s a chance for him to cheer on his high school peers, learn baseball tips from the coaches, and socialize, even with members of the opposing team, after the games.

“He has the ability to make friends with anyone and see the best in people,’ said Andy’s father, Senior Master Sgt. Fernando Martins, an avionics superintendent assigned to the 131st Aircraft Maintenance Squadron at Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri.

Although the high school sophomore has always been very social, it has taken a lot of time and patience from himself and his supporters for Andy to get to where he is today.

Andy was first diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder at the age of 2. His parents noticed he wasn’t hitting certain milestones in his development and had difficulty with communication and social interactions.

When Andy was 6, his parents enrolled him in Madison County Challenger Baseball in Edwardsville, Illinois. The league was specifically designed for kids just like Andy and paired them with buddies who were not on the autism spectrum. Each member of the team had a chance to bat with no strikes and no outs, and the last batter always brought the team home.

“Andy had so much energy and enthusiasm. Coupled with a desire to interact with others, he naturally gravitated toward sports,” Lara Martins said. “Once we found the program, he just couldn’t get enough of it.”

He went on to play in a YMCA Challenger Adaptive Sports Program and competed in the Special Olympics.

The more he played sports, the more his world opened up.

“He learned geography and state capitals with the help of sports,” said Laura Martins. “For example, he will say, ‘the Kansas City Royals are in Missouri, which is in the Midwest and the capital is Jefferson City.’”

She went on to explain that playing sports has helped to improve her son’s socialization skills by allowing him to share a common interest with people.

“He absolutely loves hanging out with the baseball players and coaches and to talk shop with them,” said Laura Martins. “Andy’s job as a manager for the Warrensburg Tigers also gives him a sense of purpose. Whenever he is charged with a task, he takes that responsibility seriously and remains focused until it is completed.”

Most of all though, she said sports have helped to bring her family closer.

“We often attend high school, college and professional sporting events together. Pick a team and Andy most likely has some sort of apparel or souvenir with their name on it,” said Laura Martins.

Although Andy’s 15-year-old sister, Vicki Martins, isn’t as big of a sports fan as he is, Vicki said that she enjoys going to her brother’s baseball games and other sporting events because it is something she can share with him.

Andy says he wants to continue working in sports as an adult.

“He really admired (Denver Bronco) Jamaal Charles when he found out that Jamaal participated in Special Olympics as a kid. He felt connected to Jamaal because they had so much in common, like difficulty reading as a child and a love for football,” said Laura Martins.

Meanwhile, baseball outfielder Tarik El-Abour, who signed a minor league deal with the Kansas City Royals on April 2, 2018, is thought to be the first professional baseball player with autism.

“Now that there is a professional baseball player with autism, and he is a KC Royal, batter up, because this is another wonderful role model for our sports-loving son,” Laura Martins said. “Athletes like Jamaal Charles and Tarik El-Abour are great examples of how we should never underestimate someone simply because a diagnosis puts a ‘dis’ in front of their ‘ability.’”

With continued support from his family and community – and his love of sports – Andy’s world continues to open up more every day.

Editor’s Note: For autism resources at Whiteman Air Force Base, contact the Exceptional Family Member Program at 660-687-6032.