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Austin Riley: Racing with Autism
1 January 2013
Canada's Austin Riley has been a breakthrough for autism in motorsport and is on the hunt for sponsors in order to continue his promising career.
In 2012 he was runner up in the Eastern Canadian Karting Championship's Rotax Mini Max class and champion in the class for the MIKA (Mosport International Karting Association) and TRAK (Toronto Racing Association of Karters) championships.
In January 2012, Austin was diagnosed with autism. Earlier in his life at the age of seven he had been diagnosed with ADHD, high anxiety and fine motor skill issues.
Austin's father Jason said: "It is quite common of children this age to be misdiagnosed at this age. It is also quite common for children that have autism also have these afflictions. It is very difficult for a doctor assessing a child of this age to be able to separate the two as there are so many things that can skew the tests one way or the other. When Austin was diagnosed with ADHD the doctor immediately prescribed medication. The next few years were terrible for our whole family. Austin didn't like the way the medication made him feel."
The medication was later discontinued. Sport was suggested as a means of improving Austin's motor skills. However, he didn't like hockey, football or basketball. It was at an arrive and drive karting event at the Goodwood Kartways circuit near Ontario that Austin really enjoyed himself.
Jason explained: "Since I can remember Austin has always been in love with cars. By the age of four he still couldn't read at all but could tell you every make or model of any car you saw. When Austin was little he couldn't last anywhere longer than 30 minutes without misbehaving but if you took him anywhere that had to do with cars he would happily spend all day and be as good as gold. When he was in school he was never allowed to have the window blinds open. If they were all he would do is just sit and watch the cars go by. When we tried him in karting we weren't sure if the automotive infatuation would cross over to driving but we are so thankful it has."
In 2007 when he was eight, Austin raced in Goodwood's youth category: "Austin finished the year third overall in the youth category," Jason said. "The two kids who beat him were three years older than he was. At the end of the year Goodwood offer the top three in each category a scholarship to take the next step up into competitive racing."
During recent years, Austin has been coached by fellow karter and Skip Barber Racing scholarship winner Bryson Schutte. The results have been promising as Jason elaborated: "In 2009 in his first year in Rotax Micro Max Austin was dominant. He won the club championship and finished third at the Nationals that year after leading for almost half the race. In 2010 I made the decision to move him to Mini Max which if I had to do it again I would keep him another year in Micro. He could handle the pace of the Mini kart quite easily but he couldn't handle the aggression of the older drivers. Being autistic he doesn't process conflict the same as you or me. He couldn't understand why other karts were pushing him or bumping him.
In 2011 we started to see flashes of the racer he was in 2009. He had tremendous race pace but struggled with qualifying. He would qualify mid pack almost every race but would always set fastest lap in the prefinal and final. He ended up with three podiums the whole year but was always near the front. In his first two years in Mini Austin was only fast if he was following someone fast. This year he has been able to be fast out front by himself regardless of who he is racing."
Praga, the karting constructor that won the KZ1 World Cup with Bas Lammers got in touch with the Rileys in 2012: "Austin had an article written about him in the Toronto Star newspaper in September," Jason said. "Marco Dileo of Goodwood Kartways and IPK North America were at the Praga factory in October to see the unveiling of the OK1 brand and discuss Praga's business in North America. Marco had dinner one night with Krystle Carrara of Praga and somehow Austin's story came up. Marco then put her in touch with me and the rest is history."
For 2013, Austin will race in Junior Rotax. He demonstrated promise in the class at the end of 2012: "For the last race of this season I let him race in both Mini and JR," Jason said. "The only problem was they were back to back. So as soon as he came off the scales he had to run down the grid to get in the JR. He ended up winning in Mini and finished a respectable sixth out of 12 in JR."
The success at the track has come at a great financial cost. Jason said: "I can't tell you how much our family has sacrificed in the last few years to keep Austin racing. In 2009 halfway through the race season my wife was laid off from work and my work week was shortened down to four days. We couldn't afford to race but we also couldn't stop. When you see your son struggle for acceptance and happiness his whole life and all of a sudden he finds something that changes that, how can you take that away?
My wife and I decided to cash in our retirement savings so that Austin could continue racing. This past year we made the decision to sell my prized Camaro so Austin could finish off this year. My daughter who is one of Austin's biggest supporters will be going to college or university in the next couple of years and as it stands right now I don't know how I can fund Austin's racing and Courtney's schooling at the same time. We are hoping at some point in the not too distant future we are able to find a sponsor for Austin to help him continue."
The team hope to organise a charity race at Goodwood Kartways this summer with the proceeds going to the charity Autism Speaks Canada. The Rileys have been getting attention from all over the world from other parents as Jason pointed out:
"I believe Austin is changing a lot of minds about autism. I can't tell you how many emails and facebook messages I have received since this all started. One in particular stands out from a gentleman who has two children who have both been diagnosed with autism. 'Hi, just wanted to send an email after watching Austin's video done by the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) I am a parent with two children with autism and after seeing Austin's video it really changed my outlook on life. Just wanted to thank you Austin by showing me that there is light at the end of the tunnel! Thank you once again and good luck with the races.'"
The team's website is: http://www.racingwithautism.com/
by Simon Stiel
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