Find­ing his mo­tor skills

Rookie Mi­cra Cup racer leaves autism in slow lane

The Province - - DRIVING - David Booth — With files from Na­dine Filion

This could be the story of any car-mad teenager. First, there’s the al­most life­long 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.

The fam­ily pickup truck, a barely two-year-old Chevy Silverado, al­ready show­ing 145,000 kilo­me­tres, is tes­ta­ment to a fa­ther’s de­vo­tion to his son.

The past two sum­mers were spent criss-cross­ing North Amer­ica from East Coast to West, in 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 GTi just so he can spend more time be­hind the wheel, as with all teenagers ob­sessed with cars.

In other words, all the typ­i­cal hall­marks of a teenage need for speed.

Ex­cept for one thing: The ob­sessed teen in ques­tion — the one racing (and win­ning!) in kart­ing se­ries across North Amer­ica — is autis­tic.

Di­ag­nosed with “high-func­tion­ing” autism when he was 12, Austin Ri­ley is now cel­e­brat­ing his re­cent 18th birth­day by com­pet­ing in the open­ing round of the in­cred­i­bly com­pet­i­tive Mi­cra Cup at Cana­dian Tire Mo­tor­sport Park in Bow­manville, Ont.

It’s a long way from be­ing told, at age six, that he 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 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, AUSTIN in large, sprawl­ing script.

And yet Austin’s brain is in­cred­i­bly ag­ile. Af­ter watch­ing a movie just once, he can re­cite the script back to you ver­ba­tim, his mem­ory so ex­act that, when he watches a movie a sec­ond time, he of­ten does so with­out sound: “What’s 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.

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-yearold 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 Aus­tralia. At ev­ery school or race­track vis­ited, the same sim­ple mes­sage is preached: autism is not some form of life sen­tence.

It al­most didn’t hap­pen. 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. With soc­cer, Austin kicked the ball once and then never both­ered to kick it again, and in power-skat­ing he im­me­di­ately fell to the ice and stayed there for the re­main­ing 55 min­utes of the one-hour les­son.

In des­per­a­tion, his 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 re­fused to leave the track.

Far from be­ing timid, Ja­son says, Austin sel­dom took 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 Austin re­vealed a tal­ent for racing al­most im­me­di­ately.

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, 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.

He is spon­sored by the Groupe Touchette Pirelli, ELS for Autism and Azure Racing, by the way.

And yes, that’s a de­lib­er­ate shoutout to some very de­serv­ing spon­sors.

Like ev­ery teenage racer, Austin dreams of one day com­pet­ing in For­mula One.

Of course, bat­tling autism isn’t easy. And bat­tle 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, Que., 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.

That, in the end, is Austin’s ul­ti­mate tri­umph.

He may, or may not, win the Nis­san Mi­cra Cup cham­pi­onship (see­ing him mix it up with vastly more ex­pe­ri­enced Cup rac­ers, you wouldn’t want to bet against him).

Even if he does win, who knows how much far­ther he’ll go?

Much more im­por­tant is how, in grow­ing emo­tion­ally him­self, he’s be­come a role model for oth­ers with autism.

With his in­cred­i­ble jour­ney, he’s chang­ing hearts and minds one (rather speedy) lap at a time.

NA­DINE FILION/DRIV­ING.CA

Austin Ri­ley is driv­ing in the Nis­san Mi­cra Cup.

NA­DINE FILION/DRIV­ING.CA

Austin Ri­ley is driv­ing the Nis­san Mi­cra Cup in 2017. His autism makes him in­cred­i­bly fo­cused on the race track.

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