Basketball program in Maplewood gives adults with autism chance to belong

Josh Einiger Image
Wednesday, May 31, 2023
Basketball program gives adults with autism chance to belong
A basketball program St. Joseph's High School in Maplewood is giving adults with autism a chance to feel like they belong.

MAPLEWOOD, New Jersey (WABC) -- A newly formed basketball program in New Jersey is more than just a clinic in shooting, passing and dribbling, it's giving adults with autism a chance to be seen and heard.

In an Essex County gym, Ben Hack was feeling sheer joy through the simple pleasure of making a swish from half court, again and again. And he did it all surrounded by people just like him.

"We're just grateful we're super grateful," Hack's mother Mary Beth Walsh said.

Walsh has doted on Hack since his autism diagnosis at 2 years old. He's now 24 and nonverbal. When it comes to life as an adult, he has few options.

"There are a lot of young adults with autism who are lonely," Walsh said. "Who need friends, who need places to go and other people to hang out with. I thought we just need a gym and we need people willing to work with us."

Gerry O'Connor, the head coach for CYO Basketball at St. Joseph's High School in Maplewood, said Walsh came to him and asked if he could try to do a clinic for adults with autism.

"I said I don't know. I didn't go to school for special ed. I don't know," O'Connor said. "She said you can do this, don't worry about it just teach them."

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With that, a one-of-a-kind program was born.

It includes 12 people with autism, coached by volunteer high school students like Callan Bauer, who's learning just as much as the players he's here to teach.

"It's super rewarding, I mean the joy that they show making shots, making passes, it brings me joy," Bauer said. "I enjoy doing it a lot."

In the entire Archdiocese of Newark, there are 212 parishes. St. Josephs of Maplewood is the only parish with a program like this, and the archdiocese wants to change that.

"This is a model for what you can build in your backyard too," Walsh said. "We really met a profound need of adults, lonely bored adults with autism and give them something to look forward to over the course of the week and a place to participate and feel like they belong."

O'Connor has been coaching for 35 years but says this is the most rewarding thing he's ever done because of the smiles on their faces.

"If they come back next week, we did a good job," he said.

Tuesday's clinic was the final one before the summer, but you can bet Hack will be back in the fall.

He and his friends may not be able to talk, but their smiles speak volumes.


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