Asperger’s can’t stop Highlands middle schooler’s basketball passion
Austin Ciciarelli of Harrison found his happy place — on the basketball court.
Ciciarelli, 13, was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism, as a toddler.
He tried out for the Highlands Middle School Rams basketball team last year while in seventh grade and made the cut.
Daily practices at home with his basketball hoop and real team experience have enriched his life, according to his parents, Shawn and Suzanne Ciciarelli.
“We’re very proud of him — the fact that he is on the team and the other kids are very welcoming to him,” Suzanne Ciciarelli said.
Austin, No. 51, serves as team manager and plays in games, too, usually during the last quarter.
Austin’s mom said her son is high functioning and an honor roll student at Highlands, but his sometimes-limited social skills have improved through his love of basketball.
“It gives him exercise, something to look forward to, an understanding that you can’t win them all or play in all of the games, and teaches him about supporting his school and teammates through the good and bad,” Suzanne Ciciarelli said.
Austin’s interest in basketball began during third grade when he began playing and honing his skills at the local YMCA.
“I like basketball and cheering for my friends,”said Austin, now in eighth grade.
This season’s highlight for Austin?
“Scoring,” he said.
Austin scored a three-pointer this season and helped his team to victory last month with a two-pointer during a game against Apollo-Ridge.
Highlands history teacher and seventh-grade basketball coach Michael Foster interacts with Austin daily during homeroom.
He credits Austin’s strong work ethic for helping him land a spot on the team.
“Austin has always been willing to work hard in and out of the classroom,” Foster said, “and I am looking forward to watching him grow on and off the court.”
When Austin isn’t shooting hoops, he enjoys riding quads, swimming, biking, hunting and fishing.
His teammates have rallied around Austin, encouraging him, and Austin’s parents are thankful for the support.
“It’s been great for us,” Shawn Ciciarelli said. “The way he gets out there and plays, it makes him smile — and that’s all that counts.”
Eighth-grade head basketball coach Steve Bielak praised Austin’s enthusiasm.
“Austin is the first to stand up and give a high-five,” Bielak said. “He has been awesome to have on this team.”
Teammate Jimmy Kunst praised Austin’s positive attitude and sportsmanship.
“Austin allows our team to bond together with the positive energy that he always has,” Kunst said. “He is always having a good time and is enthusiastic about playing the game he loves no matter what the outcome. He adds so much to the team with how he acts and leads by example.”
Austin hopes to continue his basketball journey next year as a freshman at Highlands High School.
Joyce Hanz is a freelance writer.
Joyce Hanz is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.