Kansas City Royals Make History By Signing Independent League Player With Autism

Posted on April 09 2018

Typically, when a player gets signed from an independent league, it doesn’t make the news. But the Kansas City Royals did when they signed Tarik El-Abour to a minor league contract. More often than not, signing someone to a minor league contract is far from newsworthy.

But this time it is—because El-Abour has autism.

What does El-Arbour Signing Mean?

Many will see the uniqueness in the signing because they’ll picture the Royals signing someone like Shaun from the television show The Good Doctor, Sam from the Netflix series Atypical, or Dustin Hoffman’s character from the 1988 movie Rain Man.

The three are wildly different characters and each does have autism. But there is a reason why medical professionals refer to it as the “autism spectrum disorder.” The Autism Society defines it as:

“…a complex developmental disability; signs typically appear during early childhood and affect a person’s ability to communicate and interact with others. ASD is defined by a certain set of behaviors and is a “spectrum condition” that affects individuals differently and to varying degrees.”

A person with autism can be someone like Dustin Hoffman’s character who can’t take care of himself, or it could be someone like Shaun who despite his intelligence is extremely awkward in social settings and has trouble relating to people. The possibilities and severity are broad, to say the least.

Many of the difficulties commonly associated with people who have autism would make it hard to play a team sport like baseball—which is what makes this signing so significant. It helps dispel the notion that a person with autism is not capable of doing things; that they have a disability that is holding them back.

Dispelling the notion people with Autism cant play sport

As autism advocates will tell you, people with autism are not disabled; they are just “differently abled.“

His mother, Nadia Khalil, recognized how her son’s mind works differently and how that helped drive his passion and desire for baseball (Yahoo):

“...Those of us without autism think in concepts, he thinks in numbers. The greater the number of times he did anything, the better he was at it. Just like us. However, the way the numbers worked in his mind went way further than anything I could have yet imagined. He knew he had to practice. He knew he loved it…. He did not know yet how different he was. He did not know yet how autism was going to speak for him before he could speak for himself.”

Of course, there is a possibility that El-Abour is not the first person with autism to play professional baseball. There are approximately 3.5 million people in the United States on the spectrum. Prevalence rates in the 1970s and 80s were around one in every 2,000 children. But since then, as the medical profession has gotten better at diagnosing autism, the rate has climbed up to one in 68 (as of 2016).

So there is a very strong possibility that there has been a player on the spectrum in baseball in the past—but we don’t know for certain. El-Abour's signing isn’t, however, the first time a professional baseball team has signed a player with what is perceived to be a disability.

Current Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Zack Greinke was diagnosed with social anxiety disorder in 2006. Curtis Pride played for several teams over the course of 11 seasons despite being deaf since birth. Jim Abbott pitched for the Angels, Yankees, White Sox, and Brewers from 1989-99.   

Jim Eisenreich went into voluntary retirement in 1984 in order to receive treatment for Tourette syndrome. When he was ready to resume his baseball career in 1987, it was the Kansas City Royals that gave him a shot.


How far Can El-Abour Career Go?

It is unlikely that El-Abour will get a shot with the big club this season. It has nothing to do with his diagnosis; minor league players commonly take time to work their way up. But in time, if he can continue to improve his game, it is entirely possible he may. But whether he does or if he is indeed the first autistic player isn’t what is important.

What is important is that he is proving that his diagnosis is not what defines him.

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