Breaking Barriers in NASCAR with Autism

Meet Armani Williams, the first NASCAR driver with ASD who is not just racing against opponents but also inspiring others with similar challenges.

ARMANI WILLIAMS

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Armani Williams has a simple message for the ASD community and it’s one he holds close to his own heart.

“Don’t give up, always have hope and faith, and if you go after your dream, that dream will happen,” says the 23-year-old.

It’s a mantra Armani is putting into practice as one of American stock car racing’s rising stars, and the first with ASD to reach the sport’s highest levels.  

During the course of his conversation with Optism, the news comes through that the massive NASCAR organization has approved Armani’s participation in its Xfinity Series, one of the top three national divisions of NASCAR.

Childhood dreams and challenges with ASD

It’s the fulfillment of a dream Armani has been chasing since he was a “very young kid” playing with his Hot Wheels and Matchbox toys on the floor of his family home in Grosse Pointe, Michigan.

“After watching my first race on TV, I was hooked and wanted to watch every single NASCAR race that was on,” says Armani. “That’s when I went from loving cars to loving racing. I loved it so much that I told my dad one day that I wanted to be a professional race car driver.”

While Armani’s childhood matches that of almost every other young boy who dreams of racing cars one day, it takes a turn with Armani’s ASD diagnosis when he was two years old. Despite all expectations that he would be non-verbal, Armani started speaking at three, but he continued to have difficulties in his early childhood.

“It was never easy,” he recalls. “I was the kind of kid that was shy and never really talked a whole lot. I always wanted to try and make as many friends as possible but there was always a disconnect and I could not realise why. Was it how I acted? Was it something that I said that was off? I couldn’t really figure it out.”

ARMANI WILLIAMS
ARMANI WILLIAMS
Armani Williams, in racing gear, exudes determination at the racetrack.

Preparing for the future after an ASD diagnosis

Armani's parents explained his condition to him once he was 11 and entered middle school, and the pieces of his life started to fall into place.

“Once I learned the truth, it was like a weight came off my shoulders, and it made sense in terms of what I had been dealing with all this time,” he says. “From there, I could move forward in how I could handle having ASD for all my life.”

Armani’s parents turned to specialists and research “to find any sort of help that they could find.”

“My parents had me go through therapies like behavioral therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy, you name it, to help me prepare for the future,” he says.

The many challenges included issues with communication, social interaction, and repetitive behavior. While Armani’s parents worked with him on communication, he says he “took the initiative” when it came to interaction and behavior.  Armani explains:

Making sure I kept myself in control emotionally and learning to always stay calm no matter what situation I was in.

"Even growing up to this day I always wanted to pride myself in never letting my emotions get the best of me at the wrong times. All of those things have come with the great support that I had through my parents, teachers, and mentors and have helped me open myself up like never before and I can figure out what kind of person I want to be known for."

Inspiring the global ASD community

Armani’s fixation with cars led his father to take him go-karting, and then to the Brickyard 400 stock car race at the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2010. After that, there was no turning back.

“The one thing I love about getting behind the wheel is that I get to go fast. I love the need for speed every time I’m out on the racetrack,” says Armani, who says driving helps him focus. “You get to push it to the absolute limit, doing whatever it takes to win.”

Armani raced his way through the American go-kart series up to the bigger stock cars which can reach speeds up to 322 km/h. He has finished in the top 10 in secondary-level racing, and he and his family are now looking for sponsors to back his season in the Xfinity Series. After that, he hopes to graduate into the NASCAR Cup Series, the pinnacle of the sport, while providing inspiration to the global ASD community along the way.

“I want to be competitive every time I hit the racetrack and go after wins,” says Armani. “I want to set an example for the millions of individuals and children who have been impacted with autism to show that anything is possible in this world having autism.”

 

Lessons from Armani

  • Never let autism get you down and stop you reaching what you can accomplish in this world.
  • Think of anything that catches your interest and ask yourself if this is something I want to grow up to be? Is this my dream? If so, go for it.
  • Work hard and take the steps towards whatever it’s going to take to achieve your dream.
  • Find the right support system around you, people who not only believe in you but encourage you no matter what.
  • If you do those things, anything is possible.