MLB aims to raise awareness of autism

MLB aims to raise awareness of autism

Lisa Cancro was born in 1990, and around her eighth or ninth month of life it became certain.

She had autism.

Her parents, Larry and Luise, were at a hotel in Arizona for a meeting when they looked at each other that day and realized something was different. They felt so alone. Larry's father had been one of the first people to professionally enter the field of autism study back in the 1950s, so Larry had been around it his entire life. He and Luise had both studied autism and considered working in the field.

Now, suddenly, here it was, changing life as they would know it.

"We knew she was supposed to achieve certain thresholds, and she wasn't achieving them," remembers Larry, now senior vice president of Fenway Affairs with the Red Sox. "It was not as well known back then and not as common. One in 10,000 kids had autism, and the average doctor didn't know the first thing about it. And it was really unusual for it to strike with a female, because four out of five cases were male and still are. Suddenly we had this situation on our hands.

"We were as prepared as anybody could to face this, and it was just devastating. It's a disorder that affects one person, but it also affects the entire family as a residual -- the way you behave, the things you can and can't do, it hinges everything about your life. It's very profound ... you can't possibly understand it fully unless it is in your family."

On Monday, Major League Baseball announced that it would do something about "the things you can and can't do" as families who live with autism. MLB is teaming up with Autism Speaks, the world's leading autism science and advocacy organization, in a league-wide effort to recognize Autism Awareness Month in April.

All 30 clubs will raise awareness for the disorder during one home game in April, or on another date during the regular season. Many of the MLB Autism Awareness games throughout the league will provide special opportunities and a safe, friendly environment for families and individuals affected by autism.

"Autism affects many of our fans and members of the baseball family," Commissioner Bud Selig said. "Many clubs are longstanding supporters of the autism community. As an extension of those efforts, Major League Baseball is very proud to educate our fans through the MLB Autism Awareness initiative."

Working with Autism Speaks or other autism awareness organizations, many clubs will recognize local families during pregame ceremonies, and members of the autism community will participate in various traditional baseball activities, including throwing out the first pitch, singing the national anthem, announcing "Play Ball!," singing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" or performing "God Bless America."

"For many families in the autism community, the joy of a baseball game has never been possible," Autism Speaks president Liz Feld said. "With Major League Baseball's support, a time-honored tradition will now be a reality for thousands of families across the country."

Autism is a general term used to describe a group of complex developmental brain disorders -- autism spectrum disorders -- caused by a combination of genes and environmental influences. These disorders are characterized, in varying degrees, by communication difficulties, social and behavioral challenges, as well as repetitive behaviors.

"Research is indicating it's probably a genetic issue combined with an environmental trigger," Larry Cancro said. "And we don't know what the environmental triggers are, and we're only at the early stages of identifying the genetic trait."

A rate once considered one in 10,000 on the autism spectrum at the time of Lisa Cancro's diagnosis has soared in prevalence for U.S. children -- to one in 5,000, then one in 1,500, then one in 500 and now an estimated one in 88. It is a 78 percent increase in just the last six years, only partly explained by an improved ability to diagnosis it.

"When Lisa was born, it was sort of a bell curve," Cancro said. "It was evenly split between the low-functioning group, which needs 24/7 care; they don't have judgment. Lisa likes pasta, but while the pasta was boiling she would put her hand into a pot of boiling water to get it. She can't take care of herself. She needs assistance with eating/toileting.

"To the high-functioning, the people who have issues with social situations, who can't look you in the eye, they might be able to maintain conversation by email but can't handle the social aspects. And then there are the people in the biggest part of the bell curve, the in-between."

At 23, Lisa has entered adult services, which means she is no longer considered a youth. The Cancros have another daughter, Laura Marie, 26, who works at the House of Blues across from Fenway Park. The family hopes MLB's involvement will help society as a whole, because while there is now insufficient lifelong service care for the one-in-10,000 cases like Lisa Cancro's, Larry said there is also no preparation to help the coming one-in-88 group now in youth.

"The first few years, really until she was 10 or 11, we were kind of closeted about her situation," Larry Cancro said. "We didn't talk about it. We didn't go places as freely as we would have otherwise. Really, that's a key part of this story. That's what this baseball initiative is about.

"People with autism want to go to the store, to a restaurant, to a baseball game. A family wants to live their life like every other typical family. The fact that MLB is trying to learn how they can accommodate families with this better, because it's a massive number, it means they're trying to reach people who to date have not been able to come out to the ballpark."

Baseball is a game of mathematics, and many higher-functioning people with autism have areas of good skills, often math.

"Those folks are huge fans of baseball because of the math implications," Cancro said. "So I think the more people we can introduce to the game, these are going to be huge fans."

Almost every Major League club has had some type of autism-awareness initiative under way. Cancro said Dave Howard, the Mets' executive vice president of business operations, had tipped him off to some of the things the Mets were doing in this field. Cancro said he realized that an opportunity existed for MLB to weave it all together in a global manner and make a greater difference, especially in a month when seating availability can be more prevalent.

"These were causes MLB was rallying around already," said Cancro, who chose baseball as his career 35 years ago. "Early in my career during my Braves days, one of my mentors said, 'If you do a great job with people who have special needs, then you're probably doing a great job for every other customer you have.' So it's a great way to raise the level of service you're providing, and you are more sensitive to the needs of your customer.

"Back then, I had no personal link to the disability community, but now having been on both sides of that coin, I fully understand. It really does raise your game to service the people who need that little extra with a smile."

For more information about MLB Autism Awareness and to check on respective club dates commemorating the initiative, please visit MLBCommunity.org.

Mark Newman is enterprise editor of MLB.com. Read and join other baseball fans on his MLB.com community blog. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.