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Kent State's Kalin Bennett becomes first player with autism to score in DI game

Kalin Bennett made history last fall when he became the first person with autism to sign a letter of intent with a Division I school. And just under a year later, Bennett has made history once again.

The 6-foot-11, 300-pound freshman, the biggest man on his team, made his debut for Kent State on Wednesday night. He came into the game with six minutes left, and with around 2:30 left on the clock he did something that no one with autism has done before: He made a basket in a Division I game.

For Bennett and his mother, Sonja, it’s been a long road to this accomplishment. In an interview with WBUR in June, Sonja revealed that she was told that her baby son would never walk or talk, and that she should try to put him in a facility. While that might be the right move for some children with autism, Sonja didn’t feel like it was the right move for Kalin.

“I said, ‘No.’ I had a child with an ability to do great things, but they just wanted to put a period on it, and just tell me to just throw my hands up,” Sonja told WBUR. “Well, I did throw my hands up. But I just said, ‘God, help me to help Kalin.’”

Sonja found a therapist that came to her home to work with Bennett three times a week, and while nothing changed immediately, things began to slowly improve. He learned to sit up, and started communicating with her by banging on pots and pans.

Bennett would finally start speaking at age 7, and after a pep rally in third grade he told his mom that he wanted to play basketball. She was terrified, but his doctor suggested that he try it. At the start it wasn’t easy; he was brand new to the sport and had trouble learning coaching schemes. But Bennett loves math, and his coach was able to use numbers to help teach him.

Kalin Bennett is making history as the first autistic player for a Division I basketball team. (Photo by Vivien Killilea/Getty Images for HollyRod Foundation )

It took a few years for Bennett to find success on the court, but once he did, that confidence spilled over to every area of his life.

"I started to break some of the walls that I was struggling with," Bennet told WBUR. "You know, just being able to talk to people, hang out with the other kids, be tougher. And then going into middle school, I learned a lot about just letting myself be myself. Like, not being anybody else, just be Kalin. And that transferred to high school."

It transferred beyond high school, and Bennett’s first basket at Kent State is just the beginning for him. But he knows that everything he does is the result of years of work, and of his mother’s decision to follow her instincts and find him the right kind of help.

"This game was a lot of fun," Bennett told Cleveland’s Fox8 after Wednesday night’s game. "Being able to display all the hard work we put in from when we first got here to now. And for my mom to see it — it was really big for me to let her know that everything she did was not in vain."

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