The Downtown Challengers, part of the Downtown Little League, is comprised primarily of children on the autism spectrum, of various ages and functions. First established in 2007, the team continues to gain players and neighborhood popularity.
UPDATED OCTOBER 2014
On a sunny April afternoon at the Battery Park City Ballfield, the air smells of cut grass and perspiration. Kids in cherry red and royal blue baseball uniforms take their turns at bat, learning how to give it a proper swing. It’s a familiar scene at parks around the city. But the team practicing here is special.
The Downtown Challengers, part of the Downtown Little League, is comprised primarily of children on the autism spectrum, of various ages and functions. First established in 2007, the team continues to gain players and neighborhood popularity. Last year, a record number of 27 kids gathered at BPC fields to learn how to hit, run, and be a member of the team.
“This year, we had teams of ‘normal’ kids come play with us. It was a real big success,” says team manager Paul Colliton proudly. “We had phone calls from mothers, saying how great this was, that they’re going to continue.”
Billy Colliton, then 10, smiles after hitting the ball at the first Downtown Challengers game in 2007.
Since the beginning, Colliton, a portrait photographer and Battery Park resident, has been managing the team; his son Billy, now 17, is autistic and still plays. Colliton and his wife Jackie, an interior designer, already lead busy lives. Like other parents of children with autism, when they aren’t working to earn a living, their time is devoted to providing the best life and education possible for their child. Yet, when Colliton got an email from the Downtown Little League years earlier about starting a league for kids with learning disabilities, he leaped at the opportunity, envisioning a typical ball game where two teams play against each other.
“We quickly realized that couldn’t happen,” remembers Colliton, a lifelong baseball fan who holds season seats at Yankee Stadium. “Some of these kids are lacking in communication skills—they don’t get certain aspects. They need parental supervision. Now, it’s about everybody having fun and grasping the idea of a team sport.”
Jackie Colliton says it gives the kids the ability to be part of a team and do something that’s ‘normal.’ “It’s important for them to have socialization and also a sense of self-esteem and accomplishment,” she says.
The benefits are not just having social interaction and a sense of team spirit, but also physical conditioning. “A lot of these kids have poor motor skills—their bodies are tensed up,” explains Natasha Lamont-Lewis, an autistic counselor at Hawthorne Country Day School, who joined as one of the team’s umpires. “Baseball gets the kids running, jumping, skipping.” As each player runs to a base, Lamont-Lewis offers them a high-five. “They know they did something right when they hear that,” she says.
Downtown Challenger holds practice on Saturdays from April through June. For more information on Downtown Challengers, email Paul Colliton at [email protected], or visit downtownlittleleague.org.