Make us your home page
Instagram

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Young baseball player with autism realizes dream: to make the calls

In 14 years, Brian Dunning had played just about every position on the baseball field, running free with other special needs children. More important to his mother, he had found a comfort zone, a place where it seemed everybody welcomed him with a high-five or fist-bump.

As he approached the age where he would no longer be eligible to play, Shady Hills Little League officials wanted to grant him a wish. They had a pretty good idea what it might be, especially since Brian talked about it all the time.

Hitting, running and scoring brought him cheers, much like he achieved year after year in the Special Olympics. But this would be groundbreaking, a chance to do something that had never been offered to a participant in the "Challenger'' division.

On Tuesday evening, as the Hudson Hooks and Shady Hills Braves prepared to battle in the division for kids 7 to 9 years old, Brian assumed his position behind third base. He had proven himself responsible and capable. He had earned his chance to be umpire.

For the most part, things were pretty routine. The Braves ran up a big lead, so it didn't seem likely an ump's controversial call would decide the game. Hooks manager Todd Vanvliet, knowing Brian's sense of humor, gave him some mock grief about a call. Brian yanked his thumb skyward and said, "You're outta here!'' They had a good laugh about it.

Nearby, Kerri Dunning watched from behind the fence. Her boy started here as an introverted spectator, awkward and slow to warm up to strangers. Now he towers above the children. Now he assumes more the role of their protector.

Brian is labeled "highly functional autistic,'' said his mom, who works for a private investigation firm. He has neural developmental challenges, but he also has some unique gifts. One is a remarkable ability to recall details that he cares about. At the ballfields, most of the people who come to games are regulars, players and family members. If somebody new shows up, Brian notices right away. "He finds out who they are and why they're here,'' his mom said. "He keeps an eye on things.''

She was divorced when Brian came along 21 days early at the Pocono Medical Center in Strasburg, Pa., in July 1992. They moved to New Port Richey to be closer to Kerri's parents. As a 4-year-old, he had trouble forming complete sentences, but he rode a bus to prekindergarten classes and was the first on and the last off. He quickly learned the route and could give directions to the driver.

In the second grade he knew all the states and when they joined the union. He knew all the capitals. "You could ask him to state them in order or just pick one,'' Kerri said. "He knew, for instance, which state came in 33rd.

"I think a lot of autistic kids are smarter than we are, we're just too stupid to know it.''

He reads on a fourth-grade level but taught himself Spanish watching TV. He knows what products are on every aisle at Publix and how they differ at four west Pasco stores, including one where he stocked shelves and mopped floors.

After he graduated from Mitchell High School in 2010, Brian entered a voluntary program at Marchman Technical Education Center. Ann Rapp teaches her students skills necessary to land a job and was delighted when Brian qualified for the center's commercial foods and culinary arts program.

"He earned the chance,'' she said. "We want our students to be successful. He didn't get this chance just because he's a good guy. He shadowed the program and learned there is much more to running a restaurant than preparing food. He's washed his share of dishes.''

Under direction of chef Peter Kern, in his 23rd year at the center, Brian, 20, is learning every aspect of the business, including handling money. One of the perks of teaching at Marchman is the yummy lunches Kern's students prepare and deliver — for just $4. Last week they served, among other dishes, a fresh swordfish stir fry.

During the noon hour, Brian walks over to Calusa Elementary School and helps in the cafeteria. "The ladies there love him,'' said Anna Marion, a jobs coach.

They listen to oldies on the radio, and Brian knows most of the titles and words.

His conversations are limited to short answers. He likes the New York Yankees and the Tampa Bay Rays if they're not playing the Yankees. "They used to be Devil Rays,'' he adds.

He plays Power Ball every week because he hopes to win enough money to buy the Trinity Beef O'Brady's. "I like to be the boss,'' he said.

"We could call it Beef O'Brian's,'' Kern joked.

"Yep, that's right,'' Brian said. "I like that.''

His best dish is a pasta salad, but he just learned to make a Santa Fe burger. When he's not at school or the ball park, he likes to bowl. His best score: 159. His ball is decorated with the Tampa Bay Bucs flag.

"I like the Bucs.''

With that, he headed back to the kitchen.

"I've got work to do.''

Young baseball player with autism realizes dream: to make the calls 04/19/13 [Last modified: Friday, April 19, 2013 8:13pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times

    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...
  1. Joss Whedon's ex-wife accuses him of cheating, being 'hypocrite preaching feminist ideals'

    Celebrities

    Joss Whedon made his name directing cult television shows such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and big-budget action movies, which often featured women in empowering roles. Many applauded him for being a champion of women, a feminist in an industry accused of misogyny and sexism.

    Joss Whedon at the screening of "Much Ado About Nothing" in 2014. Whedon's ex-wife Kai Cole alleged in an essay published by The Wrap on Sunday that Whedon had multiple affairs during their 16-year marriage. (Associated Press)
  2. Pasco school's parents, principal seek compromise on behavior plan

    Blogs

    Leaders of a Pasco County elementary school that has come under criticism for its new behavior plan have offered an alternative model that sticks to its goals while also better considering younger children who might not understand the original terminology.

    This is the original chart that upset parents with wording such as "anarchy" and "conform to peer pressure" without any context.
  3. Jon Gruden, Rex Ryan meet with Jameis Winston on 'Hard Knocks'

    Bucs

    One of the interesting guest stars on HBO's "Hard Knocks", which covers every minute of the Bucs' training camp and preseason, has been Jon Gruden. The legendary former Tampa Bay coach has popped up from time …

    In a teaser clip from episode 3 of "Hard Knocks", Jon Gruden and fellow former coach Rex Ryan meet with Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston to discuss his past and future in the NFL. [HBO/NFL FILMS]
  4. German police seize thousands of 'Trump' ecstasy tablets

    National

    BERLIN — German police say they have seized thousands of tablets of the party drug ecstasy in the shape of Donald Trump's head, a haul with an estimated street value of 39,000 euros ($45,900.)

    This undated  picture provided by Polizeiinspektion Osnabrueck police shows an ecstasy pill. German police say they have seized thousands of ecstasy pills in the shape of President Donald Trump's head, a haul  with an estimated street value of 39,000 euros ($45,900). Police in Osnabrueck, in northwestern Germany, say they found the drugs during a check Saturday evening on an Austrian-registered car on the A30 highway. [Police Osnabrueck via AP]
  5. Bucs bring back long snapper Andrew DePaola to compete

    Bucs

    Just 12 days before the NFL makes its final cuts, the Bucs have added another position battle, signing back long snapper Andrew DePaola to compete with veteran Garrison Sanborn.

    Andrew DePaola is making an impressive recovery from the torn ACL he suffered in last year's season finale against Carolina in January.  [LOREN ELLIOTT | Times]