by Andy Rausch and Joe Reinecker
As a young man with autism, basketball gave Will Fried confidence. Today he’s hoping to share that confidence with autistic high school students. He’s also having fun along the way.
Fried started playing basketball in his backyard at the age of six after his father put up a goal. However, Will wouldn’t feel comfortable playing on a team or competing (due to his disability and the social anxiety that comes with it) for another two years. Then, at age eight, he began playing in a youth league. “I remember scoring my first basket in a game,” Fried recalls, “and I enjoyed it so much that I wanted to keep on going.”
From there, Fried continued playing recreational-level basketball through his twelfth-grade year of high school. He also joined a traveling team for two years in grades eleven and twelve.
“I enjoyed the game so much,” Fried says. “After my time was done in grades one through twelve, I still wanted to be around the game of basketball. So, the summer before I went into college, I worked at a basketball camp in Maryland called Coach Wooten’s Basketball Camp. I started officiating basketball at that camp, and I’ve been officiating ever since.”
Fried, now twenty-two, officiates Kansas middle school and high school basketball. Fried says his goal as a player was to become the best player he could be, and now as an official his goal is to be the best referee he can be.
Fried has been excited to see more inclusion of players with autism on area teams. “I’ve gone to officiate basketball, especially at the middle school levels in Stockton, Kansas, and Hoisington, Kansas, and on their teams they have been very inclusive of players on the autism spectrum on their basketball teams,” Fried says. “They’re not just there to be sitting on the bench, they’re actually playing on the teams. I’ve talked to the coaches and administrators from both schools, and they want to include their players and give them as much playing time as they can to show them they’re a part of the team and their communities. They don’t want to segregate or exclude them from playing.”
Fried says one of his favorite experiences took place during a game in Stockton. “An autistic individual hit a three-point shot, the whole crowd went wild,” he says. “And I was the official and actually the one ruling it. I knew it was special for me, as well, to see that now there are other autistic individuals playing sports and having the opportunity to have that sense of camaraderie and inclusion. When I was in Hoisington, Kansas, officiating a middle school boys’ basketball game, the teammates on that team were stealing the ball so their one player on the autism spectrum could score. They wanted him to score just like the rest of them because he is part of their team and he is seen as a teammate.”
Fried says he hopes that his accomplishments will encourage the young players with autism and other disabilities. “I would really like these middle schoolers and high schoolers to understand that they can practice self-determination and use the philosophy of independent living where they, as people with disabilities, understand their own needs and develop their own path to their careers and set their own goals and objectives they want to meet with their own interests and be allowed to benefit the community and have opportunities to become change agents and doing and accomplishing what they dreamed of.”