By Lauren Lee, CNN
Dubai, United Arab Emirates (CNN) – For NASCAR driver Armani Williams, the cockpit of a race car is his haven.
“Being in a race car, it’s kind of like a comfort zone,” Armani said.
“I just love being in it, just pushing it to the extreme.”
The 22-year-old defies expectations and helps promote inclusivity as one of the few black drivers in the sport, and as the first NASCAR driver to openly discuss autism.
“I wanted to prove to everyone, you know, that autism can be a strength, not a weakness.”
Autism spectrum disorder is a group of neurodevelopmental disorders that affect communication, learning and social skills. Armani was diagnosed when he was two years old and, like other kids on the spectrum, was nonverbal for the first few years of his life.
“He could say ‘Mom,’ he could say ‘Dad,'” said Dale Williams, Armani’s father, “but he didn’t say anything else.”
His parents didn’t know much about autism and were worried about his future.
You immediately begin to think about its growth and development. Will he be able to ride a bike? Will he be able to go to college and live independently? Dale said.
In addition to communication struggles, Armani’s autism came with an excessive focus on detail, a trait that would later become the key to his success as a professional driver. With the support of speech and occupational therapy, Armani began to thrive. His parents decided to enroll him in a two-week course at a nearby university to teach autistic children how to ride a bike.
“By the end of day one, Armani was able to ride the bike without any training support or any balance support,” Dale said.
That’s when they knew he had something special.
“Those were the early signs Armani showed about how brave he was as a child.”
It was a ride at a local amusement park that revealed his passion for four wheels.
“They liked to pull small cars, and after we drove around for the first time, I wanted to keep doing it a few times, over and over again,” Armani explained.
He started collecting matchbox cars and watching the NASCAR racing series on TV.
“I was amazed at how fast these cars were going; I had never seen such speed before,” Armani said.
“It turns out that this is something I wanted to do.”
Use his various abilities to his advantage
Armani could quickly pick up the gas mechanics, brake pedals and steering wheel after attending go-kart racing school at Jackson Speedway. By the time he was eight, he was racing competitively in go-karts.
From there, he went on to race the Mini Cup, a half-size version of a professional car. During that time, he won 18 races and two championship titles.
Autistic people can have sensory hypersensitivity and hypersensitivity. Armani’s extreme sensitivity to sound and touch turned out to be an advantage in racing.
“Every driver has focus, but because I’m autistic, I have laser-like focus; you have to be almost like a car,” Armani explained.
Armani’s extreme sensitivity to sound and touch alerts it to problems in the car that other drivers may not notice.
“It’s happening in a way that a lot of people probably haven’t seen before.”
“This is the kind of thing I use to make sure I’m helping give my crew detailed information so they can make the necessary adjustments they need to get the most out of the car,” he says.
It’s weird, if I’m being honest, his ability to maintain his focus and his tunnel vision on some things,” Dale said.
Armani competed in the ARCA Menards Truck Pro Series, a semi-pro league, at the age of 16. There he became the top black driver to finish a race in both the series and championship race in 2016.
That same year he was invited to the NASCAR Driver Diversity Program where he did well enough to compete in the Pinty’s Series in Canada the following year as a professional driver.
“It was like a completely different atmosphere,” Armani said.
“I knew being a pro for the first time would require a lot of learning, but I went out to try and prove to everyone that I have what it takes to drive a race car and be really good.”
In 2021, he made his state debut in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, the sport’s third-highest class, finishing 21st.
Take advantage of his platform to raise awareness of autism
As Armani matured, it didn’t take long for him to realize his power in his platform.
He has always looked to drivers like NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmy Johnson and his work to support the causes he cares about.
Armani revealed, “Everything about his personality, what he did on the track, the talent, the things he did off the track as much as he helped me in the community really inspired me to be more like him.”
Armani now shifts his gears between driver, student and lawyer.
He is studying at the University of Auckland to study mechanical engineering, a degree he hopes to use after retirement to help design, build, develop and test future racing cars.
“I wanted to play this role in providing so much hope and inspiration to people in the autism community – to inspire people to keep moving forward and to understand that you can do anything in this world that you put your mind to.”
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