Similar to Dreamzilla’s founder Kyle Loh, the organization’s third scholarship recipient, Austin Riley, is an autistic race car driver, one who has been paving the way for other neurodiverse drivers to make their way into the racing world. For over a decade, Austin and his family have been working arduously to make Austin’s dreams to be a race car driver come true. Since his humble beginnings of racing go karts, Austin has come a long way in many regards and has even started his own racing team, Racing with Autism. I spoke with Austin and his dad Jason to learn about Austin’s story and the legacy he’s leaving behind.
Austin was incorrectly diagnosed (ASD) when he was seven years old and reassessed when he was twelve. Austin spoke about when he was young how certain aspects of life were difficult because of having ASD. He stated, “School was very difficult because I didn’t fit in and didn’t have many friends.” Austin explained that he had a hard time with simple tasks such as speaking in front of people, visiting new places, traveling, and making friends. But when Austin began racing, his life changed exponentially.
As a kid, Austin had a love for cars. His dad noticed Austin’s passion for cars and decided to get him involved in go kart racing when Austin was around eight years old. “When I first started racing, my dad had to strongly encourage me to go because I was worried about not fitting in, potentially getting picked on, and thought I wouldn’t be any good at it.” But Austin found out that he not only liked racing but with some practice became very good at it. With each year, Austin progressed to racing at a higher level. Matching this progression, throughout his racing career Austin has driven an evolution of cars including go karts, a hatchback compact vehicle and a Radical SR3XX , which had been one of his dream cars to drive. “It’s been a long road, but all the support has been what’s kept us going,” Jason commented. In addition to loving the sport, Austin shared, “Racing is where I’m accepted by people. They accept me for my abilities and not my disabilities.”
The year that Austin was diagnosed with ASD was filled with many milestones. Aside from his ASD diagnosis, Austin also had his most successful year of racing which was what caused Jason and his wife to decide to go public with Austin’s ASD diagnosis. “We made the choice to tell the world about Austin because we figured it would be an easy way to keep our family up to date on Austin’s racing. But we also wanted to inspire other families like ours and other kids like Austin. We wanted to give other parents who are in the same position that we had been in after learning of Austin’s autism hope and to assure them that their lives weren’t over just because their child has ASD. Before we shared Austin’s story with the world, we didn’t have any idea the following it would get. But since it has received quite a following, it’s been nothing short of staggering.” By sharing Austin’s story and his racing journey to the public, this inspired the Riley family to start their own racing team to both support Austin and to educate the world about autism, and called it Racing with Autism.
Racing With Autism had accomplished many inspiring acts through Austin and Jason’s dedication to support others with autism. For instance, each season the company chooses another young racer with ASD sponsor. Last year, the company sponsored a young racer in Ireland who has autism but had been in a go-kart accident and needed support to get back to racing. Jason commented, “Sponsoring a racer is a way to give back to the sport since it has done so much for us as a family. It makes you feel really good to help somebody who’s struggling. It’s like bringing some sunshine into their world.” But Racing with Autism reaches far more corners of the world than just in North America and Ireland. The team has presences in Bermuda, the UK, and Australia, the latter two having their own Racing with Autism organizations . To this, Jason said:
The Racing with Autism presences in Australia and the UK are directly attributed to Austin and what he’s accomplished. That makes me very proud. For Austin to take something that was perceived to be so negative and to turn it into something great has been incredibly positive. He’s shown the world that he believes in himself, he likes himself the way he is, and that ASD is not a disability and doesn’t have to be treated as one. And I love him for the way that he is. It’s what makes him special and what makes him Austin.
I asked Austin and Jason what their goals are for Racing with Autism. Jason replied that he wants to be able to do what he and Austin do best, spreading autism awareness and speaking at schools all over the world. “The legacy that Austin is leaving behind because of Racing with Autism is significant. One of the most empowering aspects that has come from starting the organization is seeing the impact Austin’s story makes on people’s lives. When a child with autism comes to the track, you can see that they are overwhelmed because a racetrack is not usually the most autism friendly environment since it’s very noisy and busy. But they keep coming anyway because they get to meet Austin. Seeing the way they look at him and interact together is my favorite part of the whole race weekend.”
Over the years, Austin has crossed many racing milestones. In 2019 he made history by getting his first podium. In the same year he had the opportunity to drive a Saleen race car in Portland where he won his debut. He won his first car championship in 2020 followed by another Canadian Championship in 2021, and perhaps his biggest achievement to date, winning the U.S. Radical Overall Championship in 2022. Aside from his many wins, Austin is proud to be the first person with autism to have an international racing license.
Austin and Jason believe that Austin’s autism has allowed his racing passion to grow into something great. Austin even detailed how racing helps lessen his ASD symptoms. “Outside of the car I feel anxious and nervous and don’t think I can fit in the world. But inside a race car, everything disappears and everything stops. My brain moves as fast as a race car, so when I’m driving at that speed it’s calming. Other reasons racing is calming for Austin are the tightness of the seatbelt and helmet, the G-force, and his car’s sensory seat, which is made of a dense foam that has soft protruding spikes on the surface. The seat’s soft spikes are helpful to Austin since some people on the spectrum struggle to sit on flat surfaces. Research on tactile sensitivity and autism shows that “About 90% of ASD individuals have atypical sensory experiences, described as both hyper- and hypo- reactivity, with abnormal responses to tactile stimulation representing a very frequent finding.”1
In terms of driving practice, Jason expressed that any time behind the wheel is helpful to Austin since driving greatly helps with his anxiety and emotional state. Along with “seat time” practice, or direct practice in the race car, Austin also practices on a state of the art 6 Sigma racing simulator. The simulator is composed of a PC, a large screen, and a proper racing seat. Austin stated, “The racing simulator allows me to get ready for the next season by practicing the tracks I will be racing at.” Austin is sponsored by 6 Sigma, and his dad noted, “Without 6 Sigma’s sponsorship we wouldn’t be able to afford a simulator, so it’s a huge help for us.”
Along with winning many races and breaking records, a few years ago Austin and Jason went on their first speaking tour in North America. The 87-day experience was turned into a documentary that can be viewed on Racing With Autism’s website. In between the tour’s speaking engagements, Austin was signed up for races across North America. The team started in Florida and traveled west, making stops at go kart tracks and race series on the weekends. It was during this tour when Austin and Jason met Ken and Kyle Loh at a race in Sonoma. Jason spoke about the tour and how it affected Austin. He said, “This tour is what really began to change Austin’s life because prior to the tour he really didn’t like traveling and meeting new people, but for these 87 days that’s all we did. The first part of the movie is hard to watch because of how much Austin struggled, but the end of it is really inspirational because you can see how much he changed.”
Recently, Austin and his story made national news in Canada by being featured on Canada’s biggest television network, CTV. Jason said that because of this feature they have received a tremendous amount of support and positive reactions on social media with the messages reading, “Thank you for giving us hope” and “I have a child with autism, and I never thought anything like this would be possible.” Jason said, “It’s astonishing to realize, whether he means to or not, the effect my son is having on other families all over the world. It’s a pretty awesome feeling to think that you can have that kind of impact.” The video is available on YouTube where it has accrued several thousand views in just the few days since being uploaded.
In the future, Austin has many goals for his racing career. Starting next year he hopes to win another championship in the Radical. Otherwise, Austin would love one day to take part in the 24 hours of Le Mans or the 24 hours of Daytona. For these races, teams are required so each driver is behind the wheel anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour and a half at a time. Jason noted, “It would be great to be on a team where all the racers are on the spectrum.” Austin’s long-term goal is to race for as long as he can and to inspire other kids who are like him. Austin and his dad presently work on this goal through Racing with Autism by visiting schools and sharing Austin’s story which emphasizes believing in yourself and working hard.
Austin said that the biggest gift ASD has given him is racing, and his dad added, “We are firm believers that Austin would not be as good of a racer if he wasn’t autistic. The way he visually processes information is much faster than someone who is neurotypical, and on a racetrack that is a very good asset to have.” Austin and Jason mentioned that racing has helped Austin grow in his daily life such as teaching him how to better cope with uncertainty which used to be a major difficulty. Jason shared:
A lot of people on the spectrum struggle with uncertainty. They like to know exactly when something is going to happen, how it’s going to happen, and who’s going to be there. But on a racetrack, everything is certain up until the green flag drops. Then, you don’t know what’s going to happen. Your car could break down, you could crash, you could get shunted, you could win the race, you could come in dead last. When Austin first started racing and something bad would happen it would ruin the rest of the weekend. Uncertainty was something that he could just not accept. But over time he has grown to learn how to accept uncertainties in life.
When asked how Austin is his biggest, baddest self, he said, “When I’m racing,” which correlates to the impact Austin’s story has had for people all over the world. To keep up with Austin and Racing with Autism, follow his Instagram account @racingwithautism or visit his website RacingWithAutism.com
- Luigi Balasco, Giovanni Provenzano, and Yuri Bozzi, “Sensory Abnormalities in Autism Spectrum Disorder…” Frontiers in Psychology 10, no. 1016 (2019), https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyt.2019.01016/full