“The repetitiveness of baseball and the repetitiveness of autism go hand in hand.” Reggie Sanders, Kansas City Royals
By Ron Sandison
Nadia Khalil who was the parent of a two-year-old daughter, Sarene, knew her younger child Tarik’s milestones were delayed. Tarik unlike his sister didn’t have eye contact or respond to her voice. He experienced tics from Tourette syndrome and he lined up his toy cars and trains in perfect rows. He didn’t interact with other children and he hated loud noises. He was a great observer; watching others rather than wanting to socialize with them.
“We had a birthday party for Sarene with Barney and friends. Tarik loved the characters in the Barney Show yet when he saw the purple dinosaur he ran in terror from our home. I started immediately to search for answers and try to learn how his mind processed information.
“When Tarik was nonverbal, I checked his comprehension to understand commands and hearing ability by placing three cars on the floor—red, blue and yellow cars. “Pick up the yellow one,” I told him. Tarik proceed to pick up the yellow car. This made me know he could understand and hear me,” Nadia shares.
A few months before Tarik was diagnosed, Nadia had a vivid dream of Tarik jumping in a pool with no water and her screaming, “Help him, he does not understand.” After intensive testing Tarik was diagnosed with autism at age three.
“I was determined to bridge the gap between my world and Tarik’s so I could help him learn new skills. Early on I taught Tarik that not everything is one way or the other but we can make choices in life. I did this by placing three or four toys before him and saying, ‘What toy do you want to play with today?’ Tarik learned best through rote learning. He thinks in numbers. If it worked twice, it should work a third time also. One step at a time. I made a decision not to medicate him. I went back to school and took classes at UCLA through their extension program and I studied childhood development.”
Tarik was non-speaking until age six. When Tarik first began to speak, he hit his leg each time he tried to pronounce a word and Nadia replied, “Let’s try it again.” Tarik was a very picky eater and only ate five foods: cookies, doughnuts, pizza, spaghetti, and hamburgers. Nadia encouraged him to try new foods by not making a separate meal for him and stating, “This new recipe is delicious, please try it and let me know what your think?”
Tarik learned he had autism his final year of middle school. “I just addressed the symptoms of autism. As Tarik matured, I did not have a formal conversation to inform him, he was on the spectrum. However, I did have conversations with his school on how to bring out Tarik’s best. I treated him as any other child because I noticed he emulates, so I was VERY careful about what I exposed him too so he can shoot higher and higher rather than not doing so.”
Nadia’s faith in Christ empowered her in raising Tarik.
“God, has been our rock. Our source of strength—the grace to face all the challenges with autism and overcoming them. Through Christ’s love and compassion, our family is able to share God’s love and encourage others facing autism.”
When Tarik was seven, Nadia was walking across the street and was hit by a car. Later that day, due to a concussion, she was unable to recall her children’s names. After this crisis, Nadia thought, “What if I would’ve died who take care of Tarik and Sarane. I must teach them to be independent and advocate for themselves.”
Tarik’s greatest challenge to overcome was his social skills.
“Social skills were difficult for Tarik and still are. Reading others, feeling understood, socializing, and when trying new things it takes him longer to learn and assimilate. Baseball has empowered Tarik to overcome his social challenges.”
At age 10, Tarik’s father took him to a local baseball tryout and he was the worst player on the field since he never played baseball and having autism didn’t understand the rules of the game. “What drove him was his love for the game. He would do anything to play baseball. Tarik loved everything about baseball from the smell of the grass in the field to standing at the plate. That day he discovered his passion in life.”
Nadia encouraged Tarik’s passion.
“I followed his love. I gave him all the opportunities and was his biggest fan. Going to the games and helping Tarik find new teams to play for. He played baseball constantly and loved to imitate his favorite player Jackie Robinson sliding into home plate.”
When Tarik was twelve and playing little league, Nadia picked him up after a game as he entered the car, he was frustrated and stated, “I wished I could’ve hit a home run today.”
“Tarik, you never hit a homerun so why are you upset about it today?”
“I wanted to hit one today.” Tarik replied.
“You know if you hit a ground ball someone is liable to mess up and then you can get on base.” Nadia explained.
“Mom, I don’t want to be a success on someone else’s mistake, I want to be successful because I am successful.”
Tarik’s teammates couldn’t understand his passion. He was the first on the field and last to leave. While his teammates were enjoying social events, Tarik was busy taking extra batting practice or fielding fly balls in the outfield. “Being autistic, this was completely normal to Tarik. His briefcase was his baseball bag. He found friends to play catch, he even paid a few pitchers to throw batting practice, he run sprints around the ballpark, engage in Plyometric exercises and ate healthy to do his best. He is only 5-foot-11 and 170-pounds. The key to Tarik’s success on the field is his work ethic.”
Tarik’s goal in life was to play professional ball.
“He told me that when he grew up and played baseball, he would buy me a house wherever he plays, so I could watch his games live. He did not know yet how different he was. He did not know yet how autism was going to speak for him before he could speak for himself,” Nadia shares.
Tarik’s two most challenging years were his junior year of high school and sophomore year of college. During his junior year of high school the whole baseball team was drinking and partying except Tarik. He told his mom, “I feel different since I don’t like partying like everyone else.”
When Sarene asked Tarik, “How will you attended college?” Tarik replied, “I got to do what it takes.” After graduating from San Marino High School, he played baseball briefly at Pasadena City College. As a sophomore at Pasadena City College Tarik was redshirted. Tarik was heartbroken and walked around like a character from the Living Dead. A determined Tarik played his junior year as an outfielder at Pasadena College providing key hits.
The next year, he received a $5,000 scholarship to play baseball at Concordia University in California. But he was cut two weeks before the season began and with tears in his eyes said, “Mom, we need to find a team where I can play ball.”
He transferred to Pacifica College and played a year there, the next year the school merged with Bristol University. El-Abour graduated from San Marino High School, played baseball briefly at Pasadena City College, then received a scholarship to play baseball at Concordia (Calif.) University. But he was cut before the season began.
After graduating from Bristol University with a Bachelor of Science Degree in Business Administration, Tarik signed with the independent Empire League and played for the Sullivan Explorers in southern New York. He hit .323 and won rookie of the year honors. In 2017, he hit .240 for the Plattsburgh Red Birds helping them win the championship.
Tarik’s former high school mentor J.D Nicholls from Worldwide Baseball Prospects contacted Reggie Sanders who works for the Kansas City Royals. Sanders is a former major league baseball player and has a 40-year-old brother Demetrious who has autism. He also founded RSFCares, which provides a network of support for children and families living with autism.
After being inspired by Tarik’s journey, Sanders approached the Royals about letting him take batting practice prior to a game with the Angels. The Royals agreed. After seeing how easily Tarik fit in with the players personally, as well as with his bat, Sanders approach general manager Dayton Moore to offer Tarik’s a minor league contract.
Sanders encouraged Moore, “The repetitiveness of autism and the repetitiveness of baseball kind of go hand in hand. Tarik’s can be an asset to our organization providing passion and love for the game with skills.” The Royals’ organization has a history of inclusion, having rescued the career of Jim Eisenreich, who had Tourette’s syndrome and Asperger’s.
When Tarik received the news from his mom the Royals were signing him to a minor league deal, he ran around the house, joyfully proclaiming, “I can’t believe this—all I ever wanted was to play baseball!”
After his first extended spring training game, Tarik called Sanders and exclaimed, “I’m in the right place.”
“There is nothing else in this world I’d rather do then be with my children,” Nadia says.
Nadia’s final advice for parents is “Don’t compromise your child’s confidence or learning ability. The more confidence you have in them the more they will have in themselves. Have faith God will provide a way and guide you.”
Ron Sandison works full time in the medical field and is a professor of theology at Destiny School of Ministry. He is an advisory board member of Autism Society Faith Initiative of Autism Society of American. Sandison has a Master of Divinity from Oral Roberts University and is the author of A Parent’s Guide to Autism: Practical Advice. Biblical Wisdom published by Charisma House. He has memorized over 10,000 Scriptures including 22 complete books of the New Testament and over 5,000 quotes.
He frequently guest speaks at colleges, conferences, autism centers, and churches. Ron and his wife, Kristen, reside in Rochester Hills, MI, with a baby daughter, Makayla Marie born on March 20, 2016. You can contact Ron at his website www.spectruminclusion.com or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org