This article originally appeared in a regional version of the November print edition of US Lacrosse Magazine, available exclusively to members of US Lacrosse. Join US Lacrosse today and have the magazine delivered right to your mailbox while helping to support the development of the sport.

Drake Ratcliff is one of those kids you often notice at youth lacrosse. He’s not a player, but he’s always at the field, accompanying his older brother to practices and games, content to remain on the sidelines, removed from the activity taking place between the lines. He’s nearby, but distant. 

Ratcliff, 8, has autism.

Last spring, the Caroline Lacrosse Association, located on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, went blue to honor Ratcliff and raise awareness and support for autism. It seemed like a natural fit, given that the CLA season launches in April, which is National Autism Awareness Month. 

“We just thought it was a good idea,” said Jessica Hoofnagle, a league parent who serves as the CLA’s fundraising coordinator. “It blossomed from there.”

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a complex developmental disability that affects a person’s ability to communicate and interact with others. Some of the behaviors associated with autism include delayed learning of language, difficulty making eye contact or holding a conversation, difficulty with reasoning and planning, narrow and intense interests, poor motor skills and sensory sensitivities.

As a “spectrum condition” that affects individuals differently and to varying degrees, a person on the spectrum might follow many of these behaviors, or just a few. ASD affects about 1 percent of the world’s population, according to the CDC.

Ratcliff is a big fan of Lyle Thompson and enjoys watching Major League Lacrosse’s Chesapeake Bayhawks. This past spring, with some coaxing from his parents, James and Kourtney, he moved off the sidelines and onto the field. Overcoming issues related to his sensory processing disorder presented a challenge.

“He didn’t like having a mouthguard and all the gear was too much for him initially,” Kourtney Ratcliff said. “But eventually, he played all the different positions, from goalie to attack.”

Casual observers wouldn’t notice much difference between Ratcliff and other kids. “He is highly functioning,” Hoofnagle said. 

To raise support and donations, the CLA coordinated a number of efforts. It started with custom-designed blue t-shirts featuring the iconic autism puzzle pieces. The shirts sold for $20 each, and CLA parents wore them to all the games. The club also provided puzzle piece stickers for boys’ helmets, hair ribbons for girls and socks for everyone. The campaign began to spread.

Parents from other teams on the Eastern Shore also bought shirts and made donations. “It brought the whole league together,” Hoofnagle said.

“The community involvement was wonderful,” Kourtney Ratcliffe said. “It was a team effort with so many people chipping in.”

Ultimately, $1,500 was raised and donated to a local non-profit, Team Autism, that supports the special needs departments at schools on the Eastern Shore. Team Autism launched in 2009, as Gene and Alicia Dodd searched for a way to provide greater support and resources to those who worked with their autistic son, Isaiah.

“Their donation meant a lot to me,” Gene Dodd said. “It really got my heart going.”

Program leaders hope this will be the beginning of a strong partnership that not only expands autism awareness, but helps further integrate young players like Ratcliff into mainstream sports.

“One of the reasons we wanted to get Drake involved on the field was to have something in common with other kids,” Kourtney Ratcliffe said. “He especially loved having something in common with Mason, his older brother.”

Gene Dodd sees sports as an important way to show all kids that they are appreciated and valued.

“Integrating kids so that they are accepted by others in youth leagues is very important,” he said. “We’ve still got a long way to go, but we’re doing some pretty good work and it’s growing.”

“We basically pulled all of this together in about two weeks,” Hoofnagle said. “I know it can get bigger.”