How Being a Liberty Ball Boy has Helped a 12-year-old with Autism

The New York Liberty’s July 7 game against the Las Vegas Aces is designated as all-abilities day. It’s an effort to raise awareness and support for special needs and differently abled communities. The Liberty recently had the opportunity to discuss how life on the spectrum impacts Cyrus Tuck, a 12-year-old ball boy for our New York Liberty. Thank you to his father Chris for candidly sharing their journey.

NEW YORK LIBERTY: Tell us a bit about Cyrus and what life on the spectrum looks like for him.  

Chris Tuck: Cyrus is 12-years-old and going into 7thgrade. He loves to read and to do math, even though it’s challenging for him. Free time for him is reading a book. Or, if he gets to go on the computer, he’ll log onto some math work game. He has a big work ethic and he loves life!

Regarding the spectrum, the official term is ASD, which stands for Autism Spectrum Disorder. ASD is all-inclusive regardless of where you fall. It covers non-verbal children who can’t speak, all the way up to a child who’s extremely advanced and almost a genius. But with all of them and with Cyrus, it’s about social skills. Some are overly withdrawn, while Cyrus is overly social. If he sees a homeless guy on the corner who’s all wrapped up and you can’t see his face, Cyrus will go over and try to give him a hug; just out of the kindness of his heart. He’s a big hugger and wants to talk to everybody. It’s dangerous socially because I have to keep an eye on him while we’re out. He’s the kid who, if you know his name and open up the car door, he’s getting in. Even if he’s never seen you before.

NEW YORK LIBERTY: What age was he officially diagnosed?

Tuck: Cyrus’s autism was officially diagnosed at 2 ½ – 3-years-old. When I went to that 2-years- old doctor’s appointment, the pediatrician expected my wife and I to discuss how many words he could say. At the time, he didn’t have any words. So, we made an appointment six months later at 2 ½, and there were still no words. I’ve been a school counselor for nearly 20 years. Throughout my career, I’ve dealt with a lot of ethnic parents (like myself), who brushed the early signs off. There was this one phrase that I used, way before I had either one of my sons – “The only thing you have to be ashamed of is if you don’t do something”. You don’t have to be ashamed if there’s an issue, but you should be ashamed if you don’t address it. When the pediatrician recommended early intervention at 2 ½, I said, ‘Nah, we don’t need early intervention. There’s nothing wrong with him.’ Then I had a conversation with the man in the mirror, one that I’ve had with many other parents in the past, and gave in. I’m ashamed that I wasted six months before getting him the help he needed. But, now I have that testimony and am better able to relate to the parents of special needs children because I’m a parent of a special needs child.

NEW YORK LIBERTY: When did he first start speaking?

Tuck: That wasn’t until about 4. And he still takes speech therapy because he still makes these very uncomfortable mistakes. For example, we still can’t get those pronouns down. He’ll say him instead of her. Me instead of you. That’s a major difference. That’s still an issue. He’ll talk to you to death but sometimes adults won’t understand what he’s saying because he seems like he knows what he’s talking about but every once and while those pronouns will get misplaced, causing confusion. He kind of needs us around to help him work through that.

NEW YORK LIBERTY: Is Cyrus a part of any developmental programs?

Tuck: Yes, he receives a lot services. He has speech therapists, occupational therapists, and counselors. Before he was diagnosed with autism, he was born tongue tied. Imagine if your tongue couldn’t raise up off the floor of your mouth, or if it was attached to your bottom teeth. For a while that wasn’t discovered. That held him back from early speech and once we figured that out at 18 months, he had to get oral surgery to rectify it; followed by feeding therapy to teach his brain how to communicate with this new tongue he had in his mouth. All of that slowed speech down for a while and changed the way he ate.

NEW YORK LIBERTY: How is Cyrus’s relationship with sports different than the average 12-year-old boy?

Tuck: He loves sports like any other child his age. Loves everything about the NBA and NFL. His motor skills won’t allow him to participate on a middle school basketball team because he doesn’t understand the concept of traveling. But, he’s always reading. When we watch ESPN, instead of listening to what the reporter is saying and watching the highlights, he’s reading the bottom of the screen and memorizing the information. You could ask Cyrus to name the head coach of any team in the NBA, and he’ll tell you. We play games with him sometimes when we get around people we don’t know, and ask, ‘Cyrus, who’s the forward for the Phoenix Suns,’ and he gets it right.

NEW YORK LIBERTY: How did he become a ball boy for the Liberty?

Chris: Both of my sons have been ball boys for the Westchester Knicks since their first season at the Westchester County Center. When we heard the Liberty were coming, it just kind of happened.

NEW YORK LIBERTY: Has the way Cyrus relates to people changed since becoming a ball boy?

Tuck: Yes. It helps him with self-control. He’s very impulsive and wants to just do everything. But with being on the sidelines, he has to control himself which can be difficult at times. The Liberty have a great crew around him. The young people around him are very supportive. A lot of people don’t realize he’s on the spectrum and they sort of treat him like they’d treat anyone else which is good, I want that, but then he doesn’t always respond the “right” way. Sometimes a stranger will say that’s he’s not listening. It’s not that he’s not listening, he didn’t process understanding, but this is the constant growth in him; and being a part of the team has helped his development.

NEW YORK LIBERTY: What would people be surprised to learn about Cyrus?

Tuck: Cyrus is a drummer. Cyrus can play the drums very well. Before he could talk, he could drum. I noticed that we were riding in the car, and in the backseat there was this tapping noise right on the beat. Now he takes private drumming lessons because I want him to be able to read music. So far, the concept of reading music has been challenging, but we’re working on it. The raw talent is there. If you put on a song, let him hear it for 5-10 seconds, he’ll pick up those drum sticks and you’d be amazed at how well he could play along to the song.

NEW YORK LIBERTY: Who’s Cyrus’s favorite Liberty player?

Tuck: Zahui B! They have a funny relationship dating back to last season. When they saw each other at the beginning of this season, Zahui gave him a big hug. Also, he has a fun ritual that he does before every game. On PS4, he, as the Liberty, plays the team they’re going to play that day. I can hear him in the other room, yelling, “KIAAAAA NURSE!” He loves the Liberty.

*This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.