By Lauren Lee, CNN
(CNN) — For NASCAR driver Armani Williams the cockpit of a race car is his sanctuary.
“Being in a race car, it’s just sort of like a comfort zone,” said Armani.
“I just love being in it, just pushing it to the limit.”
The 22-year-old is defying expectations and helping foster inclusivity as one of the few Black drivers in the sport, and as NASCAR’s first driver to discuss his autism publicly.
“I wanted to prove to everyone that, you know, autism can be a strength, not a weakness.”
Autism spectrum disorder is a group of neurodevelopmental disorders affecting communication, learning, and social skills. Armani was diagnosed at two years old, and like other children on the spectrum, he was non-verbal during his first few years of life.
“He could say ‘Mom’, he could say ‘Dad’, but he didn’t say much else,” said Armani’s father, Del Williams.
His parents didn’t know much about autism and were concerned about his future.
“You start immediately thinking about their growth, their development. Would he be able to ride a bicycle? Would he ever be able to go to college, live independently?” said Del.
In addition to communication struggles, Armani’s autism came with a hyperfocus on details, a trait that would later become a key to his success as a professional driver. With the support of speech and occupational therapy, Armani began thriving. His parents decided to sign him up for a two-week course at a nearby university that taught children with autism how to ride a bike.
“By the end of the first day, Armani was able to ride the bike without any training support or any balance support,” said Del.
That’s when they knew he had something special.
“It was the early signs that Armani showed about how courageous of a kid he is.”
It was a local amusement park trip that revealed his passion for four wheels.
“They would have like a go-kart attraction, and after we rode around it for the first time, I wanted to keep going on it multiple times, like again and again and again,” Armani explained.
He started collecting matchbox cars and watching NASCAR racing series on television.
“It amazed me how fast those cars were going; I’d never seen speed quite like this,” Armani said.
“It became apparent to me that this is something that I wanted to do.”
Using his different abilities to his advantage
Armani could pick up the mechanics of the gas, brake pedals, and steering wheel quickly after attending go-kart racing school at Jackson Speedway. By the time he was eight years old, he was competitively racing go-karts.
From there, he went on to mini cup racing, a half-sized version of a professional stock car. During that time, he won 18 races and two championship titles.
Autistic people can experience sensory hypersensitivity and hyposensitivity. Armani’s hypersensitivity to sound and touch has turned out to be an asset in racing.
“Every driver has focus, but because I have autism, I have a laser-like focus; you have to almost like be the car,” Armani explained.
Armani’s hypersensitivity to sounds and touch alerts him to issues with the vehicle that other drivers may not even notice.
“It just happens in a way that maybe not a lot of people have seen before.”
“That’s a type of thing I use to make sure that I help give detailed information to my crew so that they can make the necessary adjustments they need to make to get the best out of the car,” he says.
“It’s bizarre, if I’m being honest, his ability to stay focused and tunnel vision on some things,” Del said.
Armani competed in the ARCA Menards Truck Pro Series, a semi-pro league, at 16. There he became the highest finishing Black driver in both the series and the championship race in 2016.
That same year he was invited to a NASCAR drivers diversity program where he did well enough to compete in their Pinty’s Series in Canada that next year as a professional driver.
“It was like a totally different vibe,” Armani said.
“I knew that being a professional for the first time was going to be a lot of learning to do, but I got out there to try to prove to everyone that I had what it took to drive a race car and be really good.”
In 2021, he made his debut in the states in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, the third-highest tier in the sport’s series, finishing 21st.
Leveraging his platform to raise autism awareness
As Armani matured, it didn’t take him long to realize his power in his platform.
He always looked up to drivers like NASCAR cup series champion Jimmie Johnson and his work to support causes he cared about.
“Everything about his persona, what he did on the track, the talent, and what things he did outside the track as far as helping in the community really inspired me to be more like him,” Armani revealed.
Armani is now shifting his gears between driver, student and advocate.
He’s attending Oakland University to study mechanical engineering, a degree he hopes to use in retirement to help design, build, develop and test future race cars.
“I wanted to take that role in providing a lot of hope and inspiration for people in the autism community — to inspire people to keep pushing forward and understand that you can do anything in this world that you set your mind to.”
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