INDYCAR Flagger Racing to raise autism awareness

Note: April is National Autism Awareness Month and April 2 is World Autism Awareness Day 2022.

When Aaron Likens was 20 years old, he assumed that he would never have a job, never have friends, and never be happy.

That’s what an Internet search told him one night in 2003 when he was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by significant difficulties in social interaction and nonverbal communication, along with restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior and interests. . In 2013, she officially became part of an autism spectrum disorder diagnostic umbrella.

Until this point in his life, Likens knew he had passionate and repetitive interests in the weather and auto racing. But he didn’t understand why people didn’t have the same knowledge or interest in these issues that he did. He thought everyone else was the “weirdo,” he said.

After her diagnosis, she fell into a deep state of depression. She couldn’t find logic in the turn her life had taken. In his mind, failure was a guarantee, so why try? This continued for 14 months.

“I thought this was a death sentence, and I’m never going to be able to do anything,” he said. “When I read that, I unfortunately allowed that diagnosis to define me. I say I was five stages beyond depression.”

For more than a year, Likens let this website dictate who he was and how he would live his life. As his depressed state continued, Likens struggled to explain what he was going through. He was never good at explaining his feelings or emotions.

But I needed to get out. So, she started writing in a diary. She never enjoyed writing growing up, but this was his last resort. She couldn’t express her emotions, so how about writing them down? This allowed her brain to access thoughts that she had never had before. It was a new outlet for him and allowed him to explain to his parents who he was and why.

Likens kept writing to the point where he had an entire book of thoughts, stories, and explanations for people with autism. In 2012, he himself published his book and a division of Penguin picked up the story. “Finding Kansas” has sold nearly 15,000 copies to date.

Now that he has given 1,100 presentations to some 95,000 people at schools, FBI offices, police headquarters and more, this is the life of Likens.

“I wish I could go back to who I was in 2005 when I started writing and say, ‘Aaron, you have no idea what’s going to happen,'” she said. “‘You have no idea. Stay with it.

“I wouldn’t change anything in the process to get here.”

This is not what Likens had planned for his career. He stumbled upon a career as an author and advocate for autism awareness while he was on his journey to become a flag-bearer in auto racing.

Likens is from Indianapolis but moved to St. Louis as a child. His first trip to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was for a practice day for the Indianapolis 500 in 1987, and his first race in the Indianapolis 500 was in 1989. He was in love with the speed, color and competition of the cars. of race.

But more than that, he was fascinated by the man on the pedestal waving the green flag to start the race and the checkered flag to finish it. Likens did not see Unser, Andretti, or Rahal as his hero. Instead, his hero was Duane Sweeney, Indianapolis 500 headliner for decades.

In 1990, he asked Sweeney for an autograph. Sweeney had his wife, who handcrafted two checkered flags for the Indianapolis 500 each year, make a third flag for Likens, which he signed. That flag, which Likens sometimes waved at passing cars in his neighborhood as he stood on a rock by the side of the road, is safely hidden in his basement.

That put Likens on the path to wanting to be a standard-bearer for his career. His first break came at age 13 at his local go-kart track in St. Louis when he wasn’t racing go-karts himself.

He then began flagging for the St. Louis Karting Association from 1996 to 2005 before moving to USAC at the urging of former IMS historian Donald Davidson, who said that most flag-bearers came to the INDYCAR SERIES through of the USAC.

He then received the opportunity to join the NTT INDYCAR SERIES in 2020 as a flag bearer. The first time he officially flagged an NTT INDYCAR SERIES event was during the GMR Grand Prix in July at the IMS Speedway, when he was in the grandstand to qualify.

Likens became one of two standard-bearers for the NTT INDYCAR SERIES, traveling the country and helping to officiate North America’s premier single-seater series. Then, in 2021, the opportunity of a lifetime fell into his lap.

Likens’ co-worker at the flag stand with whom he rotates major flagging duties offered him the Indianapolis 500 Presented by Gainbridge job from start to finish, in which he waved both checkered flags for Helio Castroneves in one of the Most historic finishes in “500” history.

Twenty-two years after that young man fell in love with the man waving the flag in the racing capital of the world, Likens suddenly became that man.

“I’m a writer, so I should have the words for it, right? It’s impossible,” she said. “I’ve seen bits of the race and it doesn’t look real. I can relate to every sports movie now at the final scene when any goal was achieved. And as an audience, you’re sitting down and all of that must be amazing.

“When you are inside. You are alone in a blur or you are in a fog. This is a once-in-a-lifetime moment that you look forward to forever, and when you get there it’s so overwhelming there’s a beautiful numbness to it.”

While Likens’ eyes are always on the month of May and ready to help mark “The Greatest Show in Racing,” again, he has special appreciation for World Autism Awareness Day on April 2.

When he was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, awareness of the disorder was extremely low. Even Likens’ doctor who read the evaluation didn’t even understand what it meant. So, Likens is on a mission to change that.

He grew up wanting to run and participate in races. Now, she tells her, she still wants to do that, but in a different context.

“I still want to run. But now it’s a new career,” she said. “The race to spread as much awareness and understanding as possible, because there is so much hope for everyone on the autism spectrum.”

When Likens was born, the rate of autism was 1 in 1,500. Today, according to the CDC, the rate is 1 in 44. With more people diagnosed with autism, Likens believes it’s vital to continue raising awareness and helping the world understand autism. people with this disorder.

She also wants everyone to understand that not all cases of autism are the same and that it takes time to understand how to help each individual person. He insists that he wouldn’t have overcome so many of his own obstacles if he hadn’t had people take the time to understand who he was and what he needed to be successful.

“The growth of each person is limitless with more awareness around them and more understanding,” he said. “I think we are now at a point where people are aware of autism. When I was first diagnosed and told people I had Asperger’s, people hadn’t heard of it. It’s World Autism Awareness Day, but we’re transitioning to World Autism Awareness Day.

“The journey to get here, I wish I could stand on a pedestal and say, ‘Look what I did,’ but it wasn’t me. It was the teachers, my parents and so many other people who planted the seeds. Part of the history of Autism Awareness Day is that behind so many of us who made it, and made it, is a subjective term, it was due to the awareness and understanding of those around us.”

Now, Likens is set for the next NTT INDYCAR SERIES race, the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach on Sunday, April 10 (3 pm ET, live on NBC and INDYCAR Radio Network), where he will be the lead flag bearer in the grandstand. .

More importantly, Likens has a job, friends, and is extremely happy.