Small Triumphs Mark Greece Man's Struggle with Autism
Listen to James Piccarreto talk for even a few minutes, and you will know beyond a shadow of a doubt that he is a NASCAR fan through and through.
"James is a walking stat book," Carla Piccarreto says of her son's ability to recall even the tiniest details relating to the stockcar racing sport.
"It's incredible. It's his gift," she says.
Given the chance, Piccarreto politely steers most conversations toward the topic and is able to not only recite facts, but also can include the nuances of the sport, helping the uninitiated understand the thrill and importance of the wins, the points system and the changes the organization has undergone in the past 80 years.
What you might not notice through his articulate explanations and affable nature is that James Piccarreto is autistic. "You can't see autism," Carla says. And that worries her because Piccarreto recently turned 21, and is learning to make his own way in the world. She adds, "James is a great kid. He's not afraid to admit he has autism, but he doesn't use it as an excuse."
And it's clear his can-do attitude comes from the work Carla has put in. Friend Nancy Neerbasch says, "Carla is a great mother. She is very patient with James. And James absolutely adores his mother." And for good reason. When Piccarreto was little, he wasn't high-functioning, didn't speak and showed all the signs of retreating into his disease.
It was Carla who pulled him out of himself. In addition to advocating for him at school, she used NASCAR to motivate him, and eventually treated it as a reward system to push him toward achievement.
"We celebrate every achievement," she says, and adds they took their first trip to see a race together in 2001. And as he accomplished bigger goals, the Piccarretos took more trips. They even wrote letters to NASCAR and started getting responses. Over the past few years, they've received autographs, been invited to meet and greet events, and been awarded pit passes.
Piccarreto's hero is Jeff Gordon, and his face lights up when he tells the story of his meetings with the driver. "When I rode with him, we were arm in arm," he says of the time he was invited to ride with Gordon for a pre-race lap around the track.
Piccarreto has had some incredible experiences meeting his NASCAR idol and taking celebratory trips to see races, but not everything is rosy. As Carla puts it, "Kids with autism must strive 365 days a year to make accomplishments."
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