Matt Olson and Reece Blankenship share bond, vision for change around autism

Coach Akeem McKie (left) works with Reece Blankenship during his FITLIGHT® session at the ReClif fitness-based therapy center in Peachtree Corners Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2023.  (Steve Schaefer/

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Coach Akeem McKie (left) works with Reece Blankenship during his FITLIGHT® session at the ReClif fitness-based therapy center in Peachtree Corners Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2023. (Steve Schaefer/

Reece Blankenship is a nonverbal, self-proclaimed autistic who fights for control of his body movements and behaviors in every waking moment. His method of tuning in to Braves games is quite different from a majority of fans. He sits on the top step of his staircase and listens to the action to avoid sensory overload.

It may not look like he’s watching, but he’s tuned into the play of his friend Braves first baseman Matt Olson. He can recall nearly every play of the game.

On Sept. 22, the Braves lost in Philadelphia 1-0. Olson was in a 5-for-52 (.096) slump, and the slugging first baseman hadn’t hit a home run since Sept. 6.

Two days later, Blankenship used his communication method known as RPM (rapid prompt method) or spelling-to-communicate to type a letter.

“Reece wasn’t there with me, but he sensed it,” Olson told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “He knew I was a little down in the dumps and was there as a friend. It meant everything to me.”

Reece sat down with his mother, Lou Blankenship, and his brilliance came to life inside of a body which he sometimes calls “unruly.”

“Not many endure the scrutiny of their jobs like pro athletes face,” Reece wrote. “I realize that for even someone as mildly tempered as yourself, that is a tremendous weight to shoulder. It is ridiculous for me to point out that everyone goes through highs and lows, and you are not an exception to that rule. You are, however, exceptional in other regards, specifically your strength of character and commitment to those you care about.

“Realistically, your batting average will have its fluctuations, but it will have an uptick soon. While baseball is a game, it is still your occupation and there is true significance in maintaining your stats in order to accomplish your job.

“Go get ‘em and have a blast, my friend. Comrades always, Reece.”

In the seven games after receiving the letter, Olson hit five home runs.

Olson and Blankenship have built an unwavering bond. Blankenship isn’t seen as different to Olson, and they latched onto each other from the moment they met at the Blankenships’ family home in middle school. Turns out, Blankenship had a vision for those with autism around the Atlanta community and formed a pair of organizations – ReClif and its non-profit, ReClif Community.

The relationship between Olson and Blankenship has fueled the first baseman through his baseball career and his community endeavors. Now, back in Atlanta, Olson and Blankenship share a mission to make change that extends beyond charity.

“Reece has people who see him for the person he is, and not as a loud individual who bites his hand,” said his older sister, Daron Blankenship, a member of the ReClif Community board. “It’s seen how smart and capable he is. For him to be seen as Reece Blankenship is amazing.”

Building a lifelong bond

At the age of 3, Reece was diagnosed with autism. The disorder wasn’t as widespread at the time, as cases of autism were one in every 256 at the time of his birth in 1994, according to studies by the Centers for Disease Control. There weren’t autism classrooms at the time, and resources were scarce. The Gwinnett County Public School system wanted to remove him from the Parkview cluster and move him to another facility 45 minutes away.

Lou, who didn’t know much about autism other than watching the movie “Rain Man,” knew she had a fight on her hands. She was determined to make sure her son had a community. That philosophy has never wavered through any year of his life.

The Blankenships hired therapists, who were high school students, to work with Reece starting at the age of 4. Olson’s older brother, Zack, once worked with Reece. They worked on speech therapy, tasks such as throwing a basketball or going on walks. Zack said he made Reece run high-intensity sprinting drills in the driveway for physical exercise.

Matt, who is 3 years younger than his brother, was next in line to care for Reece. He had some familiarity with Reece, because Matt and Daron were in the same friend group after meeting in science class. The Blankenships hosted plenty of gatherings. Daron warned her friends of Reece potentially yelling or exhibiting unique behaviors, but Matt never saw Reece any differently.

“Your brain is being molded through your teenage years more than you realize,” Matt said. “Reece played a part in molding the person I am today.”

The Olsons took a lot of pride in working with Reece. Matt and Zack never missed a session, which was surprising to their father Scott Olson, because he struggled to get them to mow the lawn. Matt and Reece built a special connection. Lou said Matt became Reece’s “rock,” and they built an admiration for each other.

“Matt has always remained an inspiration to me,” Reece said. “I cannot express the gratitude I feel for his total acceptance of me.”

Lou would pay the high schoolers to work with Reece. At one point, Matt would no longer accept payment. His time with Reece was enough.

“They have a friendship like none of us could ever have,” Scott said.

Finding Reece’s voice

Lou and Jeff Blankenship, Reece’s parents, were told that their son had the mental capacity of a 3-year old throughout his schooling. They were led to believe that he wouldn’t ever be able to expand beyond it, even though they had their doubts at times.

Once Reece aged out of high school, Lou wasn’t pleased with his opportunities within the community as someone who is a non-verbal autistic. She ran into a friend who had a non-verbal daughter with autism, and they’d begun to work on the spelling-to-communicate method.

For three months, they prepared for a workshop on how to use the method with a group of four other families. Lou purchased a stencil letterboard, and would have Reece point to letters of the alphabet. The process is rather arduous and takes plenty of time, but could open a world of possibilities for Reece. They worked on it for 90 minutes per day in applied behavioral therapy sessions.

Once the workshop came to life, the first session centered around astronomy. The leader asked Reece what he knew about the topic on the first day. At that time, the other students were learning how to point to specific letters on the board. Reece already had mastered that skill and expressed thoughts for the first time.

“I know Copernicus advocated that the Earth revolves around the sun,” Reece spelled out.

“Not only did we realize he was smart,” said Lou, who had to research Copernicus. “He’s smarter than his mother.”

At the age of 19, Reece’s life changed. He was able to express his thoughts for the first time, although he exerts a lot of effort to do so. He showed that his intelligence stretches beyond those his age. Reece likened it to being released out of a silent prison, Lou said.

“I used to dream about having a body capable of accomplishing all that my mind could imagine,” Reece said. “Spelling became the means of realizing that dream and sharing the power of my autistic mind.”

Each offseason, Matt would return to visit the Blankenships and spend time with Reece. He got the experience of seeing his friend communicate on the letterboard for the first time. That moment not only allowed their bond to blossom to another level, but gave Matt more perspective.

“My jaw dropped,” Matt said. “It’s something you have to see to believe. This is something that 98% of the world takes for granted. … It’s impressive to see how hard he has to work to get through a sentence. It makes the words so much more powerful. You know how hard he’s working to get there.”

Coach Dustin Dalton (right) works with Davis Manton at the ReClif fitness-based therapy center in Peachtree Corners Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2023.  (Steve Schaefer/

Credit: Steve Schaefer

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Credit: Steve Schaefer

Sharing a vision

After learning to communicate, Reece expressed desires to provide a unique approach in caring for those with autism. Lou struggled to find resources for her son after he aged out of high school, but had no plans to start a business. Her daughters were pushed to achieve their dreams and wanted Lou to help Reece do the same,

They decided to give it a try, based on Reece’s vision, and set aside a certain amount of money they could lose. Those funds would’ve been used for Reece’s college tuition. Reece wanted a name for the facility that was “unique to him,” he said. ReClif, which is short for Reece Clifton, came to life.

The organization started with six patients in 2018. It now has more than 150 sessions per week and celebrates its fifth anniversary in February.

“A healthy mind requires a healthy body,” Reece said. “My overall goal is to create a more positive approach to autism.”

Matt wanted to help by donating to the for-profit business in 2018, but a better idea came about shortly thereafter. A non-profit branch – which Lou had no desire to start, originally – formed and ReClif Community allowed for those with autism and their families to go on outings. It also raises scholarships for those unable to receive fitness services at ReClif.

“Reece is the man running the show here,” Matt said. “My role in this is to help him achieve his vision and get the word out. Our goal is to integrate people with autism and knock down those barriers so there’s not such a divide.”

Joining forces

Most of the time when Matt visited Georgia, Reece requested a trip to his favorite restaurant, Cheeseburger Bobby’s. Before the 2022 season, Olson met Reece, Lou and the Blankenship family for a meal and a conversation about baseball arose.

They all discussed his looming return to join the Oakland Athletics and how Matt was looking forward to the coming season in the green-and-gold. Suddenly, someone at the table spoke up.

“Wouldn’t it be cool if you were traded to Atlanta?” someone said.

“No, that won’t happen,” someone else responded. “Freddie (Freeman) is never going to leave!”

Reece chimed in and spelled, “Maybe if you get traded to Texas or something, at least you won’t be so far away and we can watch more games.”

A matter of days after their gathering, it happened. The Braves traded for Matt. He signed an 8-year, $168 million contract a day later.

Everything changed not only for Matt in that instant, but ReClif, too. He had shared his story with Reece. He raised awareness for autism in certain games with a customized bat and cleats. He was never able to, however, make a direct impact on the organization that he had such a passion for.

The Braves Foundation and Matt have helped ReClif Community immensely in its goal to cast a wider net to those with disabilities who have aged out of pediatric therapy. ReClif Community purchased a set of four season tickets to get those with autism and their families to the games. The Braves welcomed their visitors each time with a sensory-friendly kit full of goodies. During the 2023 season, the Atlanta Braves Foundation will donate tickets to the organization.

“The Braves are heads-and-tails above a lot of other teams,” Lou said. “I can’t say enough about how they’ve helped Matt and Reece share their mission.”

During a tour of Truist Park, Matt and Reece had discussions about more apt sensory room options at the stadium. They hope to contribute to this vision in the coming years.

“It’s priceless,” Matt said. “It opens the door for more families to get through things they might not be able to otherwise.”

‘Is this real?’

In June, six members of the ReClif Community board gathered to discuss a fundraiser. It had done golf tournaments before, but Lou had silent auction items left over from an event canceled by the pandemic.

A plan for a casino night inside Truist Park came to fruition. The gala would have the typical dinner, presentation and auction, but this came with a twist as it gave the attendees the opportunity to play at blackjack, poker, roulette, slots and craps tables.

“We were able to support them along the way and within their planning process,” said Danielle Bedasse, vice president of the Atlanta Braves Foundation. “It’s a labor of love from our community team, because we love to see our guys able to give back in a meaningful way.”

The board had low expectations for the first year of the event. Matt declared that it would be an annual occurrence, so ReClif Community had the dream of breaking even, hosting 300 people for the event and gaining exposure.

Over 500 people showed up. Matt was joined by a host of teammates including Tyler Matzek, Travis d’Arnaud and Jackson Stephens. Aaron Sniker, vice chairman of the non-profit’s board, said ReClif Community raised $215,000 that can be put to use toward scholarships for fitness programs and outings for those with autism and their families.

Matt may have ReClif Community at the core of his endeavors, but it’s not charity. Instead, it’s helping a close friend. At one point during the gala, Lou and Matt glanced toward each other. They locked eyes in amazement of the event as if to say, “Is this real?”

To close the event, Reece went on stage to present Matt with a gift – a framed letter board inscribed “Love you man.” Reece had determination to control his body on the stage, and he did so. He ended his appearance with something he had never done before, a celebratory wave.

Those in the crowd waved back. Once more, Reece’s different method of communication held its power upon many who attended to support autism.

“I was floored,” Lou said of Reece’s gesture. “It was absolutely amazing.”

Atlanta Braves first baseman Matt Olson and his wife Nicole react as they receive a gift from Reece Blankenship during Diamond Casino Night at the Delta Club in Truist Park, Friday, January 27, 2023, in Atlanta. Reece Blankenship is a non-verbal autistic who Olson has known since middle school. The fundraiser will benefit the ReClif Community, which aims to provide a chance for more typical life experiences for individuals living with autism and those that care for them. (Jason Getz /


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