Christian Spencer shattering ‘invisible ceiling,’ raising ASD awareness

Credit: Jason Getz /

Credit: Jason Getz /

Eagle’s Landing sophomore on JV basketball team driven by sport

Until recently, Miranda Spencer wanted to keep her only son’s autism diagnosis a secret to all but a few select people in her inner circle. She didn’t want there to be a perception that Christian Spencer, a 17-year-old sophomore at Eagle’s Landing High School, was different or for him to be lumped in with the common misconceptions and myths of autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

“I said to myself, ‘I didn’t want him to have this invisible ceiling,’” Miranda Spencer said. “The labels, the stigma. I wanted him to grow and learn like every other child.”

Her plan worked. Christian Spencer is in his second season in the Eagle’s Landing basketball program. He’s a favorite among teammates and the community, earning the nickname “Steezo.” His Instagram account has nearly 14,000 followers.

By playing basketball for the Eagles, Christian has gone from having a reserved personality to a “social butterfly,” as Eagles JV coach Eric Wortham said.

“He used to be quiet, but since he joined the basketball team last year, everyone loves him,” Wortham said.

“I like hanging out during the games and on the bus,” said Christian, a 5-foot-7 guard. “I’m spending more time on social media, and I’m hanging out with people, and we’re getting to know each other.”

Christian’s ASD had been kept a secret from most until a friend of Miranda’s had a child with ASD come to her with questions. Miranda decided it was time to speak out.

“She had the same concerns I had when I first found out about Christian,” Miranda said. “That’s what provoked me to raise awareness. I want people to understand that being autistic doesn’t stop anyone from being a child and progressing like they should. Christian has had a lot of support along the way, and it does present challenges, but he’s successful in his own right. Him making the team makes that evident.”

Credit: Jason Getz /

Credit: Jason Getz /

According to estimates from the CDC’s Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring (ADDM) Network, about 1 in 44 (23%) children by age 8 have been identified with ASD. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) defines ASD as, “a neurological and developmental disorder that affects how people interact with others, communicate, learn and behave.” NIMH continues that it’s described as a developmental disorder because symptoms generally appear in the first two years of life.

When Christian was age 2 and still wasn’t talking, Miranda wondered why. At the time, she was an early-20s student attending Mississippi State. The university’s early childhood development program included speech services, so she put Christian in classes. A fellow student and friend, who was studying to become a nurse, speculated that Christian might have ASD.

“My mind started wandering,” Miranda said. “I didn’t know what autism was. We hadn’t done any testing.”

Christian began speaking at age 5 and began kindergarten at Alabama’s Leeds Elementary when he was 6. The school system recommended the test for ASD, and that’s when he was diagnosed formally. Months later, Miranda had an appointment with a psychologist to discuss her son’s ASD.

That’s when reality set in.

“I asked if he would ever grow out of his developmental delays,” Miranda said. “He said, ‘No.’ I was distraught. I took it really hard. From then on, I decided Christian would not be treated a certain way.”

As the CDC notes, ASD has three levels of severity, which is why it’s commonly referred to as a spectrum. Level 1 requires support; Level 2 requires substantial support, and Level 3 requires very substantial support. Miranda considers Christian at Level 1 on the spectrum.

Once Miranda regained her composure after the meeting with the psychologist, she initially told only Christian’s father.

“I told myself I would not bring it up,” she said. “Not even to family.”

Credit: Jason Getz /

Credit: Jason Getz /

Although Christian is on the high-functioning end of the spectrum, his delayed speech development was too much to overcome early on, resulting in him having to repeat the third grade. Christian took it hard.

“He understood the concept, and he was upset,” Miranda said. “He knew he wasn’t going to be with his friends anymore. He didn’t fail, we all just felt this was best. From that point on, he took on a different attitude.”

Christian found the determination to succeed. That carried over to basketball, a sport he fell in love with at age 5.

“I started dribbling the ball a lot, and that was my thing,” he said. “As I got older, I started to get the hang of it.”

After spending his childhood playing in church and recreation leagues, he tried out for the Eagle’s Landing Middle School eighth-grade team, but missed the cut. He was hurt by the news, but he was far from done.

“I couldn’t give up because basketball is my favorite thing,” he said. “I had to keep going at it until I made the team.”

Under the guidance of his personal trainer, Marvin Ricks, Spencer practiced every day after the tryouts, through the summer and until it was time for ninth-grade tryouts at Eagle’s Landing.

Ricks didn’t know Christian was autistic.

“Everyone I work with, I ask them what they want to get out of this,” Ricks said. “He said he wanted to be the best player he could become. I believe in planting seeds, and I said he was a superstar. Not everyone can dunk or shoot, but by applying yourself and having good fundamentals and giving 100% every day we train, you’ll see results in a month.”

Ricks set the ambitious goal for Christian of being the best player on the team.

“In doing that, if you fall short, you’ll make the team anyway,” Ricks said.

That theory held true last season when Christian made the ninth-grade team.

“It was the best day of my life,” he said.

Credit: Jason Getz /

Credit: Jason Getz /

Now on the JV team, Christian is contributing. His best game came against Stockbridge on Nov. 30, when he scored four points with two rebounds and a steal.

He’s active all game. When he’s on the court, he’s communicating on defense and helping to pick up on double-teams. On the bench where, admittedly, he’d prefer not to be, he’s constantly cheering on his teammates.

“He understands the game very well,” Wortham said. “He’s a great teammate, and he never puts them down. If anything, he gets mad when he can’t get him in the game as much as he wants. As a teammate, he’s amazing. He’s always clapping every time someone makes a play.”

Wortham said Christian has, by far, the most endurance on the team.

“I talked to our cross country coach after watching Christian in practice,” he said. “The kids are bent over tired, and Christian is still going.”

For Wortham, coaching Christian is the same as coaching anyone else.

“There’s nothing wrong with him,” Wortham said. “He’s very smart. His brain just thinks differently. I’ve done one-on-one training with two other autistic kids, and they’re all different. There are challenges, but that just makes me a better teacher.”

When Miranda went public with Christian’s autism, nothing changed because everyone already had known and accepted Christian for who he is.

But his presence on the team has raised awareness about ASD for his teammates, and the experience of playing with him will serve them down the road.

“Life is all about dealing with different types of people,” Wortham said. “Ninety percent of problems come from not knowing how to deal with people. My guys, later in life, if they encounter someone like Christian, they’ll know there’s nothing wrong with them. They won’t be hesitant or uncomfortable. They’ll know how to handle the situation.”

Christian’s motor continues to run. His goals moving forward are to earn a spot in the starting rotation and eventually make the varsity team. He knows he has work to do.

“If I’m on the bench, that means I’m not good enough yet,” he said. “So, if I’m not good enough yet, I’ll push myself harder in the gym to do better.”