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Kalin Bennett, Arkansas teen with autism, recruited to play basketball at Kent State

As a child, Bennett was told he may never walk or talk.
Kalin Bennett, 18, is believed to be the first player with autism to sign with a Division I sports team.
Kalin Bennett, 18, is believed to be the first player with autism to sign with a Division I sports team.NBC News

An Arkansas teen with autism who was once told he would never walk or talk has defied the odds — and is now joining Kent State University's basketball team.

Kalin Bennett, 18, of Little Rock, was recruited by the Ohio school earlier this month, and accepted Kent State's offer to play starting next season. It was a history-making move: According to the National Collegiate Athletic Association, Bennett may be the first student-athlete with autism to sign a national letter of intent to play a team sport at the Division I level.

At 6 feet, 10 inches, and with a stellar athletic record, Bennett has big dreams for Kent State — both on and off the court.

"I'm always trying to figure out what I want to do better," said Bennett, who did not walk until he was 4 years old and did not talk until he was 7. He said he hopes his size, rebounding skills and positive attitude will help his new team, and he also hopes his story will inspire others with autism — particularly "kids who feel like they can't do anything."

Bennett knows that feeling: Diagnosed with autism as a child, he was told during the evaluation that it was unlikely he would ever speak and walk, never mind play sports and have teammates who he considers to be his best friends.

"I used to be in the corner, like, I wouldn't say nothing, I used to not like people at all," he said. "I was always by myself, always alone."

His mother, Sonja Bennett, said she never doubted her son would succeed — even when evaluators set low expectations.

"When I got the diagnosis, I went to work, because I wasn't going to just sit there and let him just fade away," she said, adding that constantly reading books to Bennett and playing music for him helped him start talking.

"He's overcome being nonverbal. He's sociable now, he focuses on you, he talks to you, he'll hug you."

But it was basketball, which Bennett was introduced to in the third grade, that really changed his life, his mother said: "That's when the light came on."

"It helped build his self-esteem. He had brotherhood, and it taught him teamwork," she said.

In addition to basketball, Bennett is also gifted in math and music. He plays four different instruments, with percussion being his favorite.

But other aspects of life have not always come as easily. Bennett has struggled with anxiety. Sometimes, small issues feel overwhelming to him, his mom said.

This year, Bennett is doing a gap-year program at Link Year Prep, a Christian academy in Branson, Mo. When he starts at Kent State, he will live on campus in a dorm — but his mom will live nearby.

"He doesn't need me to be hovering. He just needs to know that I'm in the same space that he's in," she said.

"It already felt like home as soon as I touched campus."

Bennett was recruited by other colleges, but said he chose Kent State because he felt like he fit in with the team and because of the school's nationally recognized autism initiatives.

"It already felt like home as soon as I touched campus," he said.

Gina Campana, assistant director of diversity, equity and inclusion for Kent State, said the university offers many services for students with autism and is particularly proud of a partnering program it offers that matches such students with neurotypical students.

"This is not a mentoring program where one is higher than the other. They're equals, and they learn about each other," Campana said.

Autism Speaks, an advocacy organization, praised Bennett and Kent State.

"Kalin is likely not the first young person with autism to decide to play college sports. However, the public nature of his decision can have a really great impact on younger children with autism who may not have seen this as a path for them," said Autism Speaks director of adult services, David Kearon, who works with schools and employers to create a smooth transition into adulthood for people with autism.

"I am hopeful that Kalin inspires others to consider paths like the one he's taking, to go to a good school, and to participate in sports and all other aspects of campus life."

When asked whether she ever imagined her son would be this successful, Sonja Bennett said yes — "even when he didn't."

"I said, 'can't' is not a word we're going to use in this house. We will not use that word. That's a bad word."

"I said, 'can't' is not a word we're going to use in this house. We will not use that word. That's a bad word," she said.

Her hopes are now higher than ever for her son.

"I want him to grow up to be just the best man he can be, and I think he's headed that way: respect, honor. He's humble. He loves God," she said. "I couldn't ask for a better kid."