To note: April is National Autism Awareness Month and April 2 is World Autism Awareness Day 2022.
When Aaron Likens was 20, he thought he would never have a job, he would never have friends, and he would never be happy.
This is what an Internet search revealed to him one evening in 2003 when he was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by significant difficulties in social interaction and non-verbal communication, as well as Restricted and repetitive behaviors and interests. In 2013, it officially became part of an autism spectrum disorder diagnostic umbrella.
Up to this point in his life, Likens knew he had passionate and repetitive interests in weather and motor racing. But he did not understand why people did not have the same knowledge or the same interest as him for these subjects. He thought everyone else was the “weirdos”, he said.
After his diagnosis, he fell into a state of deep depression. He found no logic in the turn his life had taken. In his mind, failure was a guarantee, so why try? It lasted 14 months.
“I thought it was a death sentence, and I could never do anything about it,” he said. “When I read this, I sadly let this diagnosis define me. I say I was five steps beyond depression.
For over a year, Likens let this website dictate who he was and how he was going to live his life. As his state of depression persisted, Likens struggled to explain what he was going through. He was never good at explaining his feelings or emotions.
But he needed to get out. So he started writing in a diary. He never liked writing growing up, but it was his last resort. He couldn’t talk about his emotions, so how about writing them down? It allowed his brain to access thoughts he had never had before. It was a new outlet for him, and it allowed him to explain to his parents who he was and why.
Likens continued to write to the point where he had a book full of thoughts, stories, and explanations for people with autism. In 2012 he self-published his book and a division of Penguin picked up the story. “Finding Kansas” has sold nearly 15,000 copies to date.
After giving 1,100 presentations to approximately 95,000 people at schools, FBI offices, police headquarters and more, this is Likens life.
“I wish I could go back to who I was in 2005 when I started writing and saying, ‘Aaron, you have no idea what’s going to happen,'” he said. “‘You have no idea. Stick with it.
“I wouldn’t trade anything in the process to get here.”
This is not what Likens had planned for his career. He embarked on a career as an author and autism awareness advocate on his journey to becoming a flagman in auto racing.
Likens is originally from Indianapolis but moved to St. Louis as a child. His first trip to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was for an Indy 500 practice day in 1987, and his first Indianapolis 500 was in 1989. He was in love with the speed, color and competition of race cars.
But more than that, he was fascinated by the man in the flag stand waving the green flag to start the race and the checkered flag to finish it. Likens did not consider Unser, Andretti or Rahal to be his hero. Instead, his hero was Duane Sweeney – Indianapolis 500 chief starter for decades.
In 1990 he asked Sweeney for an autograph. Sweeney asked his wife, who made two checkered flags for the Indy 500 every year, to make a third flag for Likens, which he signed. This flag, which Likens sometimes waved at passing cars in his neighborhood as he stood on a rock next to the street, is safely hidden in his basement.
This set Likens on the path to wanting to be a flagman for his career. His first opportunity came when he was 13 at his local go-kart track in St. Louis, when he wasn’t racing go-karts himself.
Then he started flagging for the St. Louis Karting Association from 1996 to 2005 before moving to USAC at the request of former IMS historian Donald Davidson, who said most flaggers arrived to the INDYCAR SERIES via USAC.
He then had the opportunity to join the NTT INDYCAR SERIES in 2020 as a flagman. His first time he officially reported an NTT INDYCAR SERIES event came at the GMR Grand Prix in July on the IMS road course, when he was in the grandstand for qualifying.
Likens became one of two flaggers for the NTT INDYCAR SERIES, touring the country and helping to umpire North America’s first open-wheel series. Then, in 2021, the opportunity of a lifetime fell in her lap.
Likens’ colleague in the flag stand with whom he shoots major flagging duties offered him the Indianapolis 500 work presented by Gainbridge from start to finish, in which he waved the double-checkered flags for Helio Castroneves in one of the most historic finishes in “500” history.
Twenty-two years after this young child fell in love with the man waving the flag in the racing capital of the world, Likens was suddenly that man.
“I’m a writer, so I should have the words for that, right? It’s impossible,” he said. “I watched footage of the race, and it doesn’t feel real. I can relate to every sports movie now in the final scene when any goal has been achieved. And as an audience, you’re seated and it all has to be so amazing.
“When you’re in it. You are just in a blur or you are in a fog. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime moment that you’ve been waiting for forever, and when you get there, it’s so overwhelming it’s a beautiful numbness.
While Likens’ eyes are still on May and ready to help signal “Running’s Greatest Spectacle”, yet again he has a special appreciation for World Autism Awareness Day on May 2. April.
When he was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, awareness of the disorder was extremely low. Even Likens’ doctor who read the assessment didn’t even understand what it meant. So, Likens is on a mission to change that.
He grew up wanting to race and be involved in racing. Now, he says, he still wants to do it, but in a different context.
“I always want to run. But it’s a new race now,” he said. “The race to spread as much knowledge and understanding as possible, because there is so much hope for all people with autism.”
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 and more people being diagnosed with autism, Likens believes it is vital to continue to raise awareness and help the world understand people with this disorder.
He also wants everyone to understand that not all cases of autism are the same and that it takes time to figure out how to help each person. He insists he wouldn’t have overcome so many of his own obstacles if he hadn’t taken the time to understand who he was and what he needed to succeed.
“Each person’s growth is limitless with more awareness around them and more understanding,” he said. “I think we’re at a point now where people are aware of autism. When I was first diagnosed and told people I had Asperger’s syndrome, people hadn’t heard of it. It’s World Autism Awareness Day, but we’re moving on to World Autism Understanding Day.
“The journey for me to get here, I wish I could stand on a pedestal and say, ‘Look what I’ve done’, but that 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 did it, and who did it is a subjective term, it was because of awareness and understanding of those around us.
Now Likens is ready for the next NTT INDYCAR SERIES race, the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach on Sunday, April 10 (3 p.m. ET, live on NBC and INDYCAR Radio Network), where he will be the main pit signaller.
Most importantly, Likens has a job, friends, and is extremely happy.