About a Boyd: The face of a new cricket community
Meet Boyd Duffield, one of Australia's leading cricketers with an intellectual disability, who is helping forge a path in the sport for those with autism and their families
Boyd Duffield stands over the small white ball, eyes moving slowly from right to left. He shifts the putter into position and, without delay, begins a slow, deliberate backswing. The club face comes down smoothly, gently kissing the ball midway through the pendulum. As he finishes his follow-through, his attention stays with the ball. It makes its way purposefully along the unfurled strip of green felt, roughly three metres long, and drops into the plastic slot. The mechanical device spits the ball back from where it came, and the process happens again. No fuss, no fanfare. No discernible reaction at all.
One, two, three in a row. Each as definitive as the last.
"You're pretty good at this," someone says.
"I am," Boyd replies.
Three letters. Two words. One straightforward sentiment. If you don't know Boyd Duffield – if he doesn't know you – then this is his formula. Brief, one-sentence answers that give the conversation a staccato rhythm, but offer not even a trace of what he is thinking or feeling. It seems a misleading initiation in a sense because those who do know Boyd smile at the very mention of his name; teammates, coaches and family alike.
As his mother of 25 years, Lisa Duffield sails these waters more skilfully than anyone, though even she has limited access to her son's mind. Boyd has autism spectrum disorder (ASD), broadly defined as 'a developmental disorder characterised by difficulties with social interaction and communication, and by restricted and repetitive behaviour'. One of the most challenging aspects of that, Lisa explains from the loungeroom of her Perth home, is an inability to express much, if any, emotion.
"Even now he has trouble telling us … he doesn't tell you if he's sad," she says. "He gets angry, or frustrated, so it tends to come out like that. He'll know if I'm upset, but he's not empathetic.
"I used to get upset about it when he was in primary school. But I think you just learn to live around it."
There is a recurring sense of positivity when Lisa discusses her son. She isn't sure whether that has helped shaped Boyd, or if in fact the reverse is the case; his verve for life has influenced her outlook. She also sees a kindness in him that she believes comes from his grandparents on her husband Steve's side. Others, too, see those traits regularly being displayed.
"I jokingly say when we've got a side to pick that Boyd's the first selected, because he embodies what we're all about," says John Lonergan, Boyd's coach in Australia's national team for cricketers with an intellectual disability (ID).
"His matter-of-fact form of speaking is quite endearing but he's also quite articulate, and he's got a very genuine love for the game of cricket.
"He just engenders positivity around the group."
In his loungeroom, Boyd continues to putt. He sinks one after another, the binary action of see ball, hit ball suited to the workings of his brain. It is the same in cricket. A bowler originally, he is now an allrounder who is set to open the batting for the National Squad for Cricketers with an Intellectual Disability in next month's INAS Global Games in Brisbane.
On Australia's last tour of the UK in 2017, Boyd surprised his coach and Cricket Australia support staff with an unbeaten half-century. Where others struggled against some fast bowling, Boyd was able to lock his focus in on just the ball. For him, there was no real element of fear. His mind was uncluttered. See ball, hit ball.
"I'm not worried about fast bowling," he says.
Cricket will be one of ten sports represented at this years INAS Global Games in Brisbane! The Australian Cricket side includes 14 of the 1000 elite athletes who will compete in this inspirational celebration of sport, culture and ability. #ASportforAll pic.twitter.com/pMbSYyFAzi— Cricket Australia (@CricketAus) September 8, 2019
Lonergan identified Boyd's skill-set during that England campaign, where the Western Australian presented as a simple solution to a simple problem.
"We started him off down the order, but then we were looking at what we needed – someone who could just play straight, and make good contact," Lonergan explains. "So we took a very practical approach, and Boyd takes a very practical approach, and he just simply says, 'When they bowl it, I just hit it' and that worked well for all of us.
"He's got an amazing confidence about his ability. Sometimes I feel like I'm just getting in the way as coach, and I should just let him sort out what needs to be done (laughs). He's a great lad."
The confidence, it appears, is not unfounded. The unbeaten half-century Boyd made against England on that tour, Lonergan believes, was something quite special.
"A benefit of the autism he has is an amazing ability to focus on bat on ball," he says. "That fifty was one of the best knocks I've ever seen anyone play, period – regardless of mainstream or anything.
"He hit the middle of the bat every single time."
Like any parents, Lisa and Steve Duffield had not been prepared for a child with ASD. Back then, around the turn of the century, there was less information and awareness when compared with today.
"I'd never heard of autism when he was four," Lisa reflects. "They seem to pick it up earlier now because they know so much more."
Boyd's wasn't a classic case of ASD, if indeed there is such a thing, and he didn't have all the traits that aid early detection – he crawled on time, and walked at 14 months. It was his challenges with communication that proved the key tell-tale sign. When he was four-and-a-half, his parents took him to a paediatrician, then had him assessed on a couple more occasions between the ages of five and seven-and-a-half. At eight-and-a-half, he was diagnosed with ASD, or simply 'autism', as it is also termed. Through that time, he attended a language school but even by the age of seven, he was unable to say simple words such as 'apple'.
Lisa speaks quietly but confidently as she sinks back into a giant brown couch. Beside her is Kim, a social support worker who takes Boyd out every Thursday morning for activities ranging from volunteer work in kitchens to a cup of coffee and a chat. The two exchange notes regularly, catching up on the latest in Boyd's world – he will sometimes share with Kim things he doesn't tell Lisa – and looking to identify opportunities for outings and activities suited to Boyd's interests.
On the other couch, taking a break from his putting, is Boyd. He sits silently and generally looks straight ahead as the conversation swirls around him. It is difficult to gauge how much he is taking in. Lisa prompts him at times by ending her statements with questions directed at him, such as '…didn't you, Boyd?'. It seems almost a subconscious thing, a thoughtful prod designed to both elicit a response and make him feel included.
Lisa thinks back to those times when Boyd was just a small child and remembers feelings of denial being followed by anxiousness. Where's this going to lead us? Pretty quickly however, and true to her character, she became proactive, and began looking at the first steps to take. Immediately she was met with financial and administrative roadblocks.
"There was no early intervention," she says. "There was a year-long wait for speech therapy and occupational therapy, and we had to fund all that ourselves."
Lisa had a friend who was working in applied behaviour analysis with a Perth-based organisation. Unable to afford the costly fees, Lisa began studying research material herself. She read as many resources as she could get her hands on and then started implementing her learnings with Boyd. Soon she was doing speech therapy with him. At their Swan View home on the outskirts of Perth, Lisa would sit with her son at a little blue table every afternoon and they would work to improve his communication.
"You'd come home on the school bus," she says, directing the conversation to Boyd, "and that was our little routine, wasn't it?"
On Tuesdays, Boyd would also attend a speech therapy class in Kalamunda. Progress was made slowly, however the fact his challenges were more neurological than physical meant he was able to find an outlet in sport. Backyard cricket with his brother Scott, who is two years his senior, proved a way out from the solitude of his mind. Lisa remembers the metal stumps clanging into the garage door every afternoon, and the boys running up and down the patio and jumping down onto the lawn as they charged in to bowl and scooted between wickets. It was the beginnings of what would prove a seminal change for Boyd.
Boyd stands and walks across the loungeroom. He picks up a cricket bat that was given to him by David Hussey, and has since been signed by Adam Gilchrist. He sent a thankyou video to Hussey for the bat. He holds it now, and begins shadow batting. Just a couple of swift, strong forward defensive punches. Elbow high, head over the straight bat. He paces the room and puts the bat down. He picks up the putter, uses it to tee up the golf ball again. He putts five times, and doesn't miss.
"Perfect," he's told.
"I know," he says.
He followed his brother into park cricket as a 10-year-old, and it was a significant step not just for him but for the Duffield family. Lisa and Steve had been nervous parents as they watched on, hopeful his backyard battles with Scott would hold him in good stead but conscious this was an altogether new challenge.
"We were concerned that he wouldn't be able to judge hitting the ball and running," she remembers. "And I was worried that the other team members wouldn't like him because he wouldn't understand instructions."
But the Duffields found strong support in Boyd's development through Sandro Coniglio, father of AFL player Stephen Coniglio and the boys' coach at the time. Sandro was a school teacher and principal, and showed patience and understanding with Boyd's different ways of learning.
"He spent a great amount of time with Boyd, just working with him one-on-one," Lisa recalls. "Within a month or so, Boyd really started to get it, and he could move forward with his cricket career.
"We're really grateful to Sandro for that."
The individual challenges of the sport within a team environment also suited him. At home, he hit a ball in a sock rigged to the garage roof over and over, the repetitive action tailor made for the way his mind connects the dots. Unlike other parents, Lisa and Steve couldn't drop Boyd at cricket and leave him to it; there was always a possibility, Lisa says, that he would simply wander off. So Steve got into scoring, keeping an eye on his boy while simultaneously playing his part and passing the hours. By 14, Boyd was playing indoor cricket in the Western Australia Lord’s Taverners Shield Squad, and at 16, he took five wickets in his first match with Premier Cricket club Mt Lawley.
He had grown in confidence thanks to a nurturing school environment and the inclusivity he experienced in cricket, and by his mid-teens, his ability to communicate had improved considerably. The delicate art of tactfulness however, continued to elude him, explains Lisa with a grin as she weighs in with her recollection of that five-wicket haul.
"The wicketkeeper, Matt, had dropped a couple of catches," she says, "And as they were walking off the field Boyd said, 'Hey Matt, at training this week you need to practice your catches, because today your catching was shit'."
She laughs and the retelling seems to jog Boyd's memory. Out of nowhere he offers a loud, deliberate laugh – ha–ha–ha. Each note punctuates the cosy quiet of the room. It is incredibly heartening for Lisa to hear him laugh, and minutes later he erupts again when she reminds him of a story about some of his teammates farting on a bus trip home from Bunbury. The memory jolts something else in the back of his mind.
"Would you interview Jonathan?” he asks. “He lives in Bunbury. Jonathan has to drive up to Perth all the way from Bunbury for every indoor cricket training. Bunbury is about nearly two hours south of Perth. That's where my grandparents live."
The sentences come in groups of two, not rushed exactly, but without room for a response in between. He has grown more comfortable across the morning, and once comfortable, Boyd can be engaging and conversational. He asks more questions, politely and engagingly as he warms up. What airline did you fly here with? What is your departure time? What is your arrival time? What time will you get home? What kind of plane did you fly here on? But the exertion of the interview is also taking its toll, and he is tiring quickly. Seated back on the couch, he coughs. Lisa has been worried about it for a couple of weeks. She has taken him to the doctor twice, and he is now on a course of antibiotics. He picked it up in Sydney, Lisa says, when they were there for the national all-abilities football carnival. Boyd wasn't playing but was there to watch his close mate Justin Nilon, who is also a member of the National Cricket Squad. He had mentioned their friendship earlier, during one of his few voluntary utterings.
"One day if I save up some money I would like to go to Tasmania and see my mate Justin," he said. "I wouldn't go there in winter – it's just too cold there."
Lisa flew with Boyd to Sydney for the carnival. She felt as though it would mean something to him, because he talks about Justin and she has seen the kind way he treats her son. The young men bond over cricket and their shared passion for the Sydney Swans.
"He's just a genuine bloke," Justin says of Boyd. "I love him to bits."
It was no small decision to fly Boyd across the country, with the costs and accommodation and the time out from Lisa's own busy life. But it was made worthwhile in one brief exchange between the two friends.
"They were chatting, and I saw them laugh, and then Justin just put his arm around Boyd and looked at him with a smile," she says. "That's what sport's all about."
Cricket is making important strides when it comes to ASD awareness in Western Australia. The Autism Association of WA and the WA Cricket Association (WACA) have recently joined forces on an 'Autism in Cricket Strategy Project', backed by a $200,000 grant from the National Disability Insurance Agency and aimed at creating greater inclusiveness and awareness within the local cricket community. Already Gilchrist has added his support to the program as a voluntary ambassador. Given they are effectively a successful case study, Boyd and Lisa are also involved, and recently appeared in one of a series of promotional videos being used by the organisation.
"There's a lot going on in the 'inclusive cricket' space, but the difference with autism is it's not an obvious disability, so people don't naturally adapt," explains Tasha Alach, Director of Therapy and Clinical Services at Autism WA.
"Cricket's the perfect sport for people with autism; it's routine, it's repetitive, it's individual, it's not fast-paced, and there are jobs like scoring and umpiring that they can get involved in."
The project will use videos and other resources to provide simple explanations of ASD inclusivity for local clubs and coaches, which also exist on a new website. The WACA is assisting in the implementation process while also promoting their programs to the ASD community. Fundamentally, the initiative is attempting to use cricket to establish a community mindset for people with ASD who otherwise might not have the confidence to step outside their front door. It is a familiar challenge Alach sees through her work and one she believes is not necessarily difficult to overcome.
"Our biggest priority at the moment is saying 'this is what autism is'," she says. "We're all responsible as a community to learn about it.
"There's a quote from Sir Donald Bradman that talks about leaving the game of cricket in a better place than how it was when you found it, and we think that really sums up what we're trying to do."
Lisa is grateful for the evolution of the support available and the steps being taken towards greater inclusivity, and takes some comfort in the knowledge that parents will no longer find themselves in the position she and Steve did 20 years ago, though that's not to say there are no longer any difficult days. She is deeply proud of Boyd and his outstanding achievements, but there remain times when she hears the mums of teenagers discussing the never-ending task that is their children, and she smiles wryly to herself. She, and a small clique of close friends, know a different definition of never-ending. Her son is 25 and, while he has taken his own important steps towards some forms of independence, it was only a couple of years ago that Lisa and Steve felt assured enough to leave him at home on his own. Outside the house, he has trouble judging when it is safe to cross the road. More challenges lie ahead. Some of Boyd's friends are starting to get married; others are having children. Kim, the social support worker, says Boyd has expressed an interest in dating. All of these aspects of life bring with them complex considerations for Lisa. She worries, too, when she thinks back to her sons' childhood. There is a feeling there that the all-encompassing nature of Boyd's disability – the constant care and supervision that was required – impacted his brother Scott, whose little brother shadowed him wherever he went, and whose needs always had to be met more urgently. Ironically though, she knows she would do well to borrow from Scott's stance on the matter.
"People say to Scott, 'How have you coped with it? What was it like growing up?'," Lisa says. "And Scott just always says, 'I don’t know any different – that was my life growing up; I don't know what it's like growing up with a brother who doesn't have autism'."
She will spend the three weeks in Brisbane for the Global Games and the squad camp that precedes it, because she loves her son and she sees the benefit in it not only for Boyd but for other mothers and sons who are facing the same challenges they once did.
She was moved by a reminder of that only a few Sundays ago, when they were invited to attend an autism awareness day at the WACA. As a formal attendee, Boyd wore his Cricket Australia polo, and stood proudly alongside Gilchrist in front of dozens of young children, some with and some without ASD. As Lisa and Boyd were leaving, she heard a little boy walking behind them say to his mum, 'That man looks like a professional player'. Lisa turned and smiled at the mum, who told her she felt inspired by her. Lisa reassured her that her son, who had ASD, was well ahead of where Boyd had been at the same age, and then she bent down and spoke directly to the boy.
"I just told him that Boyd was autistic too," she says, "And that yes, he played for Australia, and he could do the same one day."
Cricket at the 2019 INAS Global Games in Brisbane
Entry to these matches is free of charge
Tues, Oct 8, 10am: Australia v England (ODI), Dauth Park, Beenleigh
Thurs, Oct 10, 10am: Australia v England (ODI), Dauth Park, Beenleigh
Fri, Oct 11, 10am: Australia v England (ODI), Dauth Park, Beenleigh
Sat, Oct 12, 10am: Official Global Games opening
Sun, Oct 13, 10am: Australia v England (T20I), South Brisbane DCC, Fairfield
Mon, Oct 14, 10am: Australia v England (T20I), South Brisbane DCC, Fairfield
Wed, Oct 16, 10am: Australia v England (T20I), Allan Border Field, Albion
Thurs, Oct 17, 10am: Australia v England (T20I), Allan Border Field, Albion
Fri, Oct 18, 10am: Australia v England (T20I), Allan Border Field, Albion