Dylan Arens is just like most middle school girls in South Sioux City. She spends every day shooting hoops — dribbling and dreaming of being part of the powerhouse girls basketball tradition that continues to be one of the best programs in the state.
But as a 12-year-old with autism, Dylan has challenges that most girls her age don’t. Still, her dream of being part of the basketball team is coming true every day thanks to the support of the South Sioux coaching staff and the compassion of its players.
Despite her challenges, the South Sioux girls basketball team has opened its arms to Dylan by including her in practices and considers the seventh-grader with autism as part of their program.
“She tells us every day, ‘I have practice today’ or ‘ I don’t have practice today’ because she thinks she’s part of the team,” said her mother, Alyssa Arens, who is originally of Orchard.
And that is exactly how the team wants her to feel, including Jared Small, who is an assistant coach for the Cardinals and was Dylan’s middle school coach and reading teacher.
“We want her to feel like she’s part of the team,” Small said, “because to us, she is part of the team.”
That was evident last week as the Cardinals surprised Dylan with a Christmas present — an autographed team photo. Making it even more special — and a surprise to her family — was that Dylan was in the photo. The coaches asked her parents, Todd and Alyssa, to attend practice when the gift was presented.
“We always have a studio take photos at the beginning of the season, and Dylan was there when we took the team photo. We asked her to be in one, and she jumped right in front,” Small said with a laugh. “The team wanted to give the photo to Dylan, so it was from the whole team.”
Autism is a disorder that affects a person’s ability to communicate, reason and interact with others. With Dylan having moderate autism, Todd and Alyssa Arens decided a couple of years ago to enroll her in a school with more resources.
Although a difficult decision, the Arens family moved from Laurel to South Sioux City, where Todd was hired as an industrial arts instructor. The move still kept the family — including children Dylan, 12; Olivia, 9, and Jaxson, 3 — somewhat close to its roots since Todd graduated from Laurel-Concord.
It was also close enough for Alyssa Arens to continue working as an accountant at Northeast Nebraska Telephone Company in Jackson. Her parents, Larry and Linda Mieras, both taught at Orchard High School and still reside there today. Todd Arens was born in Knox County is the son of the late Cletus Arens of Crofton and Sharon Asbra of Laurel.
Alyssa Arens said since she and Todd both attended small schools where everyone knew everybody, moving to a Class B school was frightening.
“We were scared to death about what it would be like for her with the other kids. Would they bully her? There are still those kids, but what the coaches have done by including her and the girls including her is that, hopefully, the other kids leave her alone,” Arens said.
Basketball has become a motivator and connector for Dylan. Not only has it given her teammates and a feeling of belonging, it’s also provided the family with an activity they can enjoy together. Thanks to Dylan, the family doesn’t miss home basketball games, and Dylan insists they stay until the final buzzer.
“Autistic kids are so often in their own world, so this helps her to be in our world,” Arens said. “It’s nice to see her engage in a more typical world.”
Small, who calls Dylan his “best pal,” said the coaching staff noticed the basketball connection immediately last year when Dylan attended a basketball camp at the school. As her reading teacher, he knew about Dylan’s challenges and encouraged her to attend the camp and try middle school basketball.
This season, Dylan played 2-3 minutes in most middle school games. While many teams treated her like any other player, Sioux City East gave her the opportunity to experience scoring a basket. Actually, Dylan scored three times. The crowd cheered and even the referee gave her a high-five. And Dylan couldn’t have been more proud, evident by the huge smile.
“We played some Sioux City teams that didn’t back off. They would steal the ball from her and stuff her, so when East didn’t guard her, it was really nice of them,” Arens said. “And both sides were really happy for her, so it was really neat to see how compassionate people can be.”
While the kindness means a lot to the family, Arens is quick to say they never asked the basketball team to take Dylan under their wing, and they makes sure she isn’t a distraction for the Cardinals.
Actually, Small said Dylan is the opposite. She’s as much of an asset to them as they are to her.
“Having Dylan around is good for not only her, but for the girls basketball team. We want our team to work with the community, and Dylan brings a smile to everyone’s face. That’s what the girls love about her, and she’s a very witty girl,” he said. “Even for me as a person, I grow from it. To see Dylan interact with these kids and to see these kids interact with her is a special thing.”
That connection is so special that the basketball program is hoping to make Dylan a permanent part of the team during her high school years, as long as her parents agree.
“We get to have Dylan all throughout high school, and I hope her parents want her to be a part of our team. We want her to travel with us when she’s in high school,” he said. “These are lifelong skills the girls are teaching her, but that she’s also teaching our girls on the varsity these skills, too. It’s just an all-around good feeling for everyone.”