NASCAR's first ever autistic driver continues to 'defy the odds'

Armani Williams has never let his autism diagnosis get in the way of pursuing his NASCAR dreams, and he has even found a way to use it to his advantage.
Armani Williams, NASCAR Truck Series
Armani Williams, NASCAR Truck Series / Sean Gardner/GettyImages

Armani Williams has wanted to be a race car driver since he was a young child collecting Hot Wheels and Matchbox cars, and that dream turned to reality in 2017, when he made his debut in the NASCAR Pinty's Series at Delaware Speedway.

Skip ahead seven years, and the 24-year-old Grosse Pointe, Michigan native has now competed in K&N Pro Series East, K&N Pro Series West, as well as the ARCA Menards Series.

And in August 2021, he made his Truck Series debut at World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway, making him the first driver openly diagnosed on the autism spectrum to compete in a NASCAR national series race.

Throughout not only his career but his life, specifically since he was diagnosed with autism at the age of two, Williams has been able to overcome his struggles with the help of Autism Speaks, an American non-profit autism awareness organization which sponsors autism research and conducts awareness and outreach activities aimed at families, governments, and the public.

Armani Williams aiming to make an impact

Williams, who has now made a total of seven Truck Series starts and competed in the ARCA Menards Series season opener at Daytona International Speedway back in February, is aiming to utilize his platform as a race car driver to help inspire others who are dealing with autism so that they know that they too can achieve their drivers.

"The way I try to promote autism acceptance and awareness, first of all, is going out on the race track and just getting my name out there and showing people what I'm capable of as a race car driver," Williams told Beyond the Flag. "The opportunity to reach out to as many autism communities as possible, whether it be here in the state of Michigan or anywhere across the country, is important.

"It's important to be able to reach out to people who kind of relate to the situation that I've been through with living through autism, because there are just a lot of struggles and challenges living life through autism, and so they need someone who can give them some hope, some inspiration, something positive that they can carry forward.

"My job is just to share with them my story about how I was diagnosed with autism and help them recognize the challenges that come with autism and help them figure out what ways I’ve tried to overcome the challenges of autism – being able to not let autism back you down from your dreams, and just use autism as a strength and not a weakness.

"It's just more of trying to give a positive influence to the kids, to individuals who have been impacted by autism. That way it can give them the confidence to carry forward in life so that it can help them be able to figure out what dreams they want to accomplish in life and what they want to be successful at. That's what I try to do to help promote autism."

Williams discussed his own diagnosis, which came back in 2002, at a time when autism diagnoses were nowhere near as common as they are today.

In a statement provided by his representative, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in 36 children in the United States have autism spectrum disorder (ASD), which is up from one in 44 in the previous year alone. In 2000, it was just one in 150 children.

"I was diagnosed with autism when I was two years old," Williams said. "I was born in 2000, so the idea of having many kids that were diagnosed with autism was pretty low at the time, about like one out of 150 children diagnosed with autism, whereas today there's like one in every 45 or 50, so it's a lot larger."

The uncertainty that came with Williams' diagnosis was perhaps most felt by his parents, who knew that they would need to seek guidance – and not only for their son, but for themselves, as it pertained to moving forward through life.

"At the time, it wasn't very common," he continued. "So for my parents, they didn't have any idea what autism is, and so Autism Speaks was one of the first resources that they went to. Autism Speaks was happy enough to be able to teach my parents exactly what autism is and help them understand the challenges that comes with autism."

Autism Speaks is the largest autism research organization in the United States, and it continues to grow to this day.

"They were kind enough to give my parents the resources and the tools they needed to where they could best support me as possible," he explained.

"As a kid, I didn't know I had autism at the time. But it's all thanks to the support system of Autism Speaks and my parents to help me be able to get the help that I needed to where I can overcome those challenges of autism, to where I can open myself up to more of the person I want to be so that it can give me the confidence to be able to try to achieve my dream, which was to be a race car driver.

"So autism, while it was a tough road at first, with the help of Autism Speaks and my parents, I've been able to seek a way forward."

The fact that that "way forward" has resulted in Williams now being in his eighth season of NASCAR competition just goes to show just what is possible, even when an individual is up against seemingly long odds. Williams certainly feels that he has defied the odds to reach this point, and he didn't come this far just to get this far.

"I certainly believe so," he said. "Racing was always something that I wanted to do in life, ever since I was a little kid, and I always believed that that was the best skill that I could utilize in life while I was living with autism."

In fact, Williams believes that, in this particular career, he can use his autism to his advantage.

"With how racing is, it can be very fast, a lot of things in your surroundings happening very fast, and with the ability that we as autistic people have with the laser-like focus, I always felt I could use that to my advantage to defy the odds to show people that I can be a high level race car driver and be a competitive race car driver who is capable of winning races.

"So I've always stayed encouraged that, no matter what obstacles I had to face throughout my career, I've just always continued to believe in myself in a positive way."

He spoke about what got him hooked on racing and how that led to a desire to compete.

"It started when I was just a little kid," he stated. "I was always that kid who, every store, I always looked for the latest Hot Wheels and Matchbox cars that I could bring back home with me for my collection and just play racing with them. Whether I was at my mom's, my dad's, my grandparents’, I just always had a love for cars.

"And then I remember this one time, I got a Christmas gift of a Kurt Busch Superman diecast car, and that's when I started to learn, hey, this is NASCAR, and I'm thinking to myself, ‘NASCAR’, I got to check this out even more!

"So I turned the TV on one Sunday and watched my very first race, and I was just blown away at what the sport of NASCAR was all about, the idea of these cars going 180, 190 miles per hour, and I thought that was the coolest thing I've ever seen in my life. It just made me want to watch more NASCAR races over and over and over again.

"And it turned from a love for cars to a love of racing, to then a passion for racing."

That passion for racing evolved into what you see today, with Williams making select starts across various NASCAR series each year.

"It got to the point where I started thinking to myself, is this something that I really wanted to do?" he recalled. "Because I loved it so much, and I just felt that it was my destiny to try to become a professional race car driver.

"That's what I told my dad, and even though my family wasn't big into racing, they understood that being a race car driver was my dream, and that no matter what, they were going to do everything that they could to help support me into making my dream happen. That's kind of how my career as a race car driver all started."

While he doesn't specifically remember which NASCAR race was the first he watched, he was able to recall some of his earliest memories of the sport.

"It was early on in my life when I started watching NASCAR," he said. "The first race I watched, I was probably about four or five years old. ... There were drivers like Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon, and even Jimmie Johnson back in those days. I remember watching those drivers a lot."

There are four people he credits most for his love and passing for racing: two specifically on the NASCAR side, and two from his personal life.

"I could give you two sets of those two things," he said. "In terms of the NASCAR side, growing up as a fan, I was always a huge Jimmie Johnson fan. Him in that No. 48 Lowe’s car, I would just always spot on TV. He was just such an awesome driver on the track, as well as an awesome driver off the track in how he went about every single race, in preparing for every single race."

Williams has tried to emulate Johnson's style, both on and off the track, as he has progressed throughout his own career.

"Just his style of being able to drive the car and push it to the limit, it was just something that I love about Jimmie Johnson, and even throughout my racing career, that's something with my driving side I've tried to emulate, learn something from him that I could apply to my own."

But the seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion isn't the only professional race car driver who has had a major impact on Williams' career.

"And then as I was racing, I had the fortune to meet a driver named D.J. Kennington, who races up in NASCAR Canada, in the NASCAR Pinty’s Series," he explained. "I got a chance to race against him, and he was just an awesome, classy guy.

"He was able to at least give me the first stages of learning the ropes of being a professional race car driver and how it is and how much work you have to do to prepare yourself off the track, how much work you have to prepare yourself for while you're on the race track during race weekend and what things to watch out for. He always gave me a lot of great advice as I went along the way to start as a professional race car driver."

Then on the personal side, Williams credits his parents and their willingness to help him realize his dream.

"Outside of racing, honestly, I would say my parents have been my biggest role models, because honestly without my parents, I don't know if I would be where I am today," he admitted. "My dad has always been very supportive of me through my racing, and he'll always come to every one of my races that I compete in.

"And then my mom, she had to deal with a lot, being born in Serbia, growing up in Serbia, and then being a high school teen, she moved to the United States. She's lived the American dream and just been trying to enjoy life as much as possible.

"I can almost take what my parents had to go through and just try to apply it to my own and just recognize that, hey, that's how I want to be able to accomplish my life, being able to defy the odds and overcome the struggles that I had to go through with autism, just so that I can live my dreams. So I've been fortunate to have a lot of great role models who have moved me in a positive direction."

Though the race track is his ultimate "happy place", Williams discussed some of his hobbies and interests away from NASCAR.

"Outside of racing, you may find this interesting, but at home, I do like to cook a lot, particularly with my mom," he said. "There's a bunch of recipes that you can look up on Google, and all you have to do is be able to get the ingredients together and just cook yourself a dish and a meal. That started when I was just a young teen, and it’s something that I still do today. I just love the enjoyment of cooking anything for me or for my family.

"I also like to go out to a movie theater to see what new movies are coming out, because you always know there's a lot of good movies that come out that people are looking forward to, and so that's what I like to do, watch a lot of movies.

"Whenever I can get some time off, whether that's in racing or not in racing, I do like to go on vacations as well, just go somewhere where it's nice and sunny and just hang out at a pool or a beach. That's just my kind of environment, whenever I can get any sort of time off.

"And then lastly, I like to listen to music a lot. I may not sing, but I might be able to dance, bust out the moves a little bit, so I would say those are all my hobbies."

Armani Williams focused on big picture

Regardless of his legacy as a race car driver, which is certainly still hopes to enhance as his career progresses, Williams wants to be known as an individual whom young children and families dealing with autism can look up to as they aim to overcome their own obstacles.

"For the folks who might listen to this, if people want to follow me and learn more about me, they can follow me on all social media: Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram," he said. "They can follow me on Team Armani Racing or at Armani Williams.

"I even have a website that you can go to at and learn more about me and learn about my mission in helping to use my racing platform to create awareness for autism."

He could not speak highly enough of the work Autism Speaks has done for his own life and career, and he encourages anybody in need of that additional support to turn to the organization.

"For people who want to learn more about Autism Speaks, you can go on their website,, and just be able to get an idea of what Autism Speaks is all about and how they can help you in terms of your situation as it relates to autism," he said. "They're more than willing to help give you the resources and tools to help you carry forward, so be sure you everybody follows all those platforms.

"With Autism Speaks, they're known to be able to reach out to families who have been impacted by autism, and any of those families who can relate to autism and are struggling with a child of theirs who has autism, Autism Speaks is willing to reach out to those families and give them the kind of resources and tools that they gave to my parents.

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"It's more because autism can be a little misunderstood at times, so it's all up to Autism Speaks to be able to educate these families on what exactly autism is, and ways that you can help your child who has autism, so that way he or she doesn't have to think of all the struggles with autism; he or she doesn't have to let autism back them down throughout their entire life. Autism Speaks just does a great job of helping to support those families."