Austin Mills doesn’t want anyone feeling sorry for him.
And if you go head to head on the karate mat with the 9-year-old Valrico boy who was born with his left arm amputated below the elbow, don’t underestimate him.
“The other kids found out pretty quickly that when Austin is out there, he’s fighting,” said Keon Pinkney, head instructor at the Earl Harris Karate Academy in Brandon, where Austin is a student. “He’ll whoop you if you let him, so you won’t see anybody taking it easy on him.”
He fought his way to a third place finish in sparring and fourth in form during a local tournament in February, and also took part in a competition in Orlando earlier this month.
Austin didn’t get into karate because he was bullied – he just likes to be athletically active. Joining the karate program last fall — along with six-year-old sister Cadence — was a joint decision between Austin and his mom Lacye.
“I get to be with my friends, and I get to learn how to defend myself,” said Mills, a fourth-grader at Alafia Elementary in Valrico.
Austin has a prosthetic arm with a cable harness that he wears when he’s riding a bicycle. Other than that, he prefers to do things — including tying his shoes, coloring, sports and playing Xbox — without the apparatus.
“It’s kinda fine and it doesn’t really bother me,” Austin said of the prosthetic while shrugging his shoulders. “I just want to keep doing all the stuff that I want to do.”
Austin’s parents established the pragmatic tone shared by their son very early on.
Lacye and Donald Mills, a master sergeant in the U.S. Air Force currently stationed in Saudi Arabia, were stunned when their first child was born without part of his left arm.
“They didn’t catch it on the ultrasound or anything,” said Lacye, a nurse for 14 years. The doctors told the couple they believed the natural amputation was a result of amniotic band syndrome, a congenital disorder caused by the entanglement of fetal parts in fibrous amniotic bands which restricts the blood flow to those limbs.
“Don had come home 10 days before Austin was born; obviously, we were shocked,” Lacye said. “But after a day or so, we just said, ‘You know what? We’re just gotta go with it.’”
The Mills family has been in the Brandon area since 2004. Lacye said the military assigned Don to MacDill Air Force Base so Austin could seek treatment at Shriners Hospitals for Children.
Austin has been playing soccer for four years. He plays striker and is extremely proud of the prizes he’s earned.
“I have six or seven trophies, and I keep the trophies near my bed,” he said. Austin also describes the experience of competing — and succeeding — at the recent karate tournaments as “pretty amazing.”
“I’ve never worked with a student with a disability like Austin’s,” said Pinkney, who has been an instructor for 13 years. “He’s just like everybody else out there and I don’t have to do anything differently for him.”