Sometimes I feel like I’m swallowed up by autism.
It is everywhere: the schools my children attend, the mothers who have become my friends, and the outings we participate in are all geared towards autistic families.
So much so that I have forgotten what typical looks like. For us, besides contact with my nephew, it just doesn’t exist; at home, at school, or in the community.
Today I was able to attend and watch my sons’ tennis class. He is the oldest child in the group and the only one with autism and wow…. what a shock to the system.
Now this is not our first experience with Jackson and sports. When Jackson was 2 and 3 he loved to kick the soccer ball. We could spend hours kicking the ball back and forth to each other. We enrolled him in a soccer program that was for special needs kids but there was a huge problem.
A playground… and just like that.
Jackson got squirreled.
He wouldn’t play. He would just elope from the field and run for the playground. That was three years ago. We haven’t entered him into a recreation class since then.
My mother had entered my nephew into a tennis class near my house and wanted to know if we thought Jackson might like to join the class. Since the teacher at his school said he really liked racquet ball at P.E. we decided to give it a try.
In the tennis class the four other typical children listen, respond, and play with their coach, and with each other.
All the while Jackson was in his own little world. Playing in front of the net, crawling under the support for the net, smashing the small cones, and kicking the large ones.
He was sooooo noticeably different, and it was hard to watch.
I sat there and wondered…
what is he thinking?
does he notice he’s different?
is he learning and listening even if it doesn’t look like it?
is he happy to be here?
Sports have always been an important factor in my life. In my family you always had to be playing a sport and though I played them all- volleyball, softball, and basketball- I ultimately fell in love with soccer.
I played in elementary school, high school, and D1 in college. When my soccer career was over I learned how to row. I rowed, was a coxswain, and eventually coached. I coached teens, adults, and college athletes.
I understand and appreciate the value that comes from playing team sports and I wonder if team sports will ever be a part of Jacksons’ future.
Will he be able to comprehend all of the complexities of sports? Let’s think about tennis for one minute. In tennis, as in most sports, there are so many rules. You have to know the rules behind the different lines of the court: the baseline, the midline, the sidelines, and the service line. You have to know different ways to hold your racquet, your body, and your feet. You have to keep score, and lets be honest, tennis has a crazy way of counting.
Will J be able to figure all of this out? Will he enjoy being on a team with his peers? Will he like competing and excelling in sport? Am I setting him up for failure for picking a difficult sport?
So I decided to do some quick searches to see how children with autism fair in sports. One quick search will show that actually they can do well. They excel in individual sports like professional surfer Clay Marzo, 24 gold medalist swimmer Jessica-Jane Applegate, and the Australian snowboarder David Campion. And they can excel in team sports. For example my alma mater Kent State just signed Kalin Bennett, the very first student-athlete with autism to sign a letter of intent with a D1 school. Then there is Tarik El-Abour who signed with the Royals, believed to be the first autistic player to be signed by the MLB.
It is comforting to see that it is possible, and I think just like everything else it will just take more to get him there.
More practice, more focus, more time, and more patience from me and from coaches. We will have to let Jackson learn at his pace and probably try multiple sports, at multiple organizations before we find something that works for him.
My hope is that we can find something that he likes and help him excel in something he loves. That is the ultimate goal. For him to find happiness in something that can teach him how to grow, to push beyond his perceived boundaries, and help him to realize he is capable of anything.