Enrolling Your Autistic Child in Sports with Typical Children

by J

S is coming up on turning 3 now, and like most moms, I was excited to enroll him in some sports. I have written before about how I felt that gymnastics would be great for him, and S expressed an interest in playing soccer. So, this summer, we signed S up for soccer and gymnastics through two of our local centers!

Now, one of S’s para-educators had suggested a special needs soccer and a special needs gymnastics class. The soccer she suggested never released a schedule and the SN gymnastics was close to $75 a session! Seriously, who can afford that? So, I signed S up for both with typical kids. My expectations were low… really, really low. And so, I really thought this would be a good fit.

Over the past year, I really feel that I have gotten a better grasp on what S can and can and cannot handle. For whatever reason, I really thought that after a few sessions of each, S would be running around with the other children, having a great time. Well, S is certainly running around and having a great time- just not WITH  the other children.

For soccer, one of his friends with autism also signed up. Its nice, because we ‘sit alone together’, if that makes sense. Out of all of the other 20 something 2-4 year olds- ours are the only two that are consistently not participating. When S does participate, he bolts in front of the other children- unable to wait his turn or even take his turn in a reasonable time. Luckily the coaches recognize that his desire to participate is more important than his need to wait his turn. They get it.

Last night, though, was particularly difficult, as S’s friend with autism didn’t make it to practice. There was a rather nasty storm, and so most of the kids didn’t attend. This was great- since this meant that less kids on the field meant more S on the field. And while he spent more time on the field (rather than jumping off the bleachers) he did not participate in one coach-led activity. Finally, we settled on the bleachers for some jumping, and we sat… alone, alone. I was doing fine- accepting that this is S and what he can handle- until all of the other kids huddled up, put their hands together and then shouted as they raised their hands in the air. There is NO way that S would do that- he wasn’t even aware that it happened. And, so sadness crept in again- why is it so hard for S? As a mom, its hard to go week after week and see how your kid stands out from the crowd. His social differences are becoming more and more apparent… the gap is widening.

On the way out, S saw a kid wearing a Puma shirt. He LOVES Puma. Rather than saying “I like your cool t-shirt” (something that S says to me about 50 times a day), he turned to the kid, touched his shirt and said “this shirt is for Wednesday” (an echolalic phrase, since he wears his soccer shirt on Wednesdays). The kid, maybe a year older than S, just looked at him like he had two heads and walked off.

My heart just broke.

Until now, most kids his age are too young to really be put off by his social delays. But not now… its starting now- KIDS are noticing that he is different and KIDS don’t want to acknowledge him. I know I need to get used to this, but quite frankly, I don’t want to. I don’t want my kid to struggle. I tried to let S know some things he could say next time, but I doubt it sunk in. He might remember the information, but I don’t think he quite has the ability to apply it when needed.

Gymnastics is going about the same- except with less supportive fellow parents. I may have been a bit harsh with one mom this past week. I’m sure to an outsider, my kid running crazy, cutting in line, crossing into other classes, etc- might be frustrating for those whose kids are patiently waiting their turn. And, while it may look like I just let my kid do whatever he wants- in reality, he is just doing what he can handle. The gymnastics instructors are great though, and have allowed me to enroll S in private lessons once every two weeks. He had his first lesson on Monday and did great! He was even doing some of his ‘new buhgymbastics tricks’ last night at soccer.

In all, I am glad that we signed S up for sports this year. He might not be participating the way the other kids are… or in some cases, at all… but he  IS having a great time, just in his own little way. He talks about the classes all through the week, and eagerly gets dressed to go on practice night. And so, while it might be really hard for me to have to go and watch S stand out from all of the other kids twice a week, and to have to chase him like a crazy person for the entire session- I know that it is good for HIM. So, I have to keep putting aside how hard it is for me and keep going. We have many years of this ahead, I better thicken my skin now so I can better help him when he starts noticing that he’s different.