When it comes to mainstreaming your autistic child, is there a better litmus test than soccer?

If my son can enjoy the social component of being part of a team, if he can muster the athletic coordination it takes to pass and kick the ball, if he can appropriately process the echoing sounds of kids running and coaches yelling and balls bouncing in a large gymnasium, then doesn’t that mean all those sleepless nights of worrying will finally be over?

That is why for the past ten Sunday mornings, my husband has taken Brooks to the Y for a friendly, neighborhood soccer class, and that is also why we don’t listen when the last thing Brooks says before they walk out the door, every time without exception, is “But I don’t want to go to soccer.”

The reason we don’t listen is that Brooks has a long history of not wanting to do things: he didn’t want to talk, he didn’t want to feed himself, he didn’t want to be in the same room with other kids. And my husband and I have a long history of gently prodding him into the unwanted experience and then continuing the exposure until he starts to enjoy it. The hundreds of hours I have spent dragging him to Gymboree classes and bookstore readings and kids’ concerts have definitely paid off. So it seems like a no-brainer that my husband and I should keep doing what works.

But there are two problems with this approach. The first is a new problem: Brooks is getting older. It’s one thing to ignore a toddler’s protests—it’s quite another when a increasingly verbal 5-year-old describes to you exactly what he doesn’t like, and asks you point-blank why he has to do it. And the second is a an old problem that’s been around ever since he was diagnosed: How far can we push him without sacrificing his self-esteem? If this is simply too challenging for him at the moment, which may very well be the case, then why are we torturing him by having him face his deficits in front of us and his peers week after week? Should we instead be taking a break from soccer and working on something else? Or should we design a more appropriate intervention, like having his physical therapist work on ball skills with him one-on-one?

Brooks definitely benefited from this particular soccer program: see his grin when he accepted the trophy? And he was able to participate in and enjoy the practice drills. We learned long ago never to underestimate what Brooks would do for chocolate, but even the promise of S’mores ice cream did not motivate him to join in to the short games that ended each class. The unpredictable nature of all those kids running wild forced Brooks to the sidelines where he could manage only to observe while chewing on the neck of his shirt (a self-stimulatory behavior that he uses to cope with stress).

I wish we had the luxury of being able to concede that Brooks is simply one of those kids who isn’t into sports and that it has nothing to do with autism. Although this is a possible scenario, given Brooks’s history, it’s unlikely. Because of autism’s pervasive nature, and because intervention needs to come sooner rather than later to be most effective, our feeling is that it’s too dangerous for us to categorize any challenge as a typical one, even though it may well be.

As much as my husband and I would love to proclaim: “Brooks plays soccer!,” with all its delicious connotations about how far he’s come, the truth is that we’re not there yet. And we’ve decided not to continue the class into next term. He’s going to have to deal with team sports at some point, but he doesn’t have to do it now, not when he’s only 5 and he’s just moved to a new apartment and he’s just started kindergarten in a new school. We take these things case by case: we’ve made our decision, and we’re okay with it.

I say that now, but in the mail yesterday there was a brochure for a kids’ basketball league. Which I know will inevitably lead my husband or me animatedly asking Brooks: “How fun would it be to meet a whole bunch of new friends and play basketball?” Here we go again…

This post was originally published on Inisdeschools.org.

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