Brooks loves baseball. The first and last thing he does every day is check the Mets score, and he could rival any grown-up rabid sports fan in terms of logging hours and hours of watching innings and innings (for better or worse).
Unfortunately, he has a lot of genetics to overcome to actually play the game. Aside from the obvious autism-related ones, he’s small and Jewish (to quote Bill Finn: “We’re watching Jewish boys/Who cannot play baseball/Play baseball.”) Still, every Sunday morning this spring, he suits up as number 11 on his Blue Sky Hawks Little League team.
Since my husband and I simply couldn’t picture him playing with his 9-12 year old peers in kid pitch, we decided to offset some of his challenges by holding him back for an extra year in coach pitch. That decision, along with the overall non-competitive style of the Hudson Cliff League, has afforded him the opportunity to succeed. Of course, baseball is no different from any other endeavor: although hard work, natural talent, and love of the game all play a major role, there’s no escaping late throws, bad bounces, and teammates who have more natural talent.
So we are especially grateful for a recent Sunday game. Brooks had been doing fine—hitting ground ball singles most at-bats. Even though this particular game didn’t start out well since his first two ground balls landed him out at first base and he had to struggle to keep from crying (that hard-to-watch upper lip tremble), his coach made a point of coming over to him to praise his good solid hits. She didn’t even know he was upset; this is just how supportively they coach.
A few short innings later, the Sky Hawks kicked it up a notch in the field, looking a lot less like the Bad News Bears than earlier in the season. One of Brooks’s smallest teammates fielded a ground ball cleanly and then threw it to first base to get the second out. I was so busy cheering I almost missed the next play—an infield pop fly to the second base bag—caught by Brooks—to end the inning. He really caught it! And I distinctly remember hearing a girl on his team say “That was awesome, Brooks!” within the chorus of congratulations.
He got beyond his sensory issues of not being able to close the glove on the ball (he doesn’t like to put his hand in all the way—in fact, he often isn’t able to sense whether his hand is all the way in or not). He got beyond the social unease of being surrounded by kids who are much less predictable than adults and often don’t have patience for his processing time. And finally, and perhaps most impressively, he got beyond his sometimes crippling anxiety in the face of expectations: all eyes were on him.
My husband is beside himself with happiness over this catch, as he should be, but I find myself holding back. I have to admit I’m jealous of his capacity to celebrate it simply for what it is without needing to connect it to our long-held hopes for Brooks to outgrow his autism. I immediately feel the need to position his sparkling moment on the baseball diamond as only the first of many mainstream settings where he will shine. I should know better given the hard lessons I’ve learned over the past few years about the pitfalls of unrealistic expectations. There were dozens of hopeful reasons to believe he could succeed in an integrated school environment, and yet it turned out it was impossible for him to be a thriving ASD Nest 1st-grader. In hindsight, we hurt him with our well-intentioned optimism. When he was unable to rise to the academic occasion, not only did his self-esteem take a hit because he was disappointed in himself, I know he must have sensed our disappointment despite our best efforts to keep it hidden.
The truth is that the longest and deepest major league home run’s got nothing on my hopes for Brooks. And even if I could manage to lower my expectations, I’d be robbing him of these kinds of baseball triumphs because he’d never get the opportunity to go out for the team.
I simply don’t know how to reconcile my son’s undeniable deficits with his undeniable strengths. All I know is how happy he was when he caught that fly ball. And maybe I don’t have to hang all my hopes on it; maybe I can just take it one game at a time.