In general, I approach my life as the mom of an autistic son with confidence and energy. I spend a lot of time learning what I can about autism, the best way to help Lukas progress, and the best way to advocate for his needs. I seldom hesitate to take both of my boys to new places or try new things. Sometimes I'm sorry, but most of the time I'm glad I tried, even if the outcome is disastrous.
So it's embarrassing to admit that I haven't been very daring in the arena of sports. As a longtime women's travel hockey player, I believe in sports for everybody. Signing young kids up for sports is standard operating practice in our area. I myself am no stranger to the world of kids' sports. My older son, Marek, has tried everything from tennis to soccer to springboard diving. I coached Marek's little league team last summer, a team for which Lukas could have played also, had I signed him up. And midway through the season, Lukas himself asked why he wasn't playing baseball too. I evaded his question by telling him I hadn't known he'd wanted to play, and that it was too late to sign him up.
The truth was, I'd never considered signing him up, because I knew it would be a terrible fit. With Lukas in the lineup, my job as head coach would be doubly difficult. In addition to providing instruction to 13 first and second graders, redirecting their fleeting attention and keeping track of position and lineup rotations, I would also have to be Lukas's mother, a very time-consuming job in itself. On a good day, and focused on something he prefers, Lukas looks like any other first grader. He socializes enthusiastically, speaks pretty well, and learns quickly. On a bad day - when he's bored, tired, hungry, overloaded with sensory input or just generally out of sorts - he can be whiny, clingy, and incessant in his demands. Baseball is a tough sport for many typical kids, and I know a slow-moving, analytical game like baseball would be the worst possible choice for Lukas.
Even knowing this, I feel guilty and conflicted. Despite my belief that a child with a disability should have the same opportunities as a typical kid, I know that the activity scale weighs heavily in Marek's favor. Most of Lukas's activities have been special-needs oriented. He attends Haley's Playground and Buddy Break playgroups. During the summer, he goes to Fox Valley Special Recreation Association day camp. There have been music lessons, special needs swimming lessons, and therapeutic horseback riding sessions. But only Marek got to attend Lego camp; the Fox Valley Robotics website said special-needs kids were accepted only if a parent stayed to assist, and the thought of paying $110 for the privilege of shepherding Lukas through nine hours of Lego robotics was more than I could bear. Marek has participated in sports consistently from age two on, while Lukas, now 6, has had few experiences in youth athletics. Those experiences have ranged from mediocre (a soccer skills group that failed to hold his interest) to excruciating (a basketball class where he could not tolerate the echo of the ball bouncing in the gym).
I am nothing if not a perpetual optimist, however. Lukas keeps making incredible strides each year, blowing away the goals set by his IEP team and his private therapists. This summer, he attended a whole week of Naperville Safety Town without an aide, and he progressed nicely in regular swimming lessons. With the memory of the baseball guilt still in my mind, I was ready to try again with sports this fall. Lukas chose soccer with great enthusiasm, and I enrolled him in the instructional league through Batavia Park District. Knowing the quality of the All Star Sports coaches, I did not request an inclusion aide as I have in the past. I think I was feeling cocky after Lukas's successes with Safety Town and swimming. Sometimes I read the glowing IEP updates and think, "He's practically typical."
The reality of soccer has proven my folly. From the first session, Lukas has been unable to sustain interest in the game, and he frequently becomes despondent and exhausted. Seventy minutes of anything is difficult for him; seventy minutes of a game that requires focus, quick thinking and teamwork is excruciating. I congratulate myself on the choice of instructors - the coaches have been nothing but encouraging, patient and kind - but soccer is clearly not the sport for Lukas.
I have to hand it to my boy, however. Despite the whining, the demands that he be called by a different name, the crying, the lying down in the middle of the field, the claims that his legs don't work any more, Lukas (or Ethan, as he requested he be called today) has not quit. Every Saturday, I ask him if he wants to play soccer today, and every Saturday, he comes back for more. Like me, he's a perpetual optimist.
And so I embark again on my quest for the right sport. I think gymnastics might be good. Lukas is strong and flexible, and he is drawn to gross motor activities like monkey bars and climbing. The trick is to find the right place, the right class. We tried one gym, but found that their 80-minute boys' class was way too long. Another gym had a 60-minute class, but gave discouragingly tepid responses to my questions about their ability to manage Lukas. A gym in St. Charles thinks Lukas could do well in their regular class (they have a special-needs class too), but I'd rather not drive that far. I've heard good things about the Batavia Park District classes from another special-needs mom, and I can request an inclusion aide to increase the odds of success. That will probably be where I start.
Maybe I'm crazy, but I think if I step up to the plate enough times, I'm bound to hit a home run eventually.
I would love to hear from other parents of special-needs kids about your experiences with extracurricular activities. Have you hit a home run and found a good sport or activity for your child?