Friday, April 15, 2011

Glad to be wrong

Part II of this story is here.

The first game of Spencer's season was a scrimmage-- a practice to help acclimate the kids to basketball. Before each quarter, the coaches lined up the players and paired them with a member of the opposite team for defensive purposes.

At this scrimmage, I knelt next to Spencer and whispered a few reminders about staying with his man. Then I turned to look at who he was paired with-- and saw the embodiment of fear.

The poor child was distraught. His eyes were red and swollen. His lips trembled, and he clasped and unclasped his hands repeatedly. His breathing was irregular, and his legs shook. My first instinct was to reach out and hug him. Instead, I asked,

"Hi, sweetie. What's your name?"

"M-m-m-Michael." he gasped.

"Well Michael, this is Spencer. You two will be guarding each other. Spencer, can you say hi?"


"Hi." he sniffled.

It became obvious rather quickly that little Michael was way out of his comfort zone. He flinched away from the ball and avoided the crowd of players. He was mostly a non-participant, much like... much like Spencer! In fact, they were a perfect match.

Each time the ball changed possession, Michael and Spencer would run to the opposite end of the court, face each other, and fold their hands neatly in front of them. The rest of the game would swirl on around them.

Over the course of the regular season, we played Michael's team two more times. Every time they were on the court, Spencer and Michael were paired up by what was an unspoken agreement between the coaches.

When Spencer's defense would lapse (which was-- ahem-- quite frequently,) Michael was able to catch passes from his teammates and try to score. The spectators would go wild. I had a sense that he didn't get this chance very often.

Sometimes I wondered what Michael's parents thought about the situation. Did they find it insulting that their "normal" child was always paired with a child who had a disability? I knew it wasn't my problem, but I did think about it from time to time.

We ended up playing Michael's team for the fourth time, in the second round of the playoffs. I saw a different child then. Michael was confident and tried hard. He and Spencer were, yet again, a perfect match on the court.

We lost that game, and were out of the tournament. But as we lined up to give the other team high-fives, I saw a man standing at the side of the court. He was waiting for me.

It was Michael's dad.

He wanted to let me know that Michael used to hate basketball. But when he played our team, Spencer changed his mind. In fact, before every game, Michael would ask if he would be playing Spencer's team that day. That fact was the only thing that mattered to him. Then Michael's dad said,

"Spencer is the reason why Michael now enjoys basketball. Thank you so much."

I was speechless. Here, I had thought that Spencer's performance in the game was the highlight of the season. But I was, happily, so very wrong.

Thursday, April 7, 2011


Part I of this story is here.

A few games into the basketball season, I realized just how confusing the sport must be to my special-needs child. His teachers and therapists (and parents!) had spent years teaching him proper social behaviors. Don't hit. Don't steal. Don't bump into people on purpose. Don't knock them down.

And here we were, nullifying all that.

You should have seen his face when I told him that all those "improper" behaviors were generally okay on the court. And when I emphasized that he was allowed to steal the ball,

"I can?" his voice went from incredulous to elated at light speed.

However, that still didn't translate to much when he was in the game. One time, his teammate was dribbling the ball down the court as Spencer stood next to the basket, wide open for a perfect pass. The moment that Spencer realized this opportunity, he whirled and fled off the court. There didn't seem to be much motivation for him to participate.

So I tried a different tactic. I bribed him.

"Stay next to your man during the game, and we'll go get a milkshake afterward." He seemed mildly interested in this idea, and he tried harder to guard his man. But it wasn't quite as motivating as I thought it would be. So at the next game, I tried something different. Our team was in the second round of the playoffs, and I hoped to at least keep him from being a liability on the court.

"What reward would you like to get if you play hard?" I asked him. He mulled it over.

"Umm... I want to eat some of my Valentine candy." I accepted his request and reviewed our goals: Stay with your man. Put your hands up if he tries to shoot. It's okay to steal the ball.

The game started, and nothing really happened with Spencer. But I began to realize just how far he had come this season: he no longer ditched his teammates and hid in my lap. He only rarely twirled pirouettes in the corner. And he was always in the midst of the action, even if it was just as an observer.

I marveled at the change. And during a time out, I reminded him of his Valentine candy waiting for him at home. He gave a little giggle and ran back out on the court. And then, something amazing happened. Maybe it was his choice of motivation, maybe it was something else. But something clicked.

Suddenly, he was on his man like glue. He sprinted up and down the court. He put his long arms up on defense and intimidated everyone around him. He jumped for rebounds and even stole the ball-- twice. I was floored. And so was everyone else in that gym.

Spencer's change was so astounding that I couldn't help but laugh hysterically. Where did this kid come from? It seemed that the hours of practice and nudging him back on the court again and again were finally paying off. And he knew he was doing well! He even pointed out his great moves to the referees. They were kind enough to congratulate him.

Granted, he was no Michael Jordan. He still couldn't dribble. But the referees let that go. And in one grand play, Spencer surprised us all. He grabbed the ball at the far end of the court and sprinted with it to mid-court (the ball didn't touch the ground once.) Then he heaved the ball over his head and chucked it at the basket from the half court line. Everyone cheered-- and laughed.

We lost that game, and we were out of the tournament. But did it really matter? I think everyone in that gym would have given the same answer.

Part III of this story is here.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Where everybody knows your name

Last year, I signed up our Spencer for a special-needs baseball team. He was thrilled to participate in an organized sport and had a wonderful experience.

This year, I took a chance and signed him up for a "typical" (a.k.a. regular kid) basketball team. I knew it was a risk, but I was willing to take it. I volunteered to be the assistant coach, since I know some stuff about basketball.

Before each game, I would pull the referees aside and explain that my son has Asperger's Syndrome and ADHD. Though the rules of the league dictated that he always play man defense, I wanted the refs to know that he might struggle with the concept. Thankfully, the refs were very accepting and would even instruct my son during the game with what he should be doing.

"Should be" doing was tough. The gap between a child knowing what they should do and what they can actually do is wide for a child on the spectrum. Each time I sent Spencer in to play the game, I wondered what would come of it. I could never tell.

Sometimes he would just stand in the middle of the fray, no facial expression, no movement.

Sometimes Spencer would leave his team and come plop down in my lap as I sat on the bench. He would curl up in the fetal position and start humming. I had to peel him off my lap and nudge him back out onto the court.

Sometimes Spencer would run in enormous circles that would encompass the entire court. The poor child who was assigned to guard him would get so confused. I could see it on the child's face, "Am I really supposed to follow him all the way over there?"

Other times Spencer would simply watch the person he was supposed to be guarding as they dribbled past him or made a basket.

I spent most of my energy calling his name. "Spencer, go find your man! Spencer, get the ball! Spencer, come back in the gym and play with your team!" It was exhausting.

Maybe I'll enroll him in track and field next year, I thought. We'll just finish out this season. No one will miss him next year.

But I yelled his name often and loud enough that everyone in the gym learned who he was. Some parents would even try to help me by calling out to him, too. It was both exasperating and entertaining.

Not everyone was positive. One game, I had to chase my son back onto the court multiple times. I saw the opposing coach roll his eyes, turn to his assistant, and wonder out loud why a kid like that was playing in this league. I had to bite my tongue. Hard.

However, most of our experience was great. As the season progressed, we played every team. Everyone heard me calling my son's name at one point or another.

During one game, my son had a chance to dribble down the court, all alone. As he struggled with the mechanics of it, every muscle in my body was tensed. I couldn't call out to him because I was so nervous for his sake. Then I heard a voice yell,

"You can do it, Spencer! Keep going!"

It was the opposing coach, who was clapping as Spencer struggled past his bench. That tiny act of kindness meant so much to me.

Go to Part II