Since almost no one is there yet and the barely-out-of-his-teens coach is standing nearby, I decide it might be a good time to have "the talk." Hi, I tell him, and then in a rush because he's distracted and more people are coming in, "I just wanted to let you know my son has mild autism. He has some trouble focusing in this gym with so much going on and you might have noticed sometimes it can be hard for him to follow directions."
"Um, yeah, okay," he tells me. "Back at the high school we used to do a PALS program that had kids like that pair um with normal...ugh, I mean, that's not a good word, regular kids, so I'm a little familiar with that."
There are 12 four- to six-year-olds and no one else assisting with the class. They do their warm-ups. Ethan can jump up and tap his foot on the ball but keeping it between his legs and kicking it back and forth is more difficult. Still, he's trying, even if he ends up chasing the ball around the gym half the time.
Next is "freeze tag." Coach explains the rules once. He is obviously one who has not spent much time with young children. Half the kids miss what he said. Ethan is naturally one of them. But while most of the other kids at least realize they are playing some sort of game with some sort of rules, Ethan is so far out in left field he doesn't even realize they are playing a game of tag. He just thinks they're all running around, since he was looking at his watch during the 10-second game explanation. Since only about three of the twelve kids there truly "get it," Coach ends this game rather quickly.
Then it's relay time. Coach lines the kids up in two lines and tells them they need to kick the ball to the wall, bring it back, and then give the next kid in line a high-five and turn the ball over to him or her. This is where the real disaster strikes. Coach, probably thinking he's being kind and accommodating, allows Ethan to go first. This is exactly the wrong thing to do because already confused Ethan needs to watch other people play to understand how to. Ethan kicks the ball down, comes back, but misses the part about the high-fives and passing it to the next kid. I'm pretty sure he's never done any kind of relay and doesn't understand the whole going-to-the-back-of-the-line bit. Instead he tries to go again, kicking the ball with the next child in line. In fact, he tries to kick the ball away from said child, who is understandably confused and annoyed.
"No buddy, you need to be in the back of the line," Coach calls half-heartedly. Other parents in the bleachers with me snicker in a not-unkind way.
One more activity before they play an actual "game." This time he has them find a partner (Ethan surprises me by doing this no problem) and line up. He wants to teach them about hitting the ball with their heads. They are supposed to face their partner, who throws them the ball while they attempt to bounce it back. Only -- Ethan gets distracted by someone's ball rolling away and completely misses this. He's so used to Coach yelling that they can't touch the ball, that when his partner lobs the ball at him, he lets it drop and tries to kick it. I start urging him to go back and give his friend a turn, only since he didn't hear the directions, he doesn't know exactly what the partner should be getting a turn at. Sigh.
They put on jerseys now. Ethan is on the red team and (joy of joys!) while some kids are still trying to pick up the ball and throw it into the goal, or don't know which goal to shoot at, he's gotten these things down. He gets two good kicks on the ball, in the right direction, and is having a blast chasing it around with everyone else. I know why this part is easier. This is the part of class that's been the same every week. The game has rules that Dan has been able to explain, over and over. He's had five weeks to get this.
By the end the kids are all sweaty and tired, and I'm mentally worn out. Again I wonder if Ethan will be able to keep up in non-special needs sports...if this is just a matter of him learning the parameters and the rules...if there is anything we could be doing differently to help him out. What makes me a little sad and yet relieved is that he is so far from completely comprehending his environment, he doesn't even realize when he's "not getting it" or when the other kids notice.
I look straight across, out the gym windows. Anna sees it too -- the sunset is a blaze of purple and pink, out there past the squeaky floor and the basketball hoops.
I look and I know that this is a small thing, yet a big thing. It's just 10 weeks with a bunch of kindergarten-age kids, but it also provides an opportunity to see through a different lens, to see the way the typical world out there views my son. It helps me see the way his mind works. It helps me understand why he has some of the challenges he has. It's a time to simultaneously swallow the hurt and cheer with pride.
And tonight it's a time to, for a moment, look out past the shrieks in the gym and everything my son might not be able to do or not do yet, and revel for a moment, at the beauty of the sky.
|Can you see it?|
|Can you see the sunset?|
|There's Ethan in the foreground...watching...|