Sunday, April 6, 2014

Big Little Sports Fan

"Ethan, which do you like better, sports or computers?" I asked him the other day.

"Sports," he answered, after a moment's contemplation. Which floored me. In many ways, he is his father's son, but this is not one of them. Instead, I'd call him his uncle's nephew: my brother Nate is a huge sports fan and spent much of his childhood playing or watching them.

Sports in childhood to me was my dad, beer in hand, watching the Celtics or Bruins on Channel 38 in the winter or the Red Sox in the summer. It was the Patriots on Sunday and tossing around a football with my uncles on holidys. Sports meant trips to the Little League fields to watch Nate play (and one not-so-successful attempt at softball for me). It was flips on my bed pretending to be Mary Lou Retton and listening to Joe Castiglione call Sox games on the radio during summer evenings.

I think of all that, and know sports can be a good thing for Ethan, too.

Sports broaden Ethan's interests; they expand his world. Particularly since he's interested in not just one but almost any sport, they give him a plethora of new topics to learn about. They also provide another interest he can share with typical peers; a conversation starter for a boy who has trouble with conversation. He may not be able to share his love of power lines with classmates, but maybe they can find some common ground with UConn basketball.

Temple Grandin talks about finding things that interest children with autism and expanding on their interests. She mentions that as parents we should look for what motivates our kids, what they're passionate about, and start thinking creatively about how to harness some of that interest and even direct it towards a career later on.

Not that I'm attempting to plot out my six-year-old's future job right now. But it can't help to keep our eyes open for signs, for ideas with potential.

Of course like anything sports has its pitfalls. Ethan's taking a basketball class right now, and t-ball starts up in the spring, but right now most of what he's learning about sports is on TV. Yea. More screen time. I'm not going to trouble myself too much about that one. If the developmental pediatrician can concede he may need more screen time than the average kid, and for him often it's helpful rather than harmful, I'm not going to stress too much. Especially if we can keep him learning and talking while he's watching.

There are areas of rigid thinking that need to be ironed out, like Ethan just not getting it when a team with a better record than another loses to the weaker team. Or while he's playing a sport, taking the time to learn the concepts he's not as thrilled about, like different types of passes in basketball rather than just shooting baskets.

Then there's coping with losing. Yeah, this one we're going to be working on for awhile.

Ethan can't stand losing. He also hates it when the team he's rooting for loses. Lately his reaction has been over-the-top. We had a full, knock-down, drag out tantrum on the playground the other day because his friend apparently had one more point than him in their version of a basketball game. He literally collapsed on the ground and told me we couldn't leave until I told him he had won. There was screaming and tears, as the entire after-school program of kids who'd come outside to play looked on. In issues like this, I can't and won't relent. Right now it stinks, but this little voice in my head tells me if we let him win or fudge things to help him feel better, it's going to end up being even more disastrous for him later on, as far as coping goes.

When watching, as soon as the team he's rooting for falls behind, the tears start. The game could be an hour from completion. The team may only be a few points behind. No matter. He's traumatized. Sobs rack his body and echo throughout the house. This is not fun for him or for any of us. If he can't deal with this now, I can see this being a real problem at school or in public in a few years (I hate when the Red Sox lose as much as anyone, but I don't think other fans would take to it well if he's sitting there screaming at his first game to Fenway Park if they fall behind).

On a side note, anyone who says people on the spectrum are emotionless or don't really care about things should watch him during one of these meltdowns. As I've said before, the issue is often the opposite...people with autism actually care too much.

So sports trumps computers. I'm good with that, even if it does mean I'll be dragged in to watching basketball (eh) or even (sigh) hockey. And maybe someday (who knows??) Ethan will find himself in a little back room somewhere, crunching numbers, collecting stats. Maybe it's silly, but I could see him as the guy feeding numbers to Joe Castiglione up in that radio booth. Need to know the last time a team scored more than 10 runs in an inning? The percentage of times Big Papi gets on base after making an out? Which team has the best record for day games during April? From the way he already loves to spout facts, I can tell you: Ethan's your man.

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