Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Beating the Buzzer

Last Saturday was Ethan's first basketball game, and he was a little nervous.

I couldn't blame him. His team hadn't had a practice due to a snowstorm, he'd never met his coach, and had no idea who was on his team or if he'd know anyone. He'd just moved up a level in the league, which meant he was now with fourth and fifth graders, all boys (no more co-ed teams). Some of these kids play basketball all the time. Ethan hadn't picked one up (except for gym class) since last year's season.

We walked into the gym in the middle school, where two other teams were about to finish their game. I looked around for someone who might be his coach and saw a guy holding a bunch of yellow shirts, but wasn't sure if I should go up to him. I thought about Googling the Thunder (the name of Ethan's team) to see if they wore yellow shirts, since I had no idea.

That's the funny thing about basketball. Dan and I rarely know what's going on. We're learning a little. But half the time there are whistles and buzzer going off and we have no idea why. There is so much I still haven't picked up about the game.

Oh yes, buzzers. As we stood there, I looked up and saw we were under a giant scoreboard. Sure enough, within a matter of seconds, the loudest and longest buzzer in the world went off right over our heads.

Ethan recoiled and grabbed his ears. Chloe covered her ears. It WAS loud. And annoying. I could see he looked horrified.

"Why do they have that buzzer??!" he asked.

I tried to distract him. "Look! There's one of the kids in your class playing!"

He was having none of that. "That buzzer is horrible!" he exclaimed. It went off again. Chloe started whimpering. "I don't want to be here," she whined. Ethan had made a beeline for the hallway, pushing past more and more people who were coming in for the next game. His game. Which was supposed to start in about 10 minutes.

He stood in the corner near some lockers. "I am NOT doing this!" he said, panicked. "Why did they have to have a buzzer like that? They just ruined my basketball season!" Last year, in a different gym, there'd been no buzzers, just whistles, which he'd gotten used to after a while.

And so we faced the autism curveball. All parents of people on the spectrum will understand this. You plan for something, you go somewhere...and maybe they change the schedule. Or they don't have the food your child was promised. Or they play by different rules.

Or the sound that most irritates and stresses your child is going off and completely distracting them and sending their anxiety sky-high.

Autism curveballs can change the mood in the drop of a hat. They can ruin a day. They often require quick-thinking and creativity. Sometimes bribery and cajoling. On those days you can't get past them, they're very deflating.

We are grateful to not have to deal with too many autism curveballs, and most of them are minor in nature. But buzzers are Ethan's nemesis. We've been dealing with fears of our dryer buzzer for months. A few years ago it was the buzzer the art teacher set off in class for bad behavior. Even the musical "Simon" game was an issue for a while.

Dan walked in at that moment, as Ethan was hunched in the hallway. More and more people huffed in from the freezing air outside and filed into the gym. "He's saying he doesn't want to play," I said. "It's the buzzer!"

"Ethan," I pleaded. "You can't NOT play basketball because of this. Please. The buzzer won't be so loud when you're playing. And there's a clock. You can SEE it running down. It's not like the dryer, when it's unexpected."

"WHY ARE WE STANDING HERE?!" Chloe was wailing. In that moment I wanted to just go home.

"You can do this," we urged Ethan. I gave him a hug and said a little prayer. Somehow he managed to slink his way back into the gym. We approached the coach (who I'd had no chance to give a heads up to about Ethan and autism) and within a few minutes Ethan was on the court trying to have a two-minute practice with his team before the game. He kept looking at the scoreboard. I felt nervous...what if he stopped playing and dropped the ball to cover his ears and his entire team starting yelling at him?

"See if the buzzer guy can help us out," Dan suggested, which I hadn't thought of. I walked over to the sidelines where a guy sat pushing buttons. I hated to be THAT parent, but it was worth a try.

"Hi there," I said nervously. "Are you running the buzzer?" Because I THOUGHT he was, but again, with basketball, I'm rather clueless.

"Yeah," he looked up expectantly.

"Um, well, I completely understand if you can't do this, but is there any way you could make the buzzer just a little shorter or quieter? My son's on the autism spectrum and buzzers are his biggest fear. It's really distracting to him."

The guy's face broke into a smile. "I totally understand. I have a nephew on the autism spectrum. I'll see what I can do."

I wanted to give this stranger a huge hug, relief washing over me. We found seats in the bleachers, sat down...and watched Ethan's team get beat. Kind of badly. I want to say the final score was something like 19-8.

Except -- Ethan was winning. We watched him out there, trying to simultaneously listen to his coach and keep an eye on the clock so he'd know when the buzzer was going to go off. He was doing it. We fret and we stress, but often he is able to pull it together and do what he needs to do.

The buzzer, I have to say, wasn't all that much quieter or shorter than it had been before. But I'd made a connection with someone who understood, someone who was willing to help out. Sometimes that's what we need most of all in a moment of stress.

Yes, Ethan has a lot of practicing to do. The whole team does. But as we walked back to the car after the game, I told him I was more proud of him today than if he'd won that game.

"You pushed past your fear." I high-fived him. "You did it!"

Over time I have gotten a little better at not overlooking the supposed "little things" that people on the spectrum do to get by in a typical world. They need to be celebrated. Other people may not get it, but they don't live it. They don't know the way an autism curveball can throw a person, throw a family, into left field for the day or even more.

So we cheered after the loss, because on that day, at least, we'd beaten the buzzer.