I remember when my son’s middle school PE teacher reached out to me and asked me if I thought my son would like to join the track team. I was elated! My son has Autism and somehow, through all the speech therapy, ABA therapy, IEP meetings and everything else, I had just given up on the idea of my son being involved in any organized sports. Thank goodness for this very proactive and caring teacher!
I think the way I find the energy to tackle and break down new challenges like this for and with my son is through an incredible sense of optimism when I launch into something new. In this case, I immediately had fantasies of my son becoming an amazing track athlete, overcoming the odds, and being one of those viral stories that hits the internet and motivates countless people.
The realist in me understands the odds I’m up against. But this remote possibility is enough to help me get started. If you share a similar dream, here’s how I broke this down:
1. Find the time. My son has ABA therapy twice a week and lots of help with homework. We just had to put this on hold for a while. Track season isn’t that long. 6 weeks to make room for a new experience that has the potential to build confidence and potentially open up an entirely new world is worth it.
2. Support the time. Our ABA therapist met my son at the track 2 days per week. Her time was spent observing my son to determine where he needed help. He knew NOTHING about track and has gross motor problems that inhibit his ability to really run. As he runs, it’s as if he needs to think about every movement to make it happen. His arms pumping, legs moving, even how his feet touch the ground – it’s as if he has to think about each movement to make it happen. We worked on running, understanding the track, “the rules”, understanding the race he would run, the starting gun (and how LOUD it is), what a finish line is, everything.
3. Coordinate the time. On the days when the ABA therapist was not at the track, the babysitter would pick him up from track practice. On Wednesdays, there was no track practice so my son needed to understand that on that day of the week, he needed to get on the school bus to get home. Track meets were typically on Fridays. He would need to support this very chaotic environment, to know when his race was and what he should be doing before and after his events. I would flex my time at work to support this when our aide could not.
We used a calendar to help our son (and the rest of us) understand the schedule. A typical week looked like this and was critical to not only ensuring my son knew where to be but to help coordinate who was picking him up on specific days and setting his expectation so he knew who was meeting him.
4. Enjoy the Ride. The first time I saw my son run in a race is something I will never forget. I was fearful. I knew he was slow and I wondered how all of these people would react. What followed blew me away. As my son was waiting, he was smiling, happy to be there and be part of things. This really warmed my heart. But not enough to lessen my fear that he’d cause a false start. He and the rest of the runners were ready. The starting gun went off! No false start. YES! As predicted, the other boys were running faster and got farther and farther away from him. As the first kid hit the finish line of this 55 meter race, the crowd cheered. By now, my son was really far behind and he was going to be running the last half of this race all alone. But as he became the only kid still running, this wonderful crowd of students and parents did something I would have never expected. They started to cheer LOUDER! Louder than they did for the kid who came in first. When my son crossed the finish line, the crowd cheered for him. I’ve never seen him smile so big. After the race was over, he literally skipped over to the coach who gave him a high five. A couple of the other kids on the team also gave him a high five. He was part of something and his confidence soared. I sat there with a huge smile and tears running down my face.
There’s a good chance that my son will NOT become an Olympic track star or be part of any viral video that inspires countless people. But he’s happy. He’s doing new things and learning new things. He’s becoming part of something larger than his family, becoming part of a community. He’s showing the world what it looks like when integration in schools works. As track season came to a close, ALL of his teachers noticed a big difference in him. He was more confident, raising his hand a bit more in class, improvement with eye contact, improvements with greeting his teachers, all kinds of positive intangibles that are almost impossible to teach. I would have never known that track would be such an important step to making improvement in the classroom.
I’m so grateful for the school my son attends and these wonderful teachers who are making such a difference. I’m grateful that I’m sitting with parents who cheer on the underdog and are being such a good example to their own children. No wonder my son is so happy at school. We need to do what we can to help our kids be part of things that expand their world. And even if you’re not in a situation where you have a child with special needs, I hope my story shows you how you can be part of making the world these kids live in a better place.