Unified sports are not integrated sports, and I consider that to be a good thing. My son with Autism LOVES playing basketball and this program created an opportunity for him.
In middle school, my son was in a public school that did a pretty good job with integrating the kids with special needs. They had 3 teams – the A Team, B Team and C Team. My son was on the C Team. And the typical kids had volunteered to help out on that team while also playing on the A or B teams. My son absolutely loved playing on the team. As a parent, it was a joy to watch him play. He gained confidence by being on the team and I remember his teachers commenting on how they saw that confidence showing up in the classroom.
When we hit high school, playing on the basketball team was not an option. I had several people suggest that my son be “a manager” for the team. I looked into this but it appeared that my son would get to watch the other kids play while he gathered up basketballs for the players. That seemed like it would be torture for a kid who wanted to play.
Due to many other reasons, we moved our son out of this high school. He now attends a school targeted for kids on the spectrum but the school is so small they don’t have a basketball team. Instead, they partnered with a public high school down the street who partnered with Special Olympics Washington. THIS would be our son’s opportunity to play basketball again.
The team was NOT part of the typical high school team. And that was a blessing. Why? My son still has speech therapy, ABA therapy and music lessons. With a typical high school team, practice is usually 5-6 days per week plus games. While I want my son to have the opportunity to play a sport that he loves and get the social opportunities that go with that, it must be balanced against these other very important activities. This special team had practice 2 days a week with tournaments every Saturday. It worked into our schedule very well.
At the end of the season, the public high school did something that I thought was a wonderful approach to integration. They had one game where the band and the cheerleaders were there. They had posters all over the school encouraging all of the kids to come out and support the Unified Sports Basketball team.
We attended the game and had many friends and extended family join us. As I had watched the Saturday games, they were special. And it was wonderful to see our family members get to experience this.
The team is made up of teens on the Autism spectrum, teens with other disabilities and then kids who are volunteers. These volunteers are often siblings or teens looking for community service opportunities. The volunteers help keep the game moving. It’s obvious the (volunteer) coaches have taught the players the basics of passing the ball and shooting. The thing that is special about these games is that every time a player is about to shoot a basket, everyone in the stands, from both teams, is rooting for a basket to be made.
The first few games, as I watched, I would really need to fight back the tears. The volunteers are so caring as they help the teens who need a lot fo support. Other players are really strong and have a platform to excel. The players were having so much fun. The look on my son’s face could only be described one way: pure joy.
After the game at the high school, they had a dance. This dance was mostly attended just by kids on the team and friends and family. These teens are in a different place socially. This dance is likely a lot more fun than a dance that is attended by all of the high school students. Separate, not integrated, but that is really the right thing to do in this case.
After the season was over, my son texted me (which is the primary way he communicates with me) along with a picture of his basketball team:
I felt kind of sad when basketball is over. I might miss them from basketball. 😦
An opportunity to play a sport he loves. An opportunity to make friends that he can relate to at his level and on his terms. Thank you to Special Olympics Washington as well as to this public high school that recognizes that they need to create these opportunities for these teens when full integration just isn’t appropriate.