My oldest son has been playing sports for a long time. He started with Taekwondo as a kindergartener, moved on to baseball last summer, and is now playing soccer. We tried a couple of those sports with Jack, my autistic middle son, but he just never clicked with a team or a physical activity. There were too many rules, too much waiting, or in the case of baseball, it was just too damn hot out.
I started to assume that maybe sports just weren't his thing. He wouldn't be the first child with autism to not flourish at sports. I thought that maybe there just wasn't a place for him in that milieu.
One day, however, he started talking about hockey. He had never watched a hockey game, never ice skated, never even seen a photo of a hockey player, for all I know, but somehow, somewhere he got the idea that he wanted to play ice hockey.
In some incredible confluence of good karma and being on the right email list, Jack and I ended up connected with the Montgomery Cheetahs, a local hockey team for kids with developmental disabilities. We found them two weeks before the end of their season last spring, so we waited until this fall to join.
As we waited for hockey season to start up again, I kept expecting Jack to forget about hockey. I took him and his brothers ice skating and it went pretty much as you would expect it to go. There was a lot of falling, some crying, and my other two kids didn't want to ever ice skate again. Jack, however, was into it. He wanted to go back. He started drawing pictures of himself as a hockey player and told me over and over that he wanted to play.
Shortly before the season started, I took Jack to the Cheetahs' equipment locker. I suited him up in donated hockey gear from skates to pads to stick. The only thing I had to buy for him were hockey socks that went over his shin guards and the jerseys he wears at practice.
I was so nervous the first day Jack was to skate. I was worried that I would put the gear on wrong. I was worried we would be late to our 8 a.m. skate time. I was worried that I'd forgotten to dot an "i" or cross a "t" that would keep him from playing.
I was worried that Jack would get on the ice and hate it.
Jack spent almost all of that morning on his knees on the ice. When he stood, he clutched the side of the rink to keep from falling again. But he kept going. Each athlete is paired with a teenage mentor who works with him one on one to teach him to skate, hit the puck, and keep him encouraged.
Jack's mentor pulled him across the ice with his hockey stick, he sat on the ice with Jack, and when Jack wanted to stay in the penalty box to take a break, I saw him encourage Jack to get back up and out on his skates. I watched Jack perk up when his mentor pulled out a puck and the two of them hit it back and forth.
That was more than a month ago. Since then, Jack has played hockey every weekend, including one game against another area special needs hockey team. He is so proud. He tells everyone that he plays hockey. He is visibly exhausted at the end of practice every week, but his face shines.
He has found a place.
It is thrilling to watch. It is phenomenal to see his skating ability increase exponentially. It blows my mind that even though he is hidden under pads and helmet and a face mask, he is learning his teammates' names. My heart almost can't take the joy and pride I feel every week when I watch him discovering something he loves.
It is safe and exciting all at the same time and it is his. And that? That is magic.
Jean writes about special needs at her personal blog, Stimeyland; her Washington Times Communities column, Autism Unexpected; and her autism events and information site for Montgomery County, Maryland, AutMont. You can also find her on Twitter as @Stimey.