The Soccer Mom Goes Back to School

About 6 months ago, SB started to really enjoy kicking around a soccer ball.  In fact, it’s how he spends most of his recess time at school.  After watching him once last year at recess, I thought, “Hmm…I wonder if he’d like to play on a soccer team?”  If you know anything about autism, you have probably already realized that this is a completely insane idea.

You see, organized sports are pretty tough for kids with autism.  To be a member of a team you have to understand the rules of the game and also understand the difference between offense and defense. You need to understand the basic idea that, “I should be doing what these other kids are doing.”   But the hardest part of being on a team is reading your fellow teammates.  You have to anticipate what they are going to do by reacting to their body language and facial expressions.  This is something that most people with autism have an enormous difficulty doing.

I brought up the topic of SB playing soccer to my husband, and he reluctantly agreed.  And then I thought, “Well, that’s not fair to AB!  He should get to play on a soccer team, too!”  I tend to be the “Hey, let’s try this new thing!” parent and Charlie is the “Let’s just do the things that we already know work” parent.  Neither parenting strategy is bad, and I think that we complement each other quite nicely.  I come up with tons of completely nutty ideas, and he explains to me why half of them are ridiculous and impossible.

Today was the first soccer game day, and I think it went OK.  Not great, but OK.

First of all, SB’s first soccer practice was dismal.  He barely participated at all.  He just wandered the field aimlessly, not caring at all about what the other kids were doing, not listening to the coaches, and not even interested in kicking the ball.  So we enlisted the help of our trusted ABA therapists.  A therapist was present at his second and third practices, and his level of participation was MUCH better.  At the third practice, SB was running around with his team, following the ball, and grinning the whole time.  He wasn’t quite aggressive enough to really get in there and go for the ball, but that was OK.  He was participating and having a good time.  That’s enough for me.

Today’s game was not such a success.  For the first 15-20 minutes, SB was kind of engaged in the 60-minute game.  But after that, he completely checked out.  He mostly stood on the field and looked off in the distance, despite our encouragement to “Run!  Go chase the ball!  Follow your friends!”  As I watched, I started to wonder if this was a mistake.  In an attempt to give him another opportunity to practice social skills and achieve success in an activity, did I unintentionally put him in a position where the other kids will make fun of him for being different and not being part of the team?  But then I reminded myself that almost nothing SB does goes well the first time.  He usually takes quite a bit longer than the average kid to catch on, but he CAN catch on.  For example, he and his brother have been taking a Tae Kwon Do class (adapted for kids with autism) for a little over a year now.  At first, TKD was a DISASTER!  Neither one participated in any way at all.  But now it’s much better, and one of the instructors told me recently that she thought SB might be ready soon to actually try for his first “real” TKD belt.  (Right now they earn new belts that are striped rather than solid, and they don’t have to do anything to earn them except show up for a certain number of lessons.)

Thankfully, SB’s soccer coaches have been very patient and accommodating.  In fact, the league has a rule that even though the games are 5 on 5, the coach can play a 6th player on the field if it is a kid with special needs.  So SB was the 6th man today.  I am hopeful that with time, more practice, and some help from his therapists, he may be participating in most of the game by the end of the season.

AB’s first practice was a little better than SB’s, but he was still a bit distracted.  We were disappointed, but haven’t involved the therapists in his practices just yet.  Today’s game, however, was pretty darn good!  He was following his teammates around the field and chasing the ball, and even kicked it a few times.  Hooray!  I think there are 2 reasons why AB’s game went better than SB’s.  The first reason is that AB’s autism is simply milder than his older brother’s.  And the second is that most of the typical 5-year-olds were often distracted and unaware of what they were supposed to be doing.  They all needed a bit of redirection at some point or another.

I was really struck by just how different the typical 5-year-olds were from the typical 7-year-olds.  Most of the 7-year-olds were driven, motivated, and understood all the rules of the game.  SB really stood out as he wandered aimlessly.  The 5-year-olds, however, all seemed to need help figuring out what to do and staying motivated.  The 5-year-old teams don’t even use goalies!  AB didn’t look all that different from his teammates.

So did we wait too long to get SB involved in soccer?  Should he have started at 4 or 5 like most of his peers did?  Maybe, but I don’t think so.  Two years ago, I don’t think SB had the maturity, language, or awareness of his surroundings to participate in a group activity like soccer with typical peers.  Now, although he still needs a lot of help, I think he has a chance of being successful.

My favorite random moment from this morning’s soccer games: We stopped at a McDonald’s to use the bathroom in between games, and there were electric hand dryers in the restrooms.  While drying his hands, SB started to hum along with the hand dryer and said, “Daddy, that’s a C!”  (Yes, he has perfect pitch.  Both his Dad and I are professional musicians, and WE don’t have perfect pitch!  It’s pretty awesome.)  I was feeling a bit down after his quite mediocre soccer performance, and that moment just made me smile and think, “I love this kid.  He’s neat.”

So the kids’ schedules are a bit crazy now.  They each have 1 soccer practice and 1 soccer game per week.  They also each have 2-3 ABA therapy sessions per week.  And once school gets rolling, they will both have homework.  Since AB is in kindergarten, we don’t really know how cooperative he’ll be with homework.  We do know from experience that homework time can be particularly trying and challenging for SB.  They also have Tae Kwon Do once a week and swimming lessons a couple times a month, when we can fit them in.

But talk about crazy schedules – my job is about to go into overdrive!  After our normal 2-week Fall Tour in October, the Air Force Band is going to march in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City in November.  That will be followed by a performance at the Midwest Band and Orchestra Clinic in Chicago in December (one of the biggest professional conferences in the country for band musicians.)  After our typical holiday concerts and a holiday break, we come back in January to march in the inaugural parade for the next President of the United States, whoever that may be.  Both of the parades will be televised, and the Midwest Conference is a very high-exposure event, so our leadership is sure to be freaking out often over the next few months.

And then there is the normal stuff that keeps the days busy, like that fact that I need to exercise on a regular basis in order to not get too fat to stay in the Air Force.  Also, I just started this blog last January, and I find the writing comforting and therapeutic.  I certainly want to continue.  I have also found that reading the blogs of other autism parents is a joy, and I want to keep up with that reading, especially if I want them to read mine!

Oh, and have I mentioned that I also decided to go BACK TO GRADUATE SCHOOL?!?!?!?  Yes, this falls under the category “What the hell was I thinking?”  I decided a few years ago that when I am eligible to retire from the Air Force in 2017, I want to become an elementary school librarian.  Since my 2 degrees are in music, achieving this goal will require me to get yet another degree.  I gave myself 5 years to finish a Master of Library Science, and enrolled this fall.  It is a 100% online program, so I never have to actually set foot on a campus.  I thought that this might be a practical way to earn the degree with the irregular schedule I have in my job and with all the traveling that it requires.  I have never taken an online course before, so we’ll see how that goes.  I am only taking one class this term, and if it doesn’t completely kick my ass, I may take 2 in the spring.  But right now I am completely FREAKING OUT about the requirements of the class and how I’m going to possibly fit in graduate school work alongside working and being a Mommy.

I took a trip to Las Vegas over Labor Day weekend with a couple of friends who are all turning 40 this fall.  (Yes, I am turning 40.  I’m not very happy about it.)  We had an absolutely great time on our trip!  But I returned home late Monday evening from a completely different time zone, which was followed by the dreaded TUESDAY MORNING!  Tuesday morning was the first day of school for my husband (a teacher), the first day of second grade for SB, and the first day of kindergarten for AB.  It was also an extra-early morning rehearsal for the Macy’s parade for me.  Can I just say that Tuesday (no, that whole WEEK) totally kicked my butt?  I am only just now, a week later, getting around to unpacking and doing laundry from that trip.

The good news is that school seems to be going well so far for both boys.  The teachers and the kids have given us positive reports.  However, both boys chose a different evening this week to have a completely irrational tantrum/meltdown experience, which I think was probably due to being tired after getting back into the school routine.  And although both Wednesday night AND Friday night totally sucked, I think it’s probably best that they didn’t choose the same night to have their big fits.

So with adding graduate school to the mix, I will now probably have less time in my day to tool around on Facebook and watch TV.  I will probably be drinking less wine.  (Or maybe MORE wine.  We’ll see how this plays out.)  But hopefully, we’ll all survive, and make it out the other side.