Saturday, September 10, 2011

Today Was the Best Day Ever!

For one to understand why today was such a good day, I must begin the story about 10 years ago. 

Living in Colorado, skiing is a normal way of life for many families.  Ok, so "let's try it!" Our journey with sports had begun.  We drove 2 hours one-way every Saturday for weeks to participate in the Special Olympics Ski Program.  Jake loved it!  Joe, not so much.  We tried.  We thought about just having Jake participate, but then decided it would be better to stay together as a family.

A few years later, when Jake was in 9th Grade, the High School had an amazing unified basketball team (unified means that "typical" peers assist).  The league was started by a wonderful man that lead the team at this high school.  Every year they had a tournament that was sponsored by the fraternity at the state university.  We signed Jake up.  It's not like he came to us and said "Mom, I want to play basketball!"  We just thought he might gain some gross motor skills, and have some fun too.  We took him to every practice and he really caught on.  The other players ranged from experienced to beginner-level like Jake.  The difficulty came when we had to bring Joe along in order to watch Jake.

We situated ourselves on the bleachers with plenty of space on either side.  During the first game, the applause and cheers of encouragement were suprisingly loud!  Boom!  Joe smacks me one!  He comes at me in an effort to give me a firm bite.  Yikes!  Should we attempt to remove him?  We did.  Even though I had prepared a visual schedule, it was not enough.  I felt crushed.

The following week, I prepared a more defined visual schedule giving Joe specific information about what would be required of him (little).  We brought snacks, his earphones and a PSP with movies on it.  We entered the gym (although it was in a different school the 2nd week) and the number of people already in the gym was huge!  Bam!  Didn't even get in the door and Joe was already suffering from uncontrollable anxiety.  This was something we could not have anticipated.

For 2 years we tweeked this scenario, the methods and the approach.  Some weeks of the basketball season were successful (we made it through) and others, not so much.  Eventually, Joe built up a level of tolerance that allowed him to take part.  The influencing factors such as noise, environment, crowd, length of the game, lighting, Joe's mood and other issues had to be considered.  We did eveything we could to allow Jake to play, but required that Joe come along.  We sought professional advice, gave additional OT all day on game day, and tried to remain as calm as we possibly could.  As we approached the end of the 2nd year, we noticed Joe was more alert and able to tolerate input.  We saw a little bit of comfort between he and the coach, so we asked the coach if he would just give Joe a "high 5" after the game.  Joe did it!  Finally!

By the time we got to season 3, Joe was in 9th grade and  a new team had formed at Joe's new High School.  We moved Jake over so they could play on the same team.  Joe loved the coach and knew the other kids well by then.  He knew the environment and the people, and by now (from watching Jake for 2 years) he had a grasp of what the game was about.  The transition from watching to playing was pretty smooth!

To make a long story short, both have played for years and have loved it!  The companionship, the increase in motor skills, the routine, the sportsmanship and the overall growth of the boys has made all of the work and energy we put into it well worth it.  They look forward to the beginning of the basketball season each year.  We felt a sense of success having survived the challenges of basketball, therefore, we had not actively pursued any other sports.  The boys were happy and productive and seemed to like basketball. 

On September 10, 2011, a close friend of the boys invited to watch her play on a special softball team.  We had been camping with her family, so it made it easy to transition to watch her game, although I had no time to prepare in advance.  I had no visuals prepared, so I had to attempt to use verbal prompts, using as many familiar words as possible.  I told them we would "go with "K" and sit and watch her play ball, then we would get in the car and go back to "Rocket" (our RV) at the campground".  We got ourselves ready, got in the car and headed to the field. 

It didn't hurt that the field was in the grounds of their old school.  We waited a few minutes in the car, at which time the coach came over and talked to the friends' Mother.  Joe gave the Coach a "high 5".   We got out of the car and headed to the bleachers.  We sat down together to wait for "K"'s turn to play.  The time came.  She got up to go to the dugout.  Joe followed.  Hmmmm....that's good, I thought. 

One of the helpers was passing out little packaged snacks to the kids.  Joe took one and sat next to his friend.  He looked very relaxed.  No anxiety whatsoever.  "K" asked Joe if he wanted a helmet.  He took it and put it right on!  Then there were a selection of mitts.  "K"s Mom took the queue (which she is great at) and just started trying different ones on him.  Joe favored a catchers mitt.  He even had it on the wrong hand.  They moved to a grassy area and started to play a little bit of catch.  Joe had never really been interested in this, so it was great to see!  I watched from afar as I sat with Jake in the stands.  Their team was in the outfield first.  Joe followed one of the cute peer team members (female of course) to the outfield.  He had on his mitt, his helmet and a huge smile.  I could not believe my eyes.  I snapped a few pictures in my disbelief.  He had never even played before!

Soon, it was their turn to hit.  They called Joe's name.  The Coach knew he was new, so they set up the Tee for him.  Joe proceeded to homebase.  They pitched the ball and he hit it!  I felt elated!!!  The peer team member modeled the running to base and he followed to first base.  The next hitter came up and hit a good ball.  Joe ran all the way home!  It all happened so fast, I didn't have time to think about how it happened. 

Joe returned to the dugout and stood for a few minutes.  I could see that he was happy, but a little stressed.  I moved in and asked if he wanted a "break".  He agreed.  We returned to the bleachers.  From past experience I knew the key to today's success would be to end on a positive note.  Joe sat down, put on his earphones, turned on his ipod, and relaxed.  I told him how very proud I was of him and how proud Dad would be.  We sat and watched a few of his teammates as they played.  Several minutes passed.  I could sense that the heat of the sun and the excitement of the past moments were still present in him.  I asked if he would like to go to the car.  He said, "Yes".  We calmly proceeded to the car.  About 3 minutes later, the game was over and we returned to "Rocket" as promised. 

The contrast in the experience of today and that of years' past is so clear to me.  To get to this place where Joe is able to tolerate new things, and to enjoy them would have been unimagineable all those years ago.  The fact that we need to do it in measured doses does not matter to me.  Only his happiness and success in life is important.  Today was a great example of his growth and we are proud.  Most of all, Joe is proud of himself.  We plan to go next week, although I will have visuals prepared.  I only wish I had had the video camera on my person!