As summer registration opens for community events, families living with autism often feel left out of traditional options for summer-time fun. But there are resources to help your family fully engage in the community.
Do you remember the first time you attempted a team sport with your child? I do, vividly.
We were so excited. My husband and I bought a pair of black shorts, little shin guards and tall socks that covered our three-year-old son’s entire legs. The registration table welcomed us and gave my son a new t-shirt with a picture of a soccer ball on the front. The coach blew her whistle, and all the kids huddled around her. Well, almost all of the kids. Mine was looking at the big open field with wonder. He watched the other kids as he ran his fingers through the cool morning grass, but was not ready to join them. I held his hand and walked over to the group. The coach rolled a ball his direction. He was more interested in the sound of the plane flying overhead. His engine began to roar as he stretched out his arms and took off toward the open field.
The other kids stretched and warmed up. I tried to watch from a distance as the coaches coaxed my son back to the group and attempted to regain his attention. I didn’t understand. We had talked about soccer. We had been playing with the ball at home. He was excited to come, but now that we were there, he wanted to play alone. Half way through practice, he came and sat in my lap. I wrapped my arms around him and kissed his hair.
Something about the way my son interacted with people was different. Following a few unsuccessful soccer practices, new challenges at preschool, and a tantrum that exiled us from swimming lessons, we asked for help. After two years, the guidance from a group of amazing teachers and therapists, and a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder, we had a better understanding of our son’s gifts and challenges. He wanted to play soccer, but this team sport challenged his ability to communicate. He had a hard time playing with other kids, and he lacked strength in his body. The coaches didn’t know how to teach soccer in a way that made sense to him, and there were too many distractions.
Soccer practice, while kid-friendly, was not designed for kids with autism. But my son still wanted to play. I flipped through the information about summer leagues and wondered if there was a way to bridge the gap between social activities and our special needs. The answer was YES! In the Hennepin County metro area, I found a service called REACH for Resources. Their mission is to provide therapeutic services and support that help people with disabilities maximize independence, integrate into the community, and live their lives to the fullest.
It looked like a great fit. I applied and a coordinator called me to schedule services. She asked specific questions about what type of help we needed. The volunteer scheduled to play soccer with my son also called me in advance to introduce herself and learn more about my family.
Annie was ready and waiting to play with him when we arrived at the field for the first time. Our son grabbed her hand and said, “Let’s go play soccer!” We were amazed how he listened to his new friend re-word the coach’s directions. She watched and noticed quickly that he did not need constant support, just a few encouraging words here and there and a bit of redirection. She allowed him to take the lead, but stayed close for comfort and safety.
She was fantastic. We were shocked. He was listening to the coaches, playing with other kids, and actually participating. He even dribbled the ball and kicked it into the net. GOAL! By my reaction, you would have though he had kicked the winning goal that brought home Olympic gold.
After practice the first day, our son said he had fun playing soccer and liked his REACH Volunteer. Then he asked if she could move into our house and be part of our family. To say the least, it was a success. My family is thankful for the services REACH provides that help us fill the void between support and independence. We are also incredibly thankful for volunteers that generously share their wisdom and talents. We had an excellent experience with REACH and look forward to partnering with them to score, I mean, REACH our goals.
Leave a comment and let other families know what resources have helped you engage fully in your community.
Discover more parent-recommended summer program options here