“I didn’t make the team” my son mumbled when asked how practice had gone. This was no surprise to us given his baseball skills were not even close to freshman high school level. Based on his skill set he would fit in better at the Single A level in Little League, however his towering 5’ 7” frame would stand out among the six-year olds.
Our hearts broke for our boy as it does for all parents when their kids are sad or hurt. Unlike a bump or a scrape that can be healed with mommy magic, this hurt was not so easily fixed. The fact that he even tried out for baseball was an amazing achievement on its own but Ryan won’t see it that way. When younger he did not show much interest in sports but when his younger brothers put on their uniforms he suddenly asked, “Where’s my team?”
We were thrilled that he took an interest and happily bought him a glove and signed him up for the Little League Challenger Division, specifically for kids with Developmental or Physical Disabilities. The usually non-social kid suddenly loved being part of a team. He beamed when he put on his uniform and demanded, “Aren’t you going to take my picture?” Challenger baseball is all about the team, the try, the social gathering, the snacks and the opportunity for these kids to do something as regular as play baseball. This was not the place to hone your batting or fielding skills.
Fast forward seven years and Ryan is in high school and one day announces, “I’m going to try out for baseball because Amador High School is “Home of the Champions” and I want to be a champion. Damn you school slogan. We did that parenting thing where you seem to be encouraging while secretly trying to deflect or redirect. Ryan was onto us immediately. “Are you saying I can’t try out? Is it because I have autism I can’t play baseball?” Well, yes and no. No, there is no rule against autism in baseball and yes if you didn’t have autism you might have developed the focus and fine motor skill to play baseball with the kids who would make the team.
He was drawn to the school baseball team because he had met the Varsity Coach and team when they came out to Opening Day of the Challenger Division. It’s a big day with elected officials, the Star Spangled Banner and the kids lined up on the baselines, just like the big leagues. The Amador players act as “buddies” and help out any of the Challenger kids who need assistance.
The high school coach was Ryan’s PE teacher and announced that baseball tryouts were coming up and anyone interested should start conditioning training prior to the tryouts. Ryan was ecstatic. He worked out twice a week, lifting weights, stretching and hanging with the guys. It was a joy to see him so excited but we wondered how the tryouts would go. Besides worrying about Ryan being able to handle the disappointment of not making the team, we worried about him getting clocked with a line drive. Thankfully, we knew the coach and he assured us he’d watch out for Ryan and keep him out of harm’s way.
Ryan has said repeatedly that he wants to be a regular guy like the other high school kids. He has figured out that he is different and we’ve done our best to explain his autism as a part of him with both gifts and struggles. To us, he already is a regular guy, even if the world doesn’t always agree. We are well aware that he is not just like all the other kids; rather he is often an eight year boy old in a fifteen year old boy’s body.
He wants to be a regular guy but doesn’t really know what that means. Or perhaps he knows what it means but he has no idea how to get there. He knows that teenagers are not still watching Thomas the Train but that won’t stop him from heading off to the Island of Sodar. The thing is, if you want to be a regular guy you have to adjust to being treated like a regular guy. The “everyone gets a turn; no one is out, everyone crosses the plate” rules are not the baseball rules of the regular guys. If you want to play with the big boys, you have to be prepared to get knocked back every so often. The pitches in real life are not softly lobbed in repeatedly until the batter makes contact.
Not making the baseball team was a big shock. It took him two days and frequent tears to shake it off. Ryan’s expectations may have been skewed by his overzealous parents who cheered every accomplishment no matter how small. Because autism paved his road with hurdles and detours we may have overcompensated in an effort to smooth the path. His milestones and seemingly simple achievements came with so much more difficulty and at such a slower pace that we cheered all the louder. When your kid finally learns to tie his shoes at age 14 you tend to go overboard with the celebration.
While it’s hard as a parent to see your child disappointed, it’s even harder not to swoop in and try to solve the problem. Anticipating the outcome, we had talked to the coach about Ryan somehow being part of the team. Could he be equipment manager or some role that would allow him to hang out with the team? This seemed a reasonable solution but when we asked Ryan if he wanted to help out the team in some way he said “No, everyone will say there’s the kid who didn’t make the team.”
Surprised, we couldn’t really argue with his logic, in fact it seemed like a very regular guy response. If Ryan wants to be a regular guy, we have to let him test out life in the real world, to build resilience and the ability to move past the disappointments and try again. As parents we need to be prepared to do the same and to let him do his best to just be a regular guy.
Regina Stoops is a comedian, writer and Autism Mom living in the San Francisco Bay Area.