“I didn’t make the basket, I didn’t make the basket” was the phrase my son kept repeating over and over. We were at his annual Special Olympics basketball tournament where his team had just finished a close first game, losing by one point. Ryan was very upset at the end, lots of tears and mumbling and talking to himself. Even accounting for his autism, the reaction seemed a little over the top.
Mom Talk 101
He had taken many shots, missing more than he made but still a good game. I did my best supportive mom routine, "You played a great game, tried your best, I’m really proud of you.” He kept repeating, "I didn't make the basket" and I kept repeating the same supportive mom phrases. During the break between games he would not let it go, he could not eat lunch and kept repeating his mantra about the basket he didn't make, the points he didn’t score.
I am well aware of Ryan’s autism but in the day to day of our lives, it’s easy to forget what that means. Most days Ryan seems a lot like our other two kids, each quirky, each with their own personality, figuring out the world in their own way. This day the cold water shock of Autism was once again hitting me in the face, making me frustrated, angry and sad all at the same time.
We Won? We Won!
Suddenly, Ryan's coach came running up shouting, "Guess what? We won the game! Ryan made a basket that the scorekeeper missed but the official game keeper counted so we won by one point. Can you believe it?" There on the official tournament chart was our team, scheduled to play in the gold medal game.
While we all jumped up and down with excitement and high-fives Ryan did not show much reaction or at least not what I thought was appropriate for this seemingly Disney family movie moment. His reaction was more along the lines of, "Finally, you idiots got it, what took you so long?”
At that moment I did get it, I got that he knew all along he'd made a basket that had not been counted, he knew the scoreboard was wrong, he knew his team had won the game. He knew all of that and more but because of autism and expressive language problems, he had no way of telling us other than to cry, be sad and to repeat, "I didn't make the basket." Any other kid would have stopped the game right there and shouted, "Hey, they didn't change the score, hey coach, the score is wrong," or any number of phrases to get his message across. There were a dozen ways to tell us and my boy could not find one that we could understand.
Navigating Without a GPS
Life with Autism is like being given a part in a play without having ever been given the script. My boy learns how to use language only when he has been taught what to say. Sometimes his go to phrases have come from the long list of movies and TV shows he has memorized. We know as a family that when he says, “I can’t go to the pool it’s too crowded” in a British accent, he really means he’s afraid of the Lifeguard’s whistle. The anticipation of it being blown makes him hyper-vigilant and nervous, so much so he can’t enjoy cooling off on a hot day. The phrase is borrowed from a Kipper cartoon and seems the best one in his catalog to use for that situation. It took us awhile to figure it out but we’ve become adept at being phrase detectives, based on the context of the moment.
Future Facing Frustrations
On that tournament day I was so happy and so sad at my boy's frustration and how it must be to live his life every day without having the script. In that moment I flashed forward to the future and wondered how he would navigate the world and speak up for himself. It just broke my heart to realize how frustrated he had been, how hard it must be to not be able to make people understand. My sadness was added to my mom guilt at thinking, “Get over it buddy, stop crying, it's one game." Why hadn't I noticed that the score was wrong?
During the gold medal game, Ryan played like a boy possessed. He was stealing the ball, blocking shots and shooting baskets as if to make sure everyone was paying attention. If this had been a Hallmark made for TV movie, Ryan's team would have won the game at the buzzer. Instead they got dominated by a team with twice the players, each of whom was twice the height. The outcome was never in doubt, but it only seemed to make Ryan more determined. He was still teary eyed as he continued to steal the ball and make baskets.
The Right Words At Last
In the end, he had his best game and his team got the silver medal. When they put the medal around his neck he mumbled, "Next year I'm getting gold, when does basketball start again.?” There are some moments when he knows exactly what to say.