29: The Right Kind of Kick

29: The Right Kind of Kick

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Raising Kids on the Spectrum

The Right Kind of Kick

The central struggle of parenthood is to let our hopes for our children outweigh our fears.

~Ellen Goodman

“Catch it!” my husband and I yelled. Our shoulders sagged in unison as we watched the ball hit the grass near our four-year-old’s feet as he continued to kick at the dirt. It was midseason, but he wasn’t any closer to becoming engaged in his tee ball game. We called his name and then said, “Pick it up! The ball!” He turned his head with a blank stare, in time to see the first baseman snatch up the ball and lob it toward home plate. Then he went back to kicking the dirt.

It was obvious, as the games rolled by, the coach didn’t want our son to play. We practiced with him and I hunched over the bat and said, “Place your hands here.” My husband added, “Throw the ball like this,” and he demonstrated a solid overhand. Our son never did grasp the concept of running the bases or the other things we tried to teach him.

At the end of that season, our son was once again rewarded with a “Most Improved” medal, a medal he’d received before in other sports. My husband and I looked at each other, and I said, “Well, at least he’s improving,” but it reminded me of other sympathetic gestures from coaches or teachers. By now I was used to this feeling, of our son being different, unable to assimilate into activities.

“He’s not paying attention,” his preschool teacher told me that same year. “He fiddles with his hands in class, lies under the playscape at recess and stares at the sky.” This isn’t what any parent wants to hear, but I knew it was true. As a stay-at-home mom, I was exhausted from having to repeat my instructions to him. But in the beginning, I wasn’t sure how much of it was typical, because he was our first child. We decided to have him assessed, but it was basically a guessing game regarding what was going on with him until he turned six, when finally, we were able to have a professional evaluation done, and it was determined he has Asperger syndrome.

“He’ll be okay,” my husband said. “He’ll go on to have a family and work in the real world.” And it’s true. Our son is blessed with good looks, intelligence, and an aloof nature that is perceived as shyness. There are no obvious signs he has Asperger’s, aside from frequent lack of eye contact; it’s more of an ever-moving undercurrent, perceptible only to those who know him best. Especially during moments like homework, what to fix him for dinner, or still, repeating instructions.

“I’d like to invite your son to my son’s birthday party,” a friend of mine said after his diagnosis. I was excited until I learned it was a dirt-bike party and my now-six-year-old couldn’t ride a regular bike. I flat out told her he wasn’t ready for that. She was a preschool teacher like me, and she understood that all kinds of developmental delays occur in children, and that the sooner you tackle it, the better off the child will be. Not everyone is so understanding.

He didn’t go to the party, but at least it prompted us to get our son back out there on his bike. The training wheels were removed and he begrudgingly wobbled down the hill, trying desperately to keep his balance. The more runs he did, the more frustrated he became. Why couldn’t this experience be like those home movies where the father is running alongside the bike and the child is smiling ear to ear? Just once, couldn’t something be easy?

“Place your hands here on the handlebars,” my husband said, pointing.

“Try not to lean so far forward,” I added.

“I hate this,” he said, finally, and kicked, with all his might, the spokes on his front wheel. It wasn’t until we put the bike away for the winter that he cracked half a smile.

The next summer, we were giving our son tips on how to score a soccer goal. By the end of that summer, our son was finally blazing down the soccer field with the ball, about to kick a goal, when a parent accidentally stepped over the boundary line and caused him to lose the ball. The look on my husband’s face could have broken ten thousand hearts. His boy’s only chance to score a goal that season, and it was snatched away. He wanted to yell at the parent, to make him understand the magnitude of his actions, but he managed to keep it in. After all, how could anyone really understand how important one goal could be unless they’ve waited six years?

There are moments when our son is brilliant. Wicked smart. So intuitive it’s unnerving. But those moments are random, like slices of sunlight let in by a dancing curtain.

That is, until he was seven, and he was taking swimming lessons. He’d had lessons the summer before, and he did all right, but I wanted him to really learn how to swim. So back we went.

I was surprised when I peered at him over the pool and he was beaming a smile so wide my heart leapt to my throat. He waved at me, grinned, and bobbed up and down in the water. I’d never seen him so excited. Something about swimming that time around “took.”

So again, this last summer, when he turned eight, we were back again. He learned the front stroke, the backstroke, and finally, the butterfly. It was inspiring to watch his strong legs kick and his arms move, as he made his way across the pool.

I’ve always wished I could swim, something beside the dog-paddle, so I slipped into the pool after one of his lessons, and immediately he asked, “Okay, Mom, do you know how to do the butterfly stroke?”

I shook my head.

His eyes flashed with understanding. “Let’s start with floating,” he answered. “Here’s what I want you to do for me,” he continued, and placed his hand beneath me to support me while he helped me ease onto my back. For the first time, it was him giving the instructions. It was him saying, “You can do it.” He sounded like an instructor, and I pictured him as a young adult, teaching a class of his own one day. It made me smile.

I left the pool that day happy, and I realized he really isn’t so different from anyone else. Just give him something he’s passionate about, something he’s good at, and he can shine like the rest.

~René Zimbelman

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