A little over three years ago, I registered Tate for baseball. Regular, coach-pitch little league baseball, to be exact. Many of our friends and fellow parents encouraged it. “It will be good for him,” they said. “It will channel that energy,” they said. “He just needs something to focus on,” they said.
Two months after registering Tate for baseball, we sat in his neuropsychologist’s office as she detailed all the ways that the testing and interviews indicated that Tate was autistic. I asked about school. I asked about academics. I asked about OT, PT, speech, and inquired about ABA. Hubz asked about sports…did she think it was a good idea. She said that sometimes sports can be very good for kids like Tate.
We let it rest. We finished out the school year and put our energies into other things…finding an ABA team, fighting insurance, trying to get some sleep. Suddenly, we got Tate’s baseball team assignment. Oh…. I contacted his coach, the fabulous Mrs. B, and gave her the run-down of our situation. I explained that he was autistic, and asked if it would be better not to participate. The fabulous Mrs. B told us that she was a special education teacher (before she took some time off to be home with her children), and that she’d love to work with Tate.
By the grace of God, we had the fabulous Mrs. B. She was essentially Tate’s buddy during the baseball season. She went up to bat with him. She stood with him at the various positions in the infield and outfield. She was, essentially, turning the experience into “Buddy Baseball”.
There was no joy in Muddville, however, for us that season. Tate struggled to maintain focus during the game. (Have you ever seen a child at bat who could not, COULD NOT, watch the ball?!) He did not interact with the peers on the team much at all..he sat on the bench and stimmed with sticks and played with his water bottle. Often, I would sit in the dugout with him. Several times we left the game after an inning of play (they usually played 3 innings). Most of his communication was via whining or echolalia. It was not a fun experience, and he begged off of going to the final game and after party. We obliged. It was simply too much.
Our area simply did not have baseball available to children with special needs. We enrolled Tate in VIP soccer through a local AYSO. He has done really well with that soccer program. He enjoys running up and down the field, interacting with his peers, and scoring goals. He does pretty well, too.
This past January I saw an announcement from our local baseball association. They were starting a Challenger Division for children with special needs. Anyone ages 4-18, who had special needs could join. I was super excited. I posted about it on Facebook. I signed him up the first chance I got! Amazingly, through the generosity of some local business sponsors, the organization offered the first season of Challenger Division baseball to the participants FREE OF CHARGE! Now, I would have gladly paid the typical fee for baseball, especially for Challenger Division, but I was floored by the free offering. It made me feel like they really wanted to make this happen for kids like Tate.
There was a smallish-group of parents who registered their children for the league. Emails started to trickle in from the organizer of the Challenger Division. The excitement that he had for this division was amazing. He was so INTO it. He encouraged us to ask others to join the fun. Within a few weeks, they had enough participants for 4 teams. That was fantastic!
We started to talk to Tate about baseball. He was excited to play it. He kept asking about “the fabulous Mrs. B”. (Memory like an elephant, I tell ya!) I told him that she wouldn’t be coaching, but that a dad of a boy who rides his bus would be. He seemed okay with that. The brother of one of Jake’s cub scout friends signed up to be Tate’s “buddy”. We were on a roll.
The first day of Challenger baseball was a dreary, rainy Sunday. Tate was quite excited about it, though. Instead of the usual insistence that we not go somewhere new, he was totally on board. Even when we got to the facility where they were going to practice, and it was loud and had weird lighting, Tate handled it like a pro. He took to his buddy immediately. He responded to the coaching. He didn’t search me out or refuse to leave my side. He threw me his water bottle and told me to go sit with the other parents!!
Tate did increasingly better with each practice. He was fielding the ball okay, able to pay attention and throw in the direction that his buddy instructed him to do. He was hitting the coach-pitched ball when he tried. He was crushing it off of the tee. He also can throw!! Wowsers!! (Hubz is super excited that our LEFTY is showing such promise with that throwing arm…ha ha.)
This past Sunday was “Opening Day”. As part of the kick-off of the inaugural season of Challenger Division Baseball, the baseball organization had people singing the National Anthem, announcing the game, and then provided free hot dogs, chips, and drinks for all players, buddies, and their families afterwards! The local Culvers provided vanilla and chocolate custard, and the fire department had a fire truck and 3 firemen there for some fun, too.
I was worried that it might be too much for Tate. I was worried that he would melt down and freak out. Then, when his buddy couldn’t make it to our game because of a prior commitment, I was like, oh, he’s going to be toast. But, nope, he did a fantastic job!!
Tate played in the field and stood exactly where he was supposed to stand. He passed the ball around the bases like he was instructed. When he got up to bat, he hit the coach-pitched ball and it went a decent distance…and he hit it all by himself, without anyone helping him!!!! The smile beaming from his face as he ran towards first base each time was priceless. Even if future games go to hell in a handbasket, we will have THAT to remember for ever and always.
So, my friends, there was much joy in Muddville, as Mighty Tate did NOT strike out at the bat….he participated in his game, hit the ball, TALKED to his teammates, and even joked with a few of them.
The moral of my story is this….to any of the people who don’t think that there’s a special something about special needs sports…well, I dare you to hold onto that belief after watching one of our baseball games. Or one of Tate’s soccer games. We, as parents, get to witness a little miracle on the field each and every week….and sometimes that miracle is that our kiddo is able to just get ONTO the field…and we’ll take it.