Yesterday Tate had his first soccer game. He is playing on a VIP team with the local AYSO. The program, as some may know, partners special-needs children with a buddy, someone aged 10 and up, who helps them up and down the field. But, kids like Tate get to play, have fun, and have success with a sport. It’s not therapy. And they get to fit in.
As we got Tate dressed at home, his anxiety started to rise. Hubz and I were excited to help him get into his bright green and blue uniform. Tate didn’t want any part of it. He kept trying to take it off. We compromised. He got to wear his beloved Spiderman shirt underneath his jersey, with the promise that once the game was over, he could peel off the jersey and just wear Spidey. Then we had to ask our sock-averse child to put on soccer socks…itchy, squeezy, hot, soccer socks that are about 2 sizes too big, but were the smallest ones available. He kept asking to take them off, insisting that they were “squicky”. I quickly threw his shin guards on OVER the socks. In the VIP league, they are allowed to do this–thank GOD!
He wanted his stimmy stick. We couldn’t find it. He chose to vocal stim. We piled into the car. He asked me about 5 times if it was ok to wear Spiderman after the game. I assured him that it was. He asked if the game could be over now…and I told him no. First, practice, then game, THEN Spidey. He stopped and shut his door. The entire ride up to the field he scripted. A lot. Whine-script-whine-script. Hubz and I got a Dunkin Donuts coffee as a pre-emptive treat, as the PTSD from our foray into rookie-league baseball was kicking in.
When we arrived at the field, the VIP green jerseys (shirts–not quite sure what they call it in soccer lingo. I need to learn, I guess.) were sprinkling the field. The buddies were mostly wearing green tie-dye. We wandered aimlessly into the revelry. I found a coach and asked where we should be. She directed us to the little field where Tate’s team was assembling. She explained that because it is Tate’s first year, and he hasn’t had any official soccer experience, he is on the “basic” team. These children require 2 aides on the field. They do about 20 minutes of practice time, and then they play as close to a game as possible. At the end, they try to line them up and have them do the “high-five” that the regular AYSO teams do.
On our way over, we saw Tate’s school social worker’s family. Her son plays on the mid-level team. She was one of the first people to recommend this program to us last year, as something fun for Tate to do, and she wasn’t even his social worker yet! We ran into another family from our school. Their daughter has been playing VIP soccer for 5 years and loves it, she’s also mid-level. We chatted and then scurried our kids to their respective fields.
Tate was introduced to his coach, a friendly, gentle college student who is in her second year of coaching the VIP program. She got down on his level, established eye contact, and he gave her his attention. She introduced him to his buddies, W & C. W is the older son of the family we know from school. C is a new volunteer, and both boys were a great match for Tate. Tate loves hanging with boys..and seems to respond well to male role models/aides. They ran up and down the field with Tate. They were patient while he insisted on picking up the ball and placing it “just so” in front of the goal so he could kick it in. They reminded him that it was a foot sport, not a hand sport. They smiled and waited while he came back to the sideline after every goal to get a high-five from me. Every. Time. I showed Tate how to give his buddies high-fives…and that seemed to work to keep him on the field and off of the side-line.
After about 20 minutes, the coaches got Tate and his beginner-level peers in a big circle to do warm ups. The head coach asked if they were ready to follow directions. Tate and one other boy said, “yes”. I smiled. They started to do their warm-ups. Tate got right into the action. He kept up with the coaches. After an exercise was done, he’d ask his buddies for high-fives. They gave him one, each. Each child got to pick a card with a warm up exercise. Tate chose a red card that indicated doing arm circles. And arm circles he did. Big ones. With loads of swooshing. Most of the other children on his team were in their own worlds…but Tate, Tate was in the thick of it. He was with people who understand…he fit in.
The coach came over to explain that they were going to start their game. She asked if we had any questions. We didn’t really. I said I was amazed by how Tate’s anxiety had plummeted since we got there. I remarked that he seemed comfortable with his teammates and his buddies. She said he was not anxious at all, and that he was into it. With that, she ran to the middle of the field to start the game.
While the kids started to organize themselves on the field, I looked around at the parents who had kids in the beginner group. It was apparent that they had all been around during (at least) the spring season. Everyone was catching up, asking questions about activities/therapies/doctor appointments/procedures over the summer. I felt like a fly on the wall…no one was shy or hiding what they and their children did over the summer. I wasn’t involved in the conversations, but I wasn’t excluded, necessarily. The parents all said hi and then went about their catching up. Let me stop here and just say. Wow. I will never, ever (ok, at least for the time being) complain about the 30+ hours of therapy we did. That is nothing compared to what some of these families do. And we see progress. Some of these families are still looking for “the thing” that will help their child walk/talk/connect. I was humbled.
Thinking about how blessed I am, how WE are, I turned my attention to the field. I watched as my son, the boy, who, in a typical setting would have melted on the sideline and couldn’t have been coaxed onto the field, ran up and down the field. He scored goals. He became a ball hog. He was giving out high-fives like a politician running for re-election. He was in his element. He was with people who made him feel comfortable and like a part of the team. There was no sign of his anxiety. No one staring at his differentness. He was happy. He was smiling. He fit in.
Editor’s Note: I would like to thank our social worker and Alysia for sharing their experiences with this program. I would have never imagined how welcome we felt. How for the first time in, like, forever, our son felt like he was with “his people” and had fun just playing with a bunch of kids. Kids like him, or not…but who understood that for those 60 minutes, how wonderful it was to put aside the anxiety/obstacles/quirks and play a game of soccer for fun.