I press my hands together to keep them from shaking as I look back over my shoulder at the Roc in the dark, his eyes are wide and his face blank. The oncoming traffic momentarily lights up his face and I recognize his look to signal fear.
“I’m anxious…” he says staring straight ahead. “My tummy feels funny…”
“Does it hurt? Or is the funny feeling….a fluttery feeling like there are butterflies flying around inside your belly?” I ask, wondering what exactly my literal boy is picturing in his mind. Does that explanation even make sense to him? He’s nervous, he’s never described nervous before, I do an internal fist pump, progress noted. A new emotion to sit next to happy, mad, sad, and anxious in his little emotions piggy bank. Another step forward in understanding his own emotions, a step to the side in helping him learn to manage those emotions. All this movement equaling progress, of which I’ll never take for granted.
His clear blue eyes lock onto mine and he says, “Yeah, fluffy, my tummy feels fluffy.” My heart does a little flutter, I love to see his eyes, my heart will always remember when he couldn’t look at me and how I longed to look into those beautiful blue eyes.
I swallow my smile and tell him that it’s normal and that what he is feeling is called nervous. He asks me if I feel nervous and I tell him yes, a little bit, and immediately wonder if honesty of the best policy in this situation, too late to take it back. I rush to tell him other times I felt nervous and that when I was a child like him, I often felt nervous when trying something brand new. Again, I wonder if this way of explanation is the best way. Does it make sense to him? Does it help him to know that I feel nervous when I don’t know what to expect? These thoughts tumble together with the fear I’m holding in my shaking hands. What was I thinking? He looks so scared! Did I make a huge mistake? What if he freaks out? He will be so upset if he loses control in front of so many people! What was I thinking? I give the Roc a small smile and turn back around, watching the lights flash across GC’s face, his hands tight on the steering wheel.
We pull in to the parking lot, park, and get out. The Roc appears white with fear and he limply holds my hand as I gently pull him toward the building. As we enter the gym the Roc stops, rooted to the spot and I know I must find out what he is supposed to be doing very quickly. Parents are leaning up against the walls while the boys shoot baskets, all baskets occupied by at least 8 boys. I see a very tall man holding a clipboard and approach him, smiling, and ask if the Team B kids are in a certain spot. I’m hoping that I’ve masked my own nervousness, also knowing that I am one of easiest people to read on the planet.
He tells me that all the boys are shooting and they’ll start the actual practice in a little while, and that he is one of the coaches for Team B. He asks me where my boy is so he’ll know what he looks like and when I look back over my shoulder the Roc is not where I left him. My eyes sweep left and I spot GC who smiles and points to the Roc…who is standing in line to shoot baskets. My eyes widen and then I point him out for the coach,
“There he is….um, did you and the other coach get any information on the kids before tonight?” I ask, remembering the section in the online registration form asking about disabilities where I wrote, The Roc has autism. He loves basketball and really wants to be a part of the basketball program. His biggest issue will be anxiety and sensory. He can get overwhelmed in chaotic situations and will need extra prompting and help navigating. I remember the message I left at the community ed office asking if I could sign him up, was he welcome? I had stammered before I hung up. I had a nice conversation with the woman who called back and she told me to sign him up, he was definitely welcome, and he could participate in what he felt comfortable with.
“Nope, nothing,” the coach says.
“Well, I want to let you know that the Roc has autism,” I start, searching the coaches eyes, hoping he is a patient man. “He really wants to be here, he loves basketball, he is very anxious and that is one of his biggest issues right now. He may get overwhelmed by all the noise and movement. He will need you and the other coach to repeat directions to him and give him a little processing time to answer you,” I tell him, hoping that it’s not too much information, knowing that this first practice will be an exercise in organized chaos.
“Okay, well I’m glad to have him, thanks for letting me know more about him, we’ll start the actual practice in a little bit,” the coach says, smiling at me, and I feel that all too familiar bite in the back of my throat. I will cry tonight, probably soon.
I see GC leaning up against the wall and I go to stand next to him. “I got lucky and talked to the first guy I see holding a clipboard and it happens to be one of the Roc’s coaches. He hadn’t gotten any information before tonight about the kids, so I told him about the Roc,” I tell GC.
“That’s good…look at him Kim…” GC says, nodding his head toward the Roc.
I look…and my eyes prick with tears that I desperately try to blink away. There is my boy, he just reached the front of his line, and when he sees me looking he smiles this little lopsided smile and his nose twitches. It’s not the face spliting grin I so often capture with my digital camera. This is the anxious smile, when he is somewhere doing something that’s hard for him, but his enjoyment is close the level of his anxiety,and they are battling. He shuffles forward, shoots and the ball goes in.
“That’s the third one in a row he’s made,” GC says.
We continue to watch the Roc shoot. He makes it most of the time, and when he doesn’t he just grabs his ball and gets back in line. No shouting at the ball like he often does at home. The coaches blow the whistle and tell all the kids to line up on the black line ringing the gymnasium. My heart goes into overdrive as I watch the Roc try to figure out what just happened. He follows the herd of children, and runs to the end of the gym farthest from where we stand. I squeeze GC’s arm and ask him if he is nervous.
“Yeah, I’m super nervous,” GC responds rubbing his palms together and then folding his arms. “But look at him, he’s doing it,” he says, again nodding in the Roc’s direction.
“I know, and I just can’t believe we are here. I know that I’m going to cry tonight, in fact I might cry right now,” I tell him, those tears threatening to fill my eyes once again.
“Well don’t cry yet, it just started, see how it goes first.”
“I know, I know, I just can’t help myself,” and as I say this I have a vision of the Roc having a tantrum in the middle of the gymnasium and myself rushing onto the floor to try to pick him up, arms and legs flailing. I push that vision away as I watch him, he’s not paying attention as the children are counted off, 1,2, 3, 4. When the coach gets the end of the line he shouts, “1’s over here, 2’s over there, 3’s over there, 4’s right here!” pointing to the four corners of the gym. “GO!” he shouts and all the children run in opposing directions. I see the look of shock on the Rocs face as he stands still in his spot. I wave my arms over my head and miraculously get his attention, hold up 3 fingers and point in the direction he is supposed to go. He runs toward where I pointed. I widen my eyes at GC as I return to our spot.
“If he gets through this tonight we may really pay for it at home,” GC whispers to me. I nod in reply and my mind flashes to the ends of outings when the Roc had reached his maximum and fallen apart.
“I know, and it will be worth it,” I respond, sending up a silent please let him make it through to the autism gods.
As we continue to watch the practice I have to hold myself still. The Roc misses many of the directions because he is so distracted by everything going on in the gym, and other times because I can tell that he has checked out. I watch as he follows the other boys in his group when they start a new activity, I watch him watch them, and then I see him imitate what they do. He puts himself at the back of the line every time and he watches. I see him listen to the coaches when they tell him something directly and he tries. At all four stations he tries, except for the last one where the boys form 2 lines and they were to go after the ball that the coach tosses toward the basket. The Roc is one of the least aggressive boys you will meet, and even though I can tell he wants to go after the ball, he holds back. I see the other boys nudge him forward when it’s his turn, but it’s too much for him. It is the only station we see a glimmer of frustration. When the rebound comes in his direction and it doesn’t land in his outstretched hands, the other boy gets it instead, and the Roc turns toward us and stomps his foot. I shake my head, point to my eyes, and then point back to his coach. When he turns around GC and I look at each other.
“Thankfully, that station was last for him,” I say to GC, my eyes wide.
When practice is over GC and I walk down to collect the Roc and I ask him if he had a good time.
“I was at basketball practice Mommy!” he exclaims, his face plastered with that characteristic smile.
“He did good,” Team B’s second coach tells me. I introduce myself and ask him if he was told anything about the Roc. When he says no I tell him. I tell him that the Roc is on the autism spectrum and he really wanted to be here tonight, but it was hard for him.
“I could just cry, I’m so happy he made it through and he had fun,” I say, my eyes misting over with tears. “A couple years ago I didn’t think this was a possibility for him, he’s come so far,” I choke out as an explanation for my watery eyes.
“Well, he did good and we are happy to have him on our team,” the coach says, looking directly into my eyes and smiling.
“Thank you,” I whisper, those damn tears threatening to overflow. “That means a lot to me.”
We prompt the Roc to say good bye and we navigate through the crowd to the exit. As we walk through the front door into the cold, dark night GC asks the Roc what he thought of basketball practice.
“It was…..awesome,” he answers.
It was, and so is he.
I process as we ride home, knowing that I must record this night.