Dropping the Ball: Parenting Mistakes and Special Needs

When he was little, and the diagnosis was still new, our neurologist commended us for being ahead of the curve in seeking Noah’s Asperger’s Diagnosis.

I remember being struck by the strangeness of that statement, that there was a “curve” relative to diagnoses. As if waiting for anything, when he was flapping, and refusing to make eye contact, and fixating on things, was even an option; as if other parents would have missed it. But they do. Parents miss things. We are so fallible. We are busted and busy and time-weary, and we aren’t doctors. My paranoia played a large role in getting Noah taken care of early, to be sure (see, Matt? Neurosis has its benefits). But I realized on Tuesday why it usually takes parents longer to see things when the high-functioning autism is in its subtle, earlier stages.

It’s usually that because by the time they’re 10, a child on the spectrum stands out among his peers like a road flare in the dark.

Tuesday was the first lacrosse practice of the year for Noah. Lacrosse requires a type of hand-eye coordination that is particularly hard for Noah. And he’s starting a new league this year, where he knows neither the coaches nor the other players. And, on the night in question, Matt was traveling and I neglected to ensure my son had all required pieces of equipment. Being only passingly familiar with the sport, I eyeballed his gloves, helmet, and stick and thought we were covered.

We were, in fact, not.

We were missing Noah’s pads and a jersey to cover them. And also, a pair of shorts. So he had to play in sweatpants. Indoors. Which would be unremarkable, save for the fact that he was also wearing a long-sleeved tee, and he sweats like a hog in July. Plus, we had forgotten his sports bottle. I had visions of Noah’s heat-stroking, unprotected body being pelted by balls while he begged the other kids for a sip of their water.

The only thing that went right that night was the fact that we were punctual, and therefore, had just enough time to approach the coach—the coach we’d never met— and confess our shame.

To his credit, my son can be as bold as he is garrulous. Noah marched right up to the coach, grabbed his sleeve and loudly asked:

“Excuse me, sir. Where are the pads kept?”

The coached looked at him, and looked up at me, standing behind him.

“The pads, son? Well, you should have those already. Did you forget them?”

(Here, I screamed a bunch of profanity in my head.)

“Um, sir, I don’t think we had them in the first place.”

This was not entirely true. Noah had already played one complete season with another team. They had to be somewhere in the house.

“Never?” the coach responded. “Or maybe you did forget them? Was it your mom who forgot them, or did you?”

Noah kept right on barreling. I braced for impact, expecting him to throw me under the bus. I was, after all, the responsible grown-up; the one who is supposed to double-check things like appropriate sports attire and equipment, the one who balances the checkbook and ought to know that we have 100 other things we could be doing on a school night if we weren’t going to be serious about getting the right stuff together and instead just wanted to flush the registration fee down the toilet.

“No, sir. I mean, yes, sir. I must have forgotten them. But what should I do now? Because now the practice is beginning, and I don’t have any pads. I don’t have a jersey either, so I don’t know if you want me to ...”

Note: if when in the course of your life’s events you should encounter an individual with asperger’s, you will most likely need to politely interject yourself in the conversation. There is a possibility they will keep on talking, whether or not you have actually responded. In fact, there is also a possibility that they will keep talking even if you leave the room. This coach was either pressed for time or skilled in dealing with aspies, so he cut to the chase.

“Listen. We’ll work with what we got.”

Then he marched into the arena.

Noah turned to me and handed me his jacket.

“Okay buddy,” I gulped. “Did you forget your pads?”

“No. I don’t think I have them, and if I do, I can’t remember where they are.”

“Alright. Well, we’ll look when we get home. Let’s just get you in there.”

I squeezed his shoulder and in he went, visible to me and everyone on Saturn in his blindingly fluorescent green shirt.

Awesome. Like he wasn’t already going to stand out enough.

The kids parried and tossed balls to one another. They lined up for drills. Most were returning players from seasons past. They chatted and high-fived. And Noah stood in the middle—the honest-to-God-middle of the arena—and awaited instruction, shifting an imaginary weight on his right shoulder, the newest of his tics.

Oh good Lord help us, my mother-voice pleaded. We’ve really dropped the ball.

I took a seat in the upstairs viewing box, slipping in among the throng of other parents. I quietly observed, thanking God for my vantage point of anonymity.

As the practice started, it was clear who the strongest kids were. Noah was not among them. Noah was, however, one of the oldest, and the closest to “aging out” into a higher division. Yet he was among the least skilled.I watched him in the drills, the stretching, the sprints. I watched him pass to other boys and take his turn at shooting goals. I was reassured in that the order of things must have been a comfort to him when the rest of this ridiculous night was foreign and falling apart.

But by the end of the first 30 minutes, Noah was the first to line up. On every new direction, Noah was the first to volunteer. No one talked to him, and he talked to no one, but when they ran sprints, Noah’s pace was breathtaking.

His effort that night was nothing short of stunning. Which is then that I realized "we" had not actually dropped the ball at practice. I had.

Sure, my son should have remembered the things he needed. Matt remarked on just such a thing when he came home from his trip telling Noah that if it happened again, “Mom is going to turn the car around and come straight home without giving you an opportunity to practice.” Like every other parent, we’re trying to build accountability in our son. But even simple requests, when given on the heels of a long day where Noah has already had to follow a complicated sequence of instructions, can sometimes be a challenge for him. The “executive function” part of his brain works overtime every day to remember the order of things, and to do them appropriately. I don’t use this as an excuse for him. I use it to say only that I didn’t give him the tools he needed to function at his best. I’d dropped the ball.

Then when we arrived, I’d dropped the ball in thinking the whole effort was doomed. My inner critic was screaming that there was no point in staying after getting off to the worst possible start. But Noah didn’t care he was missing equipment, or overdressed. He didn’t mind that his shirt was visible from space, or that he was sweating buckets without reprieve, or that he didn’t know anyone. Most of all, Noah didn’t mind he was different – in both ways seen and unseen. He was totally content to keep silent, follow directions, and work. He dropped some balls that night, sure. A lot of them, actually. But not the ones that mattered.

We laughed on the way home, joking about what an awful start it had been, but I told him how proud I was of him despite it all. Noah held my hand, lightly, as he does only when it is dark and no one can see him. And he promised to take better care of his equipment. I laughed.

“I promise to take better care of you.”

A version of this post original appeared on ChosenFamilies.org. Follow the adventures of our ordinary, extraordinary life on Facebook, and find my books on Amazon!