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What My Autistic Son's Hockey Coach Taught Me About Inclusion

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My son can be described using a lot of words such as adorable, awesome, autistic, and amusing, but athletic is not one of them. He is the type of kid who can trip while sitting, bump into things a room away, and run into a tree while focusing on a bird. For these reasons, I’ve felt so lucky to live in a town that has baseball, soccer, and basketball leagues for kids with disabilities. These leagues help the kids learn the basic skills of the sport while creating friendships and camaraderie. These leagues are my comfort zone; my kid is out on the field with kids of similar abilities, I am in the stands with parents who share the trials and triumphs of parenting a child with a disability. During these practices, I can sit back and chat, or chase my other kids with full confidence that the coaches and volunteers know how to best help my kid and that there is no judgment from teammates or other parents.

I’m not sure where my son first got the idea of hockey; I hadn’t suggested it nor had my husband, but one day he confidently blurted out, “I want to try hockey.” I froze, knowing our town did not have a hockey team for kids with disabilities. I gave him the classic response of, “We will see,” which is parent code for, “Not going to happen.” I hoped like other things I have had to give the, “We will see,” line to that it would fade away and not be brought up again. That didn’t happen. The next few days he was insistent on playing street hockey. Reluctantly, but with my husband’s push, I paid the registration fee, indicated a shirt size, and printed the list of equipment needed. I felt overwhelmed, uncomfortable, and in the back of my head doubted we would move forward with his participation.

As the season approached, I made no effort to purchase the equipment and even told my husband I felt our son wasn’t ready to do a typical sport. I struggled internally knowing how much I didn’t want him to do it versus knowing how much he did. This internal struggle left me frantically asking for help from a young guy at the used sports equipment store just nights before the first practice.

During the first practice, our son wasn’t nervous, he was proud of all his gear and ready to get out there, the total opposite of me with my stomach in knots and hands sweaty, regretting I ever signed him up. Would the kids make fun of him? Would the parents in the stands make comments about him? Would the coaches have enough patience? I had never in his five years of life sent him in by himself with a group of children or adults in a typical setting. I felt as though I was throwing him to the dogs. Things were chaotic in my mind watching him run out onto the blacktop, but suddenly there was peace. There was Coach Rick.

Coach Rick knew our son was autistic, but you wouldn’t have known he knew. He didn’t treat him differently, yet gave him exactly what he needed, which was much more than the other kids. To no one’s surprise, our son was not a natural; he fumbled over his feet, never kept his stick down, ran the wrong way, and used his hands to pick up the ball. Coach Rick was there for all of it, to guide, direct, model, and push him to try his best. When our son walked off the rink that night, he was so excited and proud.

As the season went on, Coach Rick’s dedication to helping our son have an authentic and rich experience never wavered. I found through the season that I went from standing tight gripped against the fencing of the rink to sitting and chatting in the stands. My son learned how to play hockey that spring, while I learned that the only person holding him back was myself. With Coach Rick’s support, my son ended the season as an accepted member of the Chipmunks, just like all his teammates.

Our son went on to play a second season with the Chipmunks, where Coach Rick continued to support him not just in hockey but in other ways. During a special practice that included a rink visit from Santa, one I was tempted to skip due to my son’s fears of Santa, Coach Rick worked with him to ensure a positive experience. My son left the rink that night with a new outlook on Santa and for the first time, a photo with the jolly guy.

While Coach Rick gave our son the support needed to have a meaningful first experience with hockey, what he gave me was even more. By being so inclusive and accommodating, he gave me the push I needed to stop holding our son back and step out of my comfort zone. He gave me hope for continued inclusion. He modeled what it means to be an incredible coach and set a standard that I’ll always expect from others.

While I will always be so thankful for my son’s ability to play in leagues designed for kids with disabilities, I am even more thankful to those who supported his ability to play in a league not designed for kids with disabilities. This experience helped me realize that with the right coach, a coach like Rick, all teams can be designed to include kids with disabilities.

Originally published: February 15, 2022
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