I always thought this was kind of a funny story… I grew up in a small town where everything and then some was all about kids soccer. When I was in kindergarten, my mom decided that I, too, would benefit from playing soccer. Maybe it had something to do with her idea that if I just spent more time with the other kids, they’d actually talk to me. Or maybe it was that she thought I would talk to them. I don’t know. Either way, I showed up at my very first soccer class in the gym. I remember there being about 40 kids there, but I’m sure the number was more like 15-20. It was loud and overwhelming. The instructors gave each kid a ball. The balls were nearly as big as my legs. I was pretty tiny, despite being a little bit older than most of the other kids. Then they taught us some skills – how to dribble the ball between our feet. How to stop the ball. How to kick it with the INSIDE of your foot, not the toes. Then they taught us how to pass the ball to one another. After I’d adjusted to the cacophony, I actually had a really great time. I decided that I loved soccer. The next week came along, and we only spent a few minutes reviewing how to dribble, stop, and pass. Then they took everyone’s balls away and made us all chase after one. And I suddenly ceased to see the point. Thus ended my career with soccer.
I never understood the point of team sports – I was never any good at them in gym class or outside of it. I didn’t understand the rules, they moved too fast for me, and for crying out loud, my success was defined almost entirely on what other random kids who were assigned to the same team I was assigned to did during the game. That doesn’t mean that my athletic abilities were extremely poor. Yes, I have serious proprioception issues. Yes, I’m extremely clumsy. But that doesn’t mean I couldn’t learn and excel at a physical activity or sport, it just had to be the right one for me. In addition to numerous team sports introduced in the dreaded gym class, I tried dance (too many kids, too loud music, I’m not graceful, never will be), and ice skating (too cold, I turned blue even with tons of layers, plus the whole sharp blades on my feet was kind of a recipe for disaster), and gymnastics.
Gymnastics was the thing that fit. I actually got pretty good too – I even won states on my best event one year. I’m not saying gymnastics is the solution for every autistic kid who wants to do a sport. I’m saying it was what worked for me. I enjoyed every aspect of it. I was part of a smaller team (there were never more than 8 of us, and we grew up together), and the pressure to improve and get better was entirely on me. I was 100% accountable for all outcomes related to me. It didn’t matter what my teammates did or didn’t do. It was my job to do my best. And it was their job to do their best. We were constantly pushing each other and cheering each other on, because one person’s success was never another person’s failure, it was that person’s success. Gymnastics taught me more than just how to be on a supportive team. I learned how to work with my body in ways I never thought possible. While I’m extremely clumsy walking and doing daily tasks, if I’m doing a gymnastics routine, my concentration is 100% on the moves, and I’m actually very good. I’ve never seriously injured myself doing my routines. Sprained ankles walking off the mats? Definitely. Broken toes walking into the wires that hold up the bars? Yup, been there too. Whack my head on the low bar hard enough to leave a lump? Yep, done that too. But give me a routine to do, and I can learn it and perform it. It takes me a lot longer than many other people to learn the moves, but that’s ok too. I learned them, at my own pace. For me, gymnastics helped me to become more familiar with my body’s strengths and limitations. I was able to learn problem-solving and developed relationships with wonderful teammates. I learned how to participate in competitions and how to win and lose. And I learned some really cool skills that I can still do, at age 24 – I still use the “yeah, I can do a back flip” with a fair amount of regularity – besides, its fun!
Anyway, the point of this ramble is that every kid is different. But don’t discount their ability to participate in a sport or activity just because of their labels. I have found that the important thing isn’t necessarily physical aptitude. It is drive and desire. If you want to do something, you’ll find a way. It might take a long time. It might be exhausting. It might take a huge amount of effort. The path you take to get there might be different from most people. But you’ll find a way to make it work for you. For me, gymnastics was the thing that helped me get there.
And still to this day, I can’t for the life of me, figure out how to play soccer. (or basketball or volleyball or field hockey or football or…….) And that is 100% ok with me.