During intramural flag football last week, my 13-year-old son with autism scored a touchdown. But it was so much more than that (as if that weren't enough of an accomplishment!). It was a snapshot of what every inclusion proponent dreams of. Two teams of 7th and 8th grade students played, my son's team with enough members that they had to sub several players in every four plays (or so). But let me give you some context first, which likely applies generally to middle and junior high schools.
Since there aren't enough resources in our school district to provide support personnel for students with disabilities, it's hard to find them in activities beyond the school day. Yet that's exactly where they need to be in order to build rapport with typically-developing classmates.
There is little opportunity for socialization at school outside the classroom. With teaching time at a premium, educators of middle school core curriculum classes have enough time to do a bit of community building at the beginning of a term, but that's about it. Then, just as students with ASD are getting comfortable enough with their physical circumstances to learn about their classmates, it's time to jump into learning.
What about socializing at lunch, you ask? Have you been in a middle school cafeteria? It's about the most awful sensory environment imaginable. Many students with autism have to devote their entire well-being to keeping it together in order to eat. And I'm sure I don't even have to tell you about the bus rides to and from school. If students are on the general ed bus, they're likely anxiety-ridden on the way to school and exhausted on the way home. Plus, in both environments, there is likely a lack of adult supervision, which means no safety net if the student with autism makes a social misstep (or worse yet -- the neuro-typical students with whom he or she is attempting to communicate become disrespectful of the outreach).
And the social currency in middle school is the extracurriculars: sports, clubs, councils. This is where students express themselves in a context of what they've chosen and enjoy, and where they're noticed, for better or worse, by their peers. These are the stories they tell their friends in text messages and at lockers. This is where, when we support our students with autism, they can become heroes.
So I'm glad to be there as a support person for my son when he wants to play flag football. I will admit that I remain cautiously optimistic about good outcomes for these opportunities. When it comes to competitive performance, my son has two modes: horrible, negative self-talk or animated, celebratory "smack talk". The former sounds whiny and the latter, boastful. We (the entire educational team at school, from the special education teacher to the speech-language pathologist) work on moderating these extremes outside the games, along with providing visual explanations of the rules and positions involved in the sport. We also talk about what it means to be a good teammate.
Clearly, this last piece is catching on this year. All these years of peer education and character building have laid a foundation for this touchdown moment. My son has made a positive enough impression to be accepted onto a team, and the members have sized up his abilities. They've taken a couple cues from the way adults interact with him, but at least a couple of them feel comfortable to work it out on their own. My big 5' 7", 165-pound 8th grader was content to be a lineman for the first half of the game, but was clearly jonesing for an opportunity to catch the ball. So his team set it up. And the other team saw it.
The first play failed ... miserably. The quarterback tossed a soft sideways pitch to my boy who caught it, made a few hesitant leaps forward, and threw it clumsily back at an opposing teammate, who luckily couldn't catch the wobbling ball. The second attempt was better planned by the quarterback, who huddled everyone together briefly at the line of scrimmage, but made very sure my son knew what to do. The snap to the quarterback ... the QB drops back ... my boy runs a few yards out and up ... he receives the pass! But this is the coolest part -- the QB and the linemen start running ahead of my boy to make a path for him along the sideline; and the other team sees what's happening, and a couple of the chasers lose steam. As everyone is cheering for him to make it to the goal line, a boy comes perilously close to snapping my son's flag from his belt, but tumbles off out of bounds behind him instead. My son stood ecstatically in the end zone, jumping for pure joy, while everyone celebrated his accomplishment.
And as I was thanking his teammates and the other kids for orchestrating the triumphant play, one of the girls from the other team said to me on the way back down the field to receive the punt, "That boy who fell is my brother. He was really trying to get him. That touchdown was all him."
I know middle schoolers don't want their parents around at school, and they all want to find their own way. But I'll tell you what: I am so thankful to be the mom of a boy with autism. Because if I weren't, I wouldn't have had to chance to see what a hero all our kids can be.