Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Soccer Game Not A Kick

For many families, going to your child’s soccer games is not just a weekend activity, it is a way of life. But, when your child has autism, you cannot take even the most routine of activities for granted.

Soccer is popular with families, at least in part because it is a great sport for involving young kids. They can run around and kick the ball, and, at that level, don’t have to have great hand-to-eye coordination or use anything other than their feet and legs to be able to play and have fun.

We thought about getting Kai involved in soccer before, but didn’t think that he would fit in with typical kids. He doesn’t always pay attention and loses focus easily. So, my wife and I were thrilled when we found out that there was a nearby soccer program for kids with special needs.

American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO), the group that runs soccer programs across the country, has what they call a VIP program, which provides a soccer experience for kids and adults whose physical and mental disabilities make it difficult to successfully participate on mainstream teams.

We eagerly signed our son up, and Saturday was his first game. It was a beautiful day as the morning rain ended and the sun came out. We arrived at the soccer field to find an array of friendly, enthusiastic adult and youth volunteers. The coach and other adults organizing the program introduced themselves and welcomed us, and handed Kai his new neon yellow uniform.

He put on the uniform and looked pretty darn cute. As a guy who loved playing sports as a kid, I was excited that my son would get this chance to be like a “normal” kid.

But, the rest of the afternoon did not go the way we hoped.

When the uniforms were handed out, Kai got caught up with the numbers on the back of the jerseys. He was number six, matching his age, but he was more curious to know what numbers the other kids got. He did not want to leave the area where they were handing out the uniforms until he saw everyone’s number, and, when some kids did not come this first week, it upset him that their uniforms stayed in the bag, the numbers to remain a mystery for at least another week.

Once he got on the field, he started kicking a ball. He had not shown much affinity for sports, so we were happy that he was able to kick the ball at all and seemed happy about being out there. But, when the game did not start right away, he grew impatient.

Kai has a clock in his head that runs on its own schedule. And, when events do not start when he thinks they should, he acts as if an alarm has gone off in his head. He yelled and whined and complained and said he wanted to go home. I started thinking, ‘Oh man, we are not even going to make it to the start of the game.”

But, we did make it, and Kai had fun. For a few minutes. One thing he does like to do is run, and, at the beginning of the game, he enjoyed running up and down the field. He even got his foot on the ball a couple of times.

After a little while, though, he got tired of playing. He said he was hot. We gave him water. He said he didn’t want to play anymore. We told him to keep trying. He complained. We told him to told him to be happy. When he fell down, he got even more upset. The coach let Kai kick the ball to start play after a couple goals, but that didn’t make him any happier about playing.

I’m not sure if we did the right thing in pushing him out there on the field to keep playing, but letting him quit after only a few minutes did not seem like the answer either. I think there may be some secret to good parenting that involves finding the right combination of patience versus persistence, encouraging versus compelling. But, we did not find it that afternoon.

When halftime arrived, Kai thought the game was over and he could leave. He was upset to learn that he had to play more. My wife promised him that if he played nicely in the second half, he would get a popsicle from the ice cream truck that he had been eyeing over in the parking lot.

For the rest of the game, the most enthusiasm he showed was when the coach yelled out how much time was remaining to be played. “Three minutes!” Kai repeated with glee. “Two minutes!” he shouted joyfully. “One minute!” he said happily. “Game over!”

We got him to participate in the handshakes with the opposing team. But, he didn’t want the snacks that were handed out so we quickly left the field and headed over to the ice cream truck while the other kids and their parents hung out together for a little while. I debated to myself whether he should have a popsicle, and gave in only after he agreed to try harder and play more nicely next week.

Is it wrong to feel embarrassed about your child’s behavior? Somehow, I feel worse than if this had happened at a game for typical kids. Here, with all of the other special needs kids really trying hard and happy to be playing, and with all the volunteers giving their time so that the kids would have fun, it felt disrespectful that my son was the only one who was not playing nicely.

Next Saturday is week two. I will talk to him ahead of time and try to set expectations better. Perhaps soccer is just not his thing and we should not force him to participate. But, I don’t want him to give up too easily. Hopefully, I can find that secret to good parenting by next weekend.


  1. HI, you are on the right track. Yes, making him stick it out and dealing with the behaviors is going to be hard but keep it up. Letting him quit is not going to be a win for you or him in the long run. He is supposed to get hot and tired and worn out. It is good for him.
    My son is 16, he was like your boy, and he is going great guns now. He is on the HS wrestling, and track and field teams. He also does Service clubs. If we let him quit he wouldn't be doing anything but staying at home watching cartoons.
    Don't worry about being embarrassed. At an event like that no one cares and it is for fun. Keep the water coming and enjoy yourselves. Congrats on finding such a great group!

  2. Thanks for the words of wisdom. It is nice to hear from someone who has been through it before. Congratulations on your son. It is an inspiration to us to know that he is doing so well.


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