Stick and Puck

Getting ready for stick and puck session

Ryan and I getting ready for stick and puck at the local rink on Saturday. (No, I am not wearing a Rangers jersey!)

Last Friday, Ryan and I had a plan. I was off from work; He skipped camp because he wasn’t interested in that day’s trip. We had some errands to run, but the real highlight of the day was to be a session of father and son “stick and puck” at our local ice rink — basically what public skating would look like if everyone was in hockey gear and they allowed sticks and, well, pucks.

Ryan was very excited. As the day drew near, he kept boasting how he was going to “kick my butt.” I reminded him that it wasn’t going to be a game, per se, more like a bunch of disorganized pickup games on different parts of the ice. But I knew better. Ryan would find a way to create competition, and keep score. He was anxious to show me how all his hard work — on his muscles and his hockey skills — had made him a better player.

There was just one problem.

As Ryan rummaged through his hockey bag Friday morning, checking to make sure he had everything, he yelled upstairs “where’s my helmet?”

Uh oh.

There was only one reason the helmet could be out of the bag. He must have left it hockey practice on the previous Tuesday.

I tried my best to swallow my annoyance over the loss of $100 hockey helmet. The look on Ryan’s face — pure disappointment, not anger — made it easier. I told him we’d go to the rink to check the lost and found. If they had it, we could still play. If they didn’t, well we’d be off to buy a new one, with the money coming from his savings account.

We went to the rink and scoured all the lost and found spaces. Nothing. I was proud of Ryan’s response. He was bitterly disappointed but there was no lashing out in anger, which would have been automatic a few years ago. He blamed only himself. We are long past the days of accompanying him in the dressing room to make sure he has all his equipment. That’s his responsibility and he knows it.

As we left the rink for the equipment store, I sent an email to the director of Ryan’s hockey program. By the time we got to the shop, the response had arrived. His coach had the helmet after someone spotted it sitting in the locker room. Good news — no new helmet needed. But bad news, too — no stick and puck for us that day.

Ryan made the best of it. We got him new skates, an errand that was already on the agenda. He patiently tried on a few pairs and tied them himself, both markedly different from the last time we had been in this same store. We went out to a pizza lunch. We went for a long walk. We made plans for the Yankees game the next day.

It was a great day, but not as good as it could have been. Ryan remained calm throughout, and remorseful. He also circled July 26 on the calendar — the date of the next stick and puck session.

And so it was that we found ourselves at the rink a few minutes after 9 a.m. Saturday morning. I wasn’t sure what to expect, having never attended one of these sessions before. I was quietly hoping for a small turnout. I preferred to work with Ryan on a small chunk of ice and not play in a more organized game with a larger group.

We took the ice with perhaps 10 other kids. I was the only adult. The rink operator put out four nets, a bucket of pucks, and a bunch of cones. The rest was up to us. As I turned a few warmup laps, I watched some of the other kids, close in age to Ryan but clearly more experienced players. They pushed nets in place and worked on shooting. The set out cones and worked on stick-handling.

Ryan and I grabbed a few pucks and passed back and forth as we skated in one end. I tried to remember various areas of his game I thought were in need of pointers. I’m far from a great hockey player, but I have played the sport for 35-plus years and have benefited from a lot of coaching.

I set up some basic drills. Skate around a certain cone, give, and receive, a pass, then shoot. We worked on shooting, passing and stick-handling without looking at the puck. We worked on body position. I tried to show him how to use his rear end to shield defenders away from a puck along the wall. I taught him how to sneakily shove an opposing player on the hip, throwing him off-balance if he’s going by you (hey, I was never good enough to get by on skill alone).

And yes, he found a way to stage a competition. We did a series of one-on-ones, taking turns on offense and defense. I paid more attention to teaching points than the score, but at 9-9 he made a nice move to score and win. He beamed. I knew I would be hearing about this for the rest of the weekend. He got what he came for. He had shown me how much better he was getting.

He is getting better. Just as with his strength training, he is learning the value of repeated practice. After I told him he should stick-handle the puck any time he’s waiting in line for a turn at a drill in practice, I saw him diligently working on the skill — eyes up, just as instructed. Whatever Ryan may lack in physical skill, he has a couple of things going for him. He is supremely coachable. When he’s engaged in a topic, and there’s nothing that captures his engagement more than hockey, he’s a sponge. Anything I tell him once is repeated back to me, word-for-word, over and over. That’s why individual instruction is so important. It’s easier to lock in his attention and pass along information in a smaller setting.

His other advantage is that he enjoys repetition, which fits neatly with the order and structure he prefers in all aspects of his life. Several times Sunday he went outside to work on stick-handling. Just as with his push-ups, or studying for a test, he has learned that repetition of a task leads to progress.

We will have to find more stick and puck sessions to attend. The 90 minutes went by very quickly. About the only thing that disappointed Ryan was that there aren’t any more on the rink calendar. I remarked to Veronica that it was quite expensive — $30 for the two of us, earning an “are you kidding me?” look in response.

“Five or six years ago, did you ever think you’d be able to do that with your son?” she asked.

She was, of course, correct. Spending Saturday mornings at (if not on) the rink with my son was part of the original plan. I was going to have him on skates as soon as he could walk, just like they do in Canada.

That was not to be our path, not for another six or seven years, anyway. But we’re here now, and it’s glorious. And another thing — the delay has made it that much sweeter. I don’t care if Ryan ever makes an all-star team or plays at some high level. To see the smile on his face when he “beat” me is to see pure joy defined.

It was worth every second of the wait.


Five Seconds of Summer

“5SOS” — slightly big among the tween girl set. With Ryan? Not so much. (Photo from Flickr)

At some point in the journey, every autism parent hears that people on the spectrum “lack empathy.” When our children are still young enough that we don’t know who they will become or how they will develop, we learn that they will likely never understand, or at least struggle to understand, the feelings of others.

Only, it’s not true. As in all things parenting (special needs or otherwise), your mileage may vary — but in my experience people on the spectrum are characterized by a difficulty in verbal expressions of empathy. That doesn’t mean the feelings aren’t there. Not by a long shot.

Saturday night, our backyard. Veronica and I are enjoying a glass of wine on the patio. Ryan and Riley each are begging us to play with them, but we suggest they find a way to play with each other. To our surprise, it works. Soon, they have devised a game that involves Ryan taking a slap shot at a beach ball with a hockey stick. He hits it deep into the backyard and Riley goes running after it. It seems she has to retrieve it by a certain count or Ryan gets a point. Or something like that. They were engaged with each other. That was enough for us.

I recall looking at Ryan lining up his “shot” in the fading daylight and casually remarking “this will end injury,” before heading inside.

Sure enough, a few minutes later Ryan came running into the house in great distress, telling me that Riley was hurt.

I dashed outside to find Riley crumpled in the yard, crying and holding her face. Her tongue was bleeding. Her lip was cut.

As we hustled her inside to get some ice on her fat lip, the story came out. She came upon Ryan just as he was taking his shot, and got smacked in the nose and mouth full-bore with a street-hockey stick. It certainly sounded accidental. Riley did not blame Ryan.

She was lucky — she got away with a couple scratches, a slight black eye, and some bruising on her nose. Nothing more evident than the fat lip.

It didn’t matter that it was an accident, or that Riley wasn’t seriously hurt. Ryan was very upset with himself. He apologized profusely and asked her over and over if she was OK. Searching for something that would make her feel better, he ran to his room.

Soon, a Five Seconds of Summer song was blasting from his computer. Ryan had found their video on YouTube. Riley loves “5SOS” (and if you have tween/early-teen daughters in the house I’m sure you’re familiar with their status as the “it” boy band of the moment.

It was a nice moment, and Riley appreciated it. I think she even managed a smile.

Here’s the thing, though. Ryan hates 5SOS. Like, with a capital H. Ryan is an old soul when it comes to music, and is entirely dismissive of Riley’s taste in modern pop music (hmm, I wonder where he got it from? … Guilty).

For him to seek out and play her favorite music was a tremendous expression of empathy. He was trying to do something that would not only make her feel better, but show what lengths he was willing to go to do so.

Empathy? In spades.

Bonding – Without Speaking

Ryan on the subway

On our way to Yankee Stadium on Saturday. Ryan’s iPod makes such trips much easier.

I spent much of what was a three-day weekend alone with Ryan. Friday, we went to buy him new skates, went out for pizza lunch, and went for a long walk together.

Saturday we took our second (annual) trip to a Yankees game. We left the house before 11 a.m. and did not return until 6 p.m. On Sunday, we watched more baseball together on TV before my early evening adult-league hockey game. So Ryan, as has become routine, accompanied me to the rink to watch the game, keep stats, call play-by-play and generally critique my play. Apparently I played “OK” but got “undressed” on the first goal. I protested that it was a two-on-one, and I overplayed the shooter, who was his team’s best player. It wasn’t my fault he made the perfect pass for a back-door tap-in. You know what? Never mind. I’m never going to convince him.

Some of our time together was spent engaged in deep conversation — about the nuances of baseball, about how my team should play on Sunday, etc. But there were also long periods of relative silence. Ryan used to struggle with any stretches of downtime. He complained of boredom on even the shortest car ride. Saturday, a pair of 90-minute train and subway trips to and from Yankee Stadium passed without so much as a hint of a problem.

The key is Ryan’s iPod. We bought him one several years ago when he first showed an interest in music, but it went unused until about a year ago when he finally agreed to try it on a car trip. Since then, he rarely agrees to go anywhere in the car without it. These days, he can pass an hour with barely a word, so long as he has his music.

Saturday’s trip into New York was spent largely in silence, interrupted by the occasional question about baseball statistics. As soon as we arrived at the stadium, the iPod went into my pocket. It wasn’t needed. Ryan was fully engaged in the ballgame, tracking every pitch, at-bat and out. He asked a million questions. His need to construct rules to understand a new activity is perfectly suited to a sport like baseball, with its myriad of statistics and where every pitch is an individual, quantifiable event. His brain soaks in such information like a sponge. Despite being a relative baseball newbie, he already understands esoteric concepts like earned vs. unearned runs.

I had to laugh at one of his questions. I was explaining errors — plays on which it is judged that the fielders should have recorded an out but failed to do so, or made some other mistake that allows a runner to advance. I told him that if a run scores as a result of an error, that run is not charged to the pitcher since he is viewed as having done his job but has been let down by his defense, thus creating “unearned” runs.

Ryan nodded, and within seconds asked the one question that I distinctly remember wondering about when I first learned the same concept around his age.

“But what if pitcher is the one who makes the error? Is it still an unearned run?” he asked.

The answer is yes, but I agree, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. I told him the same thing has bothered me since I was a kid. And then I smiled. I love those moments when life offers proof that he and I aren’t so different after all.

On our train ride home, Ryan was deeply engaged in his music. I was browsing Twitter on my phone. Neither of us had spoken for several minutes, which was fine.

Ryan leaned against me, removed his headphones and said something that made me smile, and caused a catch in my throat. I’m pretty sure that at that moment, there was no phrase in the English language that could have made me happier. It served as proof that we don’t need words to bond. We simply need shared experiences and time spent together.

“Dad,” he said. “This was awesome.”

Photo Friday: How We Roll


Walking with Ryan

On a walk with Ryan

Ryan and I were home together the entire day. We were supposed to play pickup ice hockey today but a misplaced helmet (later located) scuttled those plans.

So we instead we ran some errands, went out for a pizza lunch and went to a nearby walking trail for some exercise. Ryan insisted on bringing his iPod, so I brought mine. Together, we banged out a 3.5-mile walk, managing to carry on a pleasant conversation despite the headphones and music.

That’s what I call a full day.

Summer Progress Report

Ryan camp trip to NYC

Catching up with Ryan on his camp outing to New York City.

Ryan doesn’t do subtle. If he wants to tell you something, he just comes out and says it. This creates its share of awkward moments, but on the whole it’s a good thing. Ryan’s pronouncements don’t often require much interpretation.

They also tend to arrive completely out of the blue, current context be damned.

Last night, we were watching a bit of the Major League Baseball All-Star Game when Ryan told me, “Of all the trips we’ve had at this camp, I don’t think there’s been a bad one yet. I really have to say I’m liking this camp.”

It was music to my ears. The day camp Ryan attended the last few years wasn’t perfect. There were occasional issues and complaints from Ryan. But overall, it was a success. So when that camp ceased operations before this summer, we were concerned about finding a suitable replacement.

We ended up putting both kids in a young teens program that involves lots of outings — amusement parks, sporting events, museums, etc. — mixed with days at the local pool. We liked everything we saw and heard at the camp’s open house and in follow-up correspondence about Ryan with the director.

But on day one, we pretty much crossed our fingers, held our breath and hoped for the best. So it was a huge relief to hear Ryan pronounce it a success halfway through a four-week session. He has taken part in every trip and is gradually integrating himself into the other activities. He still talks about difficulty fitting in and worries about “popular kids” — showing the leftover scars from some of his school-year interactions — but he seems to be finding his comfort zone.

Earlier this week, the camp’s day trip took the kids into New York City, very close to my office. I took a chance that I could intercept them on their lunch break at a nearby park. After wandering around for a bit, I spied the group. I saw Ryan first, but he didn’t see or hear me. I caught up to the group right as Riley was walking by. She gave me a casual hello and then went right back to interacting with her friends. Pretty much exactly how I would have reacted at her age.

I moved ahead to catch Ryan. I got a chance to watch him interact with some of his peers. He was clearly in conversation with a couple of the kids. I saw enough to gain the impression that they were including him and welcoming his presence.

When Ryan saw me, he was thrilled. A huge smile crossed his face. “Dad! You came!” he said, grabbing my arm and guiding me to the group of chairs where he and his acquaintances were sitting for lunch.

It was such a sweet moment, a genuine sentiment, issued without regard or consideration to how his peers might view it. I suppose that has both pros and cons, but the memory of it still makes me smile. I think having a child who says what he thinks without concern for how his peers will react — whether driven by calculated choice or by difficulty interpreting how one is viewed by others — is probably a net positive.

I stayed for a few minutes before heading back to work and leaving both kids to company of their friends, boosted by the knowledge that for all our fears about a change in routine, camp seems to be working out. Sure, there are a few bumps in the road, but my son can’t fake happiness any more than he can hide his displeasure. His mood when he saw me told me all I needed to know.