Stickhandling in Place

Watching Ryan at hockey practice one night earlier this week, I came to a realization.

If I had the same drive, desire to improve, and willingness to work that he now shows, I might have been a much better hockey player.

In the last year, Ryan has begun to take his hockey much more seriously. Not that he wasn’t serious before, but he has begun to understand the things he must do to improve. He has learned the meaning of hard work, and pushing himself.

It started with a goal — one he set for himself. When our town formed a middle-school team and entered it into a local league this past spring, Ryan began to look past what was right in front of him. Maybe it was having the town name on the jersey, or the fact that the team was led by the coach of our local high school. Either way, Ryan started to focus on making the high school team. He has another year in middle school to improve enough to reach his goal.

Since he set his goal, he has attacked it with vigor. In addition to his summer hockey clinic, he goes to public skating every Saturday and Sunday, and the occasional weekday. We’ve done stick and puck sessions together. And when some home remodeling took away his backyard street-hockey court, he didn’t pout. Instead, he goes outside and stickhandles in place, eyes up, just as I showed him. He does this several times a day on weekends, in 10- to 15-minute stretches.

And that’s on top of the thousands and push ups and dips he’s done this summer. At the beginning of the summer, he struggled to perform a single full toe push up. These days he does a dozen set of 10. Every day.

At one of our stick and puck sessions, we were taking a breather between drills when I casually suggested a way for him to get more out of his hockey practices. I told him that while he’s waiting in line at his turn for a drill, he should grab a puck and stickhandle in place, making sure to keep his eyes up and not look at the puck. It’s a basic skill, and a critical one. Players who put their heads down when carrying the puck put themselves at risk for huge, potentially concussive, hits.

It’s the kind of little thing that kids who are serious about the sport do to improve on their own. My son is not a naturally gifted athlete. If he’s going to get better, he has to do more than just what the coaches tell him to.

To be honest, it’s the kind of thing I wish I had done more of as a player. I loved playing hockey (and baseball, and football and swimming and any other sports I tried) but I don’t know that I ever truly had the dedication it takes to be more than just OK.

So when I dropped in on practice the other night (did I mention we drop him off now?) and watched him during drills, a smile crossed my face as I saw him grab a puck and work on his stickhandling while waiting in line for his turn. Not once or twice, but every time. I looked closer. His eyes were up, just like I told him. And you know what else? He’s already much better at it.

Focus. An extreme attention to detail. Drive. Willingness to repeat something over and over until it’s perfect.

Those are qualities possessed by a lot of great athletes. They’re also characteristics of autism.

I’m not suggesting my son is headed for a professional career. But I am saying that his particular brain wiring is a strength in the pursuit of becoming the best player he can be.

And I couldn’t be prouder.

Spontaneity Is for Us

MetLife Stadium selfie

Just a nice night out at MetLife. But you and I know it’s bigger than that.

Riley would have been up for the trip. Had Ryan been on board, we might well have spent much of Sunday in the car. But when we floated the idea at breakfast, he was not having it. It’s not that he has an aversion to car trips, he’s actually quite good despite the lack of stimulation.

What Ryan was not having was spontaneity — which I suspect will surprise exactly no one that knows a child on the autism spectrum.

His day was already planned out, and it did not involve a lengthy car trip — even if the payoff would have been the chance to see one of his favorite teams have the opportunity to close out a playoff series in person. He started lining up his reasons.
– From “Spontaneity? Not for Us,” April 23, 2012

Thursday morning, I left for work with no plans other than to finish a busy work week and enjoy a three-day weekend. All that changed when my friend C. offered tickets to that evening’s New York Jets preseason opener. He was unable to use them, and wanted to know if Ryan and I would like to attend.

It was late morning. Ryan was at camp until 4 p.m., so I couldn’t ask him. C. needed to know before then, and if we went, we needed to leave for the stadium by 6. In other words, this was going to be as spontaneous a trip as anything Ryan had ever done.

And Ryan doesn’t really do spontaneous.

At least, Ryan didn’t used to do spontaneous. Last summer, we attended a Yankees game after making up our minds that morning. That outing set a new bar for spontaneity, and was cause for celebration.

I thought about it for a while. I asked Veronica what she thought. She encouraged me to take the tickets. I told C. “yes.”

My phone rang just after 4 p.m. I looked at the caller I.D. — Veronica’s cell. But before I answered, I knew it wasn’t Veronica on the other end. The conversation went something like this:

“Hello?”

“Dad. This is Ryan. I want to go to the Jets game.”

“Awesome. We’re going to have a great time.”

True to form, the next question was about logistics.

“We’re going to leave at 6:15, right?” Ryan asked. He may have been up for a spur-of-the-moment trip, but he still needed the details.

I explained that traffic might be a problem. I was due home at 6 and wanted to leave as soon as possible to give us the best chance to be in our seats for kickoff — something else that has been a major issue at past sporting events. I decided to risk telling him.

“Ryan, we might be a little late,” I said. “I don’t think so, but I don’t know how bad traffic will be. But even if we are, it’s no big deal. It’s just a preseason game.”

It was as if I could hear the gears turning in his head as he hesitated for just a bit before replying.

“That’s OK,” he said. “It’s just preseason.”

I got home, rushed to change quickly, and we were out the door. We hit traffic. He saw the arrival time on the GPS getting closer to kickoff. He kept bringing it up, asking if we were going to be late, before immediately dismissing it before I could respond.

We talked about how long we might stay. He asked if we could leave early if he wanted, again, because it was just preseason. I have no doubt that if it was a regular-season game he wouldn’t even entertain such thoughts.

I assured him it was up to him. We could stay as long as he liked.

We pulled into the lot a couple of minutes before 7. We raced towards the stadium. A large digital display outside MetLife Stadium was counting down the time until kickoff. There were still a few minutes left.

“Dad, we’re going to make it for kickoff, right?”

I told him maybe. We still needed to get through security and find our seats. As it turned out, the gate we entered was right in front of our section, and we set down about 20 seconds before toe met leather to begin the game.

Colts-Jets Kickoff

The Colts and Jets line up for kickoff — and we were there to see it. Not that missing kickoff would have been a big deal…

As he always does, Ryan asked all sorts of questions. He displayed a deft recall of the earlier three Jets games we attended, which left me both pleasantly surprised, and not really the least bit surprised, if you know what I mean. He remembered some of the game’s subtleties that I taught him to look for at previous outings. He asked about the unique aspects of preseason — the frequent substitution, the experimental rules.

The game was dull. Lots of penalties, punts, and snaps over the quarterbacks’ heads. It was a plodding 10-10 tie at halftime, played in front of a sparse, mostly lifeless crowd. It was your basic NFL preseason opener. Ryan was losing interest. At halftime, he asked about leaving early. I didn’t object. We watched a couple of second-half series before leaving late in the third quarter.

Such an unremarkable outing, and such a big deal at the same time. Because you know and I know about Not Little Things, of which this surely qualified.

super moon over MetLife Stadium

Because I’m artsy, I call this one “moon over MetLife”

Veronica brought it up in a text she sent me during the first half.

I was thinking of your “Not little things” theme. Amazing how he so quickly adjusted his plans, got totally on board & was ready to go. So freaking great.

Listening to sports-talk radio on Friday, I had to laugh about Jets fans grumbling about the so-so performance of their team. For me, it was anything but.

Just a spontaneous evening at the game with my boy. Such a little thing and such a big thing at the same time. Like everything, and nothing at all.

Take Me Out to the Ballgame

somerset patriots

It’s a beautiful night for a ballgame in Somerset.

Late Friday afternoon, we found ourselves racing down a New Jersey highway. Well, “racing” is an exaggeration. We were crawling, stuck in bumper-to-bumper weekend getaway traffic. I nervously eyed the clock.

Ryan was due at the ballpark at 5 p.m. for the finale of his week at sports broadcasting camp. He was due to interview players and managers on the field before the Somerset Patriots minor-league baseball game against the Lancaster Barnstormers, then call five innings of play-by-play into a digital recorder.

We were going to be late.

Once, that would have been cause for panic, as Ryan’s anxiety about being late kicked into overdrive. Maybe even very recently. But not on this night. I looked into the rear-view mirror and saw Ryan happily listening to his iPod, the device that has made travelling anywhere in the car markedly easier. He was psyching himself for the upcoming assignment with some classic U2. He was aware of the time. He also wasn’t worried.

He asked a couple of times if we were going to be late. We told him the truth, but assured him that we weren’t the only ones likely stuck in this brutal traffic. We told him he would still be able to conduct his interviews.

We pulled up to the park 10 minutes late. Ryan and I dashed for the gate, spying one of the leaders of the camp, Brooklyn Nets play-by-play announcer Ian Eagle. He greeted Ryan and they walked inside. I called after Ryan to tell him we’d see him at the start of the game in two hours.

No big deal, right? Except it was a huge deal, on so many levels. His willingness to embrace baseball represented a broadening of his horizons that was once difficult to achieve. He studied diligently. He asked me about stats. He learned the rosters of the Patriots and Barnstormers. He practiced calling play-by-play over major league highlights from MLB.com.

Veronica and I went off to dinner, where we toasted what had just occurred — dropping Ryan off, with no panic about being late, at a baseball game that was still two hours away, at the end of a highly successful week at camp. A camp where Ryan was one of the youngest attendees. Where he knew only one other camper, who was in a different part of the program. Where he had jumped into a completely new experience without many of the supports that are typically built-in to his school experience. And he was thriving.

We ate a pleasant meal before returning to the park about 6:30. The camp arranged for a block of tickets one section over from where the campers sat in a large group, all calling the game into their recorders.

He told me about his interviews and said he was ready for the game. Veronica and I settled into our seats for date night at the ballpark.

The game was slow. Like, really slow, as the Lancaster pitcher struggled to get anyone out. The first two innings took an hour. We worried that Ryan was getting bored. But every time I looked over to his section, I saw him animatedly chatting away into the recorder. I could tell he was still engaged.

We checked in with him once or twice more, but mostly left him alone and tried to enjoy the game.

The assignment was to call five innings of play-by-play. As soon as the last out was recorded in the bottom of the fifth, we went over to collect him and found him already packing up his bags. The assignment was complete. He was ready to go.

As he packed up, I found Mr. Eagle. I thanked him for having Ryan at the camp and said that he’d had a wonderful week. He indicated that he thought Ryan had enjoyed it. As we shook hands, he pointed back at the pack of kids, some still calling the game and said, “This part? He was really good. I mean, really good.”

I could tell he meant it. I thanked him again, gathered Ryan, and we were off.

I had an idea to play Ryan’s recording through the car speakers on the drive home. Ryan shrugged and put his iPod back on.

As we pulled out of the parking lot, Ryan’s voice came on, strong and confident.

Somerset Patriots, just about to enter the field. Now, with the best first half, the Somerset Patriots have already clinched, but for the Barnstomers, they need to win this game. …

The best player on Somerset has been Corey Smith, has it? Well, you bet it’s been Corey Smith. He’s had 10 home runs, 51 RBIs, third in batting average. And he’s been one of the best players, been up at bat 296 times, he’s only struck out 37 times. He’s had 88 hits, 22 second bases [doubles]. Another player, big, it’s going to be Johnny Tucker, and he’s batting first for Somerset. Tucker only a .247 batting average. He’s played 78 of the 98 games now. He has 27 home runs and 37 runs batted in. And quick feet, actually, 13 stolen bases for Somerset, so he’s a huge reason as well.

He was, in a word, fantastic.

Veronica and I kept exchanging glances. The unspoken exchanges, of which we’ve had many, said “do you believe this?”

He was engaging, and engaged. He was funny. He displayed a deft knowledge of baseball, all learned in the past couple of weeks. He correctly called a sacrifice fly. He used what he had been taught about repeating the score and recapping the game periodically. He did his own commercials. At times, he had a conversation with himself, playing the role of both play-by-play and color announcers. At this I had to laugh. Ryan seeks realism in everything he does. He studied by listening to MLB games, where there are always two announcers. He didn’t have a partner for this broadcast, so he was his own partner. He’s nothing if not resourceful.

We kept turning to the back seat to tell him how proud we were. Proud of him for trying something new. Proud of him for embracing the assignment and doing his best. Proud of his effort to study and learn the subject.

It took us almost an hour to get home. On the recording, Ryan was still going strong. I looked down at the recorder. The track was TWO HOURS long.

My son, the one with attention and focus issues.

The one who rarely embraced anything new.

The one who once couldn’t find room to follow any sport besides hockey, because he’s a hockey guy and to follow another sport would be like cheating on his first love.

That one.

Had just called a baseball game.

For two hours.

Without a break.

I spent the next day figuring out how to transfer the recording to my computer. When I can figure out how to scrub it of a few personal details, I will share it here.

We have learned, during this parenting journey, to celebrate little things (which of course aren’t little at all). But that comes with a small price. I never want to short my son of his full potential by only celebrating his mere participation. Yes, just making it through the door of this camp was a sign of progress, and a cause for celebration.

But Ryan did so much more than that. He embraced the opportunity. He worked at it. He enjoyed himself. And he was GOOD AT IT. It’s OK to celebrate making it in the front door. But I never want to do so at the cost of recognizing how much more was achieved.

Ryan is making a habit of turning the surprising into the routine. Yes, there are still plenty of bumps in the road, and those aren’t going away. But I am so proud of the person he is becoming and of the way he embraces life, pursuing the things he’s interested in with an intensity that leaves me jealous.

“Hockey talker” is one of the few occupations Ryan has ever expressed interest in. Maybe I once thought it was far-fetched.

I don’t think so anymore.

Just a Bit Outside

Ryan does play-by-play

Ryan prepares to do play-by-play of a minor-league baseball game.

I had big plans for this morning’s post, but then my train showed up minus a car, meaning no place to sit, meaning no place to blog. So you’ll have to make do with a teaser. The photo is of Ryan at a minor-league baseball game Friday night, sitting with his peers from a one-week sports broadcasting camp. This assignment was the camp finale — calling play-by-play for five innings of the game into a personal recorder, after conducting pregame interviews on the field. Ryan was ready — he studied all week to learn the players’ names and stats. He committed various broadcast techniques to memory (give the score every 90 seconds, recap for listeners every few minutes how the game arrived at this point, etc.).

And you know what? He was awesome. To say I’m proud of him is an understatement. A big one.

More on the camp later this week, but for now, here’s an article from today’s Wall Street Journal on the program (click on the image to read):

Camp writeup in the Wall Street Journal

Ryan’s camp was written up in today’s Wall Street Journal

Pass the Telescope

First Time Skating

Ryan’s first time skating. It doesn’t just feel like a lifetime ago. It was.

Autism has taught me many lessons. It has forced me to think critically about all aspects of my parenting style. It has led me to always have a plan — and to always be ready to change it. But more than anything, it has taught me to appreciate small moments and little victories. It has taught me to try to live with a hyper focus on the present while trying not to look too far ahead to the future. I try to compare Ryan’s progress only to Ryan, and not to Riley or his peers. What can he do today, this month, this year that he couldn’t yesterday, last month, last year? That is how I try to measure progress (with varying degrees of success, I’ll admit).

In short, I try to look at life more through a microscope, drilling down on the tiniest details of what’s right in front of us, and less through a telescope, focused on some faraway goal that we may or may not reach.
– From “Microscopes vs. Telescopes,” May, 15, 2013

I wrote those words a little over a year ago, and I still believe them.

But you know what?

Sometimes a telescopic worldview can be real useful, too.

Much like a relative who visits occasionally and immediately notices incredible change in your kids that you might have missed (because you’re with them every day), it can be helpful to step back from time to time and assess where you are.

Not only where you are, but how far you’ve come.

Sometimes the change happens so rapidly that it becomes normalized before you even realize what’s occurring.

When it comes to his independence, Ryan barely resembles the person he was last fall. At the start of the last school year, he and Riley asked to attend public ice skating sessions almost every Friday night, as that is a go-to activity for the middle-school set in our town.

For the first couple of months, either Veronica or I would take them and sit in the lobby for the entire session. Sometimes we went together, joking about how it was the highlight of our weekly social calendar.

We didn’t think we had a choice. We didn’t think Ryan could handle the responsibilities — paying, tying his skates, following rules, etc. — needed to navigate the sessions completely by himself.

We were wrong.

He was fine. He occasionally ran afoul of the skate guards — just like most of the other boys. But once he learned to tie his skates on his own, he really didn’t need us. He got on the ice and skated until the session ended. For Riley, just like her peers, it was a more social experience. She skated some, she chatted some. She went to the snack bar. She gossiped with friends.

We realized pretty quickly that they didn’t need us. After a few months, we tried a drop-off. We let Riley handle the money. It’s not that Ryan couldn’t handle it, he just hadn’t ever had any interest in doing so and was lacking in experience. But Veronica was working with him, making him order and pay for his pizza slices after social group.

One of us would get back to the rink a few minutes before the session ended to pick them up. And other than the occasional forgotten water bottle, or complaints about obnoxious middle-school boy behavior, there weren’t any issues.

Ryan continues to go skating over the summer. He doesn’t care who else is there. Without her friends, Riley has no interest. So a few weeks ago, I took him.

And I dropped him off.

With money.

Outside the rink.

And two hours later, I picked him up.

And it was no big deal, you know? He had everything. He even had the change. He remembered to text me to find out where I was picking him up.

Except that you and I know better. It was a big deal. It was a Not Little Thing.

Only I didn’t notice what had happened until he did it again the following week. After the second consecutive issue-free, drop-off and pick-up, pay-your-own-way and don’t-forget-your-change skating session, I mentioned it to Veronica.

“Can you believe it?”

She had been thinking about the same thing. About how far he had come — or maybe he was there all along and it was us that made the progress?

I’m not really sure. I was too caught up viewing life through a microscope. But it doesn’t really matter, because the telescopic view shows just how far we’ve come.