Like many children on the autism spectrum, Ryan will occasionally say inappropriate things, either asking questions that are too personal (age is a common one) or off-base. He struggles with linear thought — everything must be black or white, shades of gray need not apply — and the complexities of back-and-forth social interaction.
Sometimes things come out funny because he sees the world literally (“Let’s go lower case!” at a Washington Capitals game comes to mind). Then there was the time he suggested to a street hockey teammate’s father that he “throw his little hat” onto the gym floor because his son had scored a hat trick.
The man was wearing a yarmulke.
Like many parents of children on the autism spectrum, we have practiced social interactions with Ryan to prepare him for play dates or other social settings.
When both kids had a chance to meet an NHL player a few years ago, we worked with Ryan to come up with an appropriate question. Rather than ask the player about minutia of the NHL standings — one of Ryan’s major areas of expertise — we suggested instead that he could ask about how it felt to get booed on the road or what it was like to score a big goal. Ryan still wanted to ask about standings, but we persuaded him that the player would much rather talk about something in the game and that he probably didn’t know the standings anywhere near as well as Ryan did.
Riley? We didn’t worry about her. She’s a bubbly, outgoing, social kid. She could ask whatever she wanted, we were sure it wouldn’t be an issue.
Besides, my kids know a lotabout hockey. They understand the game, they know the teams and the star players. They know the slang, like how you say a team that is out of the playoffs is “golfing for the summer.” Ryan had even been known to get out a broom to celebrate a playoff sweep.
Both kids were excited to meet the player, Chris Higgins, who was kind enough to spend some time with a group of curious kids. His team had missed the playoffs and he was doing some interviews about the ongoing postseason. I dropped the kids off with the group and went about my day.
A few hours later, whispers started making their way around the office, and they were not good ones.
“Did you hear what one of the kids asked Chris Higgins?”
My heart sunk. My worst fears were about to be realized. Not only had Ryan asked an inappropriate question, but he probably been laughed at and embarrassed in the process.
I just wanted to gather my kids and leave when someone else approached me.
“Hey Neil, isn’t Riley your daughter?”
I confirmed that the adorable, jersey-wearing little girl with the dog ears and the impish grin was indeed my child.
“What did she say?” I asked, greatly relieved that Ryan was not the child in question.
As it turns out, all the scripting and practice time we had spent preparing Ryan for his big moment with an NHL player were unnecessary. He asked a simple question about Higgins’ time in the playoffs. No controversy. No laughter. No embarrassment.
My daughter? She politely raised her hand and when called upon, she asked this of an NHL player whose team had just missed out on a chance to compete for the Stanley Cup:
“How does it feel to know that you’re golfing while everyone else is in the playoffs?”
Thankfully, Higgins was a good sport about it. After the laughter died down, he told Riley “It feels pretty bad.”
Every time we see Higgins on TV, we have a laugh about it, and Riley turns bright red at the memory. I just use the story to remind me that for all the focus we put on our special needs kids, sometimes we forget that all kids have their moments, and when they open their mouths, you just never know what’s going to come out.