You Can’t Judge a Book by Its Cover

I have a few bad habits including making snap judgments about people.

OK, so Veronica might come up with a few others.

I consider myself a pretty good judge of character, and I’m able to adjust when my instincts steer my wrong, but I still tend to make instant assumptions about people before really getting to know them. Sometimes I would really be better served by giving people a chance.

Ryan’s first hockey season on a real team has gone better than expected. I could not ask for a better or more understanding coach, and his teammates have been exceptional.

Ryan Hustles
Ryan (#26) hustles back on defense.

I always have my guard up when watching Ryan in social situations, listening for slights and preparing to intervene. But every time he enters the locker room, his teammates greet him warmly, include him in conversations, even tease him the same way they tease each other — in a way that shows acceptance, not bullying.

All this despite Ryan being far behind the other kids socially. He’s also the least talented player on the team. Not so much that he’s a hindrance, but he finishes last in most drills and in the games, he has the occasional shift where he mostly gets in the way. Still, I have been at every practice and game, with him in the locker room (he needs help getting dressed at an age when that is becoming rare — another issue that could bring teasing but never has) and watching from rink-side, and I have never heard a negative comment directed his way.

That doesn’t mean I don’t brace for them. It’s a defense mechanism hat has built up over the years of watching him struggle to fit in with kids his age.

I tend to stand by myself at the games or if Veronica is with me, sit apart from the other parents. We both sometimes cringe when Ryan’s coach sticks to his preseason pledge to play everyone equally and sends Ryan’s line out in a critical game situation, hoping that he won’t make a key mistake while cheering a coach who gets that this is a house league.

The parents on our team get it, too. They want to see their kids develop, play well, have fun. Winning is great, but isn’t over-emphasized — which is good, because the team has only who twice all year. Some close losses have been to teams whose coaches have “shortened the bench,” or played their best players exclusively late in games.

There was only one parent on our team, Mr. B, who seemed a little too wrapped up in his son’s performance. I pictured him as the type of father that might pay his kid $20 for every Little League home run. Mr. B was the one parent I’d suspect of saying something about Ryan after a mistake.

Oops, there goes my habit of making snap judgements. I should know better by now.

Ryan’s best attribute as a player is that he really understands the game and is almost always in the right position. Kids his age still struggle with offsides, but not Ryan — he is always on the correct side of the blue line. He usually tries hard and always listens to his coach about when to get off the ice. But there are times when he observes more than participates. He lacks aggression needed to compete for loose pucks, and sometimes watches opponents go right by him.

A few games ago, Ryan was having one of his better outings. He was aggressive, and moved the puck to the right player. On one shift he made several strong defensive plays, even blocked a shot.

I was standing closer to the other parents at this game, but still by myself. It thrilled me to see Ryan playing so well, doing the little things that a player of his skill level could do to help his team.

I cheered him as he headed to the bench for a change, and in doing so inadvertently made eye contact with Mr. B.

“That was a really good shift for Ryan, maybe his best one of the year,” he yelled to me.

It was genuine — and accurate — praise. Not at all patronizing. And this was the parent I was worried?

I mumbled something in reply. I was thrilled someone else had seen what I’d seen, happy that the acceptance Ryan was shown by teammates extended to their parents, and disappointed in myself for prejudging.

I still worry about the culture of youth sports and how it affects a kid like Ryan. Participation on a regular team has so many potential benefits for a child like mine: coordination, strength, cooperation, self-confidence, social advancement. But none of that works if the coach, parents and other kids don’t create the right atmosphere.

I don’t know what the other kids see in Ryan. I don’t know if the coach has told them about his challenges, as I’ve been very open with the coach.

All I know is what I observe (and not prejudge). I see acceptance and encouragement. Maybe we’re just lucky to have fallen in with a particularly understanding group.

Either way, I’m going to try and do better about making snap judgements about kids, coaches and parents. I’ll always have my guard up to protect Ryan — but I need to learn to expect the good in people along with the bad.

Ed. Note: Autism Speaks has an excellent post (excerpted below) on the benefits of exercise for people on the autism spectrum. I found this paragraph on team sports particularly applicable in our case. I urge any of you whose kids have expressed an interest in sports to give team sports a try, and I am happy to discuss our experiences with you. Reach out through the comments or via email.

Besides improving fitness, motor function, and behavior in individuals with autism, among the most important advantages of physical activity are the social implications of participating in sports and exercise. Physical activity can promote self-esteem, increase general levels of happiness, and can lead to positive social outcomes, all highly beneficial outcomes for individuals with autism. For those with autism who are able to participate in team sports, this presents an opportunity to develop social relationships among teammates and learn how to recognize the social cues required for successful performance on the field or court. However, individuals that prefer individual sports such as running or swimming that do not rely as heavily on social cues may still benefit from the positive attributes of physical activity while forming social relationships with coaches or trainers. In all cases, participating in sports provides individuals with autism with a role in society that may not have existed otherwise.

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9 thoughts on “You Can’t Judge a Book by Its Cover

  1. Great post. I was, even as you were, bracing for the other shoe to drop. . . and you gave me a happy ending. Who ARE you? I thought you said you were a Caps fan. But somehow you’re NOT evil? *shakes head*

    I think one of the things that I’ve realized is that the more open I am with others the more accepting they are of Lily. I think it’s easy for people to judge the kids of parents they don’t know. They have that emotionless screen of anonymity to hide behind. It’s hard for me to open up to people (not online for some reason, but in person). But I find out that when I leave my comfort zone and engage other parents and share some of Lily’s challenges with them, they’re SO much more understanding than they are when I just hang back and wait for “the look”.

    It’s good for ME too.

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    1. See – you prejudged me!

      To be fair, I prejudge most Pens fans, too.

      You make a great point about openness leading to understanding. I struggle with it too — I’m not looking for sympathy, just understanding. But I have always been open with coaches and it has usually served us well. One or two weren’t really sure what to do with the information, but I think once they got to know my son and realize he wasn’t going to be a huge behavioral distraction, they tended to treat him just like the other kids.

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  2. Great post. I think that most youth sports are getting better about reaching out and being more inclusive than the way things were when we were young. (Yeah I hear you say something about how many more years that was for me then you!) However there will always the “those” parents and we can only hope that the parents that “get it” will help in educating or flat out telling them that bad behavior won’t be tolorated. I know the youth agencies I used worked for asked parents to leave if they did not comply with the Parents Behavior Pledge. And I honestly loved banning some of “those Parents/Aunts/Uncles” from the games. I believe in competition, but I loved the “Everyone Plays/Everyone Wins” more. There is enough time for competition in our lives.

    When Ryan was first diagnosed I was so afraid that sports was going to be taken off the table as a family activity. And that would have been such a horrible blow for both you and Veronica. I am always thrilled to hear about hockey, soccer, gymastics, etc… from the kids. I do really try not to be “That Loud Aunt” at the games. But I am a little protective over the kids. However Victoria’s threats still work on me. I hope to get up to see Ryan play sometime soon before the season is over.

    BTW – Hang in there this weekend…and get a nap if possible.

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