Ryan starts street hockey next week, playing on a team in our town league. This will be his fourth year playing, and to look back, we have come a long way.
Ryan’s first year in street hockey was his first-ever experience being on a team, and that came with its own set of challenges. We had to teach him about winning and (mostly) losing as a team. That it was not all right to say in front of your teammates “they wouldn’t have scored if the coach had let me play longer.” We had to teach him to wear a mouth guard. We had to get him to realize that crying when his team started losing was not an acceptable response. (Even if the game became a “butt-kick.”)
Back before the first season started, Veronica and I debated whether to have “the talk” with Ryan’s coach. We weren’t sure if it was the right thing to do to tell him about Ryan’s diagnosis and challenges. We worried the coach would be intimidated and would not want to work with Ryan.
In the end, I pulled the coach aside before the first game and had a quick chat with him. In retrospect, it was the right thing to do. We have gotten better at it with each successive sports season, and it has always proven to be the right decision.
Here’s the email Veronica sent this year’s street hockey coach:
Thanks so much for sending the email. My son Ryan is a BIG hockey fan. In fact, our whole family loves hockey … we are Devils’ season ticket holders (sad about Parise leaving) and Ryan’s entire life revolves around the sport.
I wanted to reach out to you to tell you a little about Ryan. He is diagnosed on the autism spectrum, very mildly affected, and also has ADHD. He is in a regular education classroom and is able to follow instructions very well. We don’t anticipate him being an issue for you at all. At times, it may seem that he is not listening to you as he really doesn’t make a lot of eye contact, but I guarantee you that if it is about hockey, he is listening!
If you have any questions or concerns at all, both my husband and I are very open to speaking to you about Ryan’s diagnosis and issues.
Unfortunately, we have a conflict and won’t be able to come to the first practice. I’m very sorry about this as I know it is important.
We look forward to meeting you at the first game. Please let me know if we need to know anything in advance of the game.
Thanks again for volunteering. We look forward to a lot of fun!
As we have gotten more comfortable discussing Ryan’s diagnosis, these sorts of interactions have gotten easier. Whereas we used to hesitate to tell people who would be working with Ryan about his challenges for fear of a negative reaction, now we are confident that it is the right thing to do to be the best possible advocates for our son.
Truth is, we also hesitated to tell people because we were uncomfortable talking about it. Learning to accept Ryan’s diagnosis was a years-long process with many phases. In the early years, I almost felt that if I didn’t talk about it, his challenges didn’t exist. I was not embarrassed of my son, but I was very uncomfortable acknowledging his differences and found it very painful to discuss. The concept of needing to be an advocate in settings beyond an IEP meeting had not yet set in.
I’m happy to report that we have gotten better at the advocacy part.
I’m also happy to report that the reaction from coaches has been terrific. This year’s coach called and suggested an in-person meeting so Ryan could be comfortable with him and so Ryan could meet his son, also on the team.
I thanked him profusely but I’m sure he has no idea of how much that little gesture, of making the extra effort to meet Ryan and make him comfortable, means to us. I’m looking forward to our conversation. We’ll talk about Ryan, sure, but we’ll also just talk about hockey. He told me he’s been a fan for 35 years and he and his son watch games together all the time. I told him I’m sure we’re all going to be fast friends.
I can’t speak for other families, but for us, exposure to team sports has been nothing but a net positive for Ryan. Playing sports helps him in so many ways, both physically and socially. It also boosts his self-confidence. It’s not without rocky moments, but the volunteer coaches we have worked with have been wonderfully accommodating and in some cases have become good friends.
For those wondering whether they should have “the talk” with your child’s coach, again, I can only speaks to our personal situation. For us, it is quite obviously the right thing to do, especially as we focused more on what was the best thing for Ryan and not necessarily us. Several incidents over the years have taught us the need to put advocacy for Ryan first, and we are much more comfortable doing so now, even if it means talking about things that are personally uncomfortable for us.