I have to remind myself to appreciate Ryan’s gifts — the things he not only does better than average, but extraordinarily well.
It is hard, especially when he struggles. We spent part of Sunday at the town pool. For some reason, Ryan decided this summer that he no longer really enjoys being in the water. This is a bit of a concern, especially since we have another beach vacation planned for later in the summer.
At the pool, he usually occupies himself at the rec center. They have a Nok Hockey table and he often plays with other boys. He also often plays by himself, recreating some NHL game in his head, playing both sides of the table, providing the play-by-play at excessive volume, and keeping track of the stats with elaborate, hand-written box scores.
As you might imagine, this draws stares and quizzical looks. We check in on him from time to time, wanting to intervene, and if we’re being completely honest, wishing he would play in a more normal manner.
But he is happily occupied, and not asking to go home every five minutes. We enjoy some quiet time reading at a table by the pool while Riley is off playing in the water with friends. Every so often Ryan will materialize at our table, proudly displaying the stat sheet from his latest game and asking for food, or money for food, or “how many minutes until we go home?”
It is another of the many situations where we find ourselves torn between giving Ryan the space to do what makes him happy and pushing him outside of his comfort zone. In the end, we compromise. Veronica and I take turns popping into the rec center, encouraging him to play an actual game with another kid while we are there. We know he will go back to his own game as soon as opportunity presents, but it’s at least proof that he can play appropriately with other kids (and without making a million rules to turn a routine game of Nok Hockey into an approximation of an actual NHL game) even if it’s not his first choice. In this, I take at least partial satisfaction and rationalize allowing the rest by acknowledging that it makes him happy.
I think back to Saturday. I took both kids ice skating. We wanted Ryan to get back on the ice to see how he would do. We plan on him playing hockey again this fall but have chosen not to pursue year-round leagues, clinics and camps. He did quite well, barely taking a break during the 90-minutes session. Riley rested every couple of laps and stormed off any time she fell as Ryan happily weaved through the crowd.
Unlike other public skating sessions, Ryan did not act out an imaginary NHL game, cutting towards the net, pretending to shoot, and announcing — loudly — his “goals.” This was a pleasant surprise. Another: any time a child fell near him, Ryan skated right up to ask if they were OK. This was something entirely new and I don’t know where it came from. But it was a conscious decision on his part; When we got home he proudly told Veronica how he had tried to help anyone that fell down.
I was still thinking about both the pool and the ice rink when we got home Sunday afternoon. Ryan bugged me to play street hockey with him behind the house. I stalled for a few minutes while he went to prepare the “rink.”
When I came outside, the patio was marked up in sidewalk chalk with a blue line and a goal crease in front of the net. Ryan started his turn in goal and I fired a few pucks his way. Before we began the “game,” I insisted we practice a few things. I had a motive beyond making him a better street hockey player: to crack the rigidity that always governs these games. I knew once we started he would not only keep track of the score, but of each of our save percentages as well (he does this in his head, on the fly, keeping a running total for each of us throughout a game in which we each took 30-plus shots).
A few minutes of “practice” proves to me that Ryan can break out of his routines — just as seeing him play actual games of Nok Hockey proves he can interact appropriately with other kids even if it’s not his first choice.
I know that the remarkable abilities of focus and calculation required for him to keep track of running statistical totals will eventually serve him well in some pursuit. Well, deep down I know it anyway. To say I always appreciate it in the moment would be a stretch. But something else that happened in our game that reminded me of just how unique Ryan’s powers of observation are.
This is child that appears distracted and withdrawn if the activity is not one of his choosing. But you put him in sweet spot — anything involving hockey — and not only is he NOT detached, but he is hyper-focused with a laser-like intensity.
When it was my turn in goal I happened to look down. I noticed that of all the chalk lines drawn on the patio, only the one across the goal line was red. Red of course is the color of the goal line on an actual NHL rink. I asked Ryan if he had done it on purpose but I knew the answer. Then I asked him why the blue line wasn’t actually blue. Before he answered, I put it together. While I was resting inside before our game and he prepared, he kept popping inside to ask if I knew where the chalk was. I insisted it was on the patio table but still he kept asking.
Now I understood why. He found the chalk, but not the blue, so he settled for another color after I failed to give the solution.
This small detail was a good sign, and I smiled at the knowledge. In the midst of this rigid activity, Ryan had done two positive things. He had allowed us to have some unstructured practice time, but more importantly he had allowed the game to go forward even when he couldn’t find the color he needed to make a “blue” line. A little thing, to be sure, but a little victory. He isn’t always able to handle even minor alterations to his plans, and it can easily lead to a meltdown. This time, he gave up, used a different color and focused on the bigger prize — that we would get to play the game. Even if the blue line was the wrong color.
Ryan’s eye for detail is remarkable, and something I try to appreciate. His willingness to overlook it is something I celebrate.