Navigating life with a child on the autism spectrum often requires leaving outings and events after the bare minimum time spent. You see your child struggling — with the noise, the crowd, the group activity, with anything that falls outside their routine — and you exercise your predetermined escape plan.
Sunday, Ryan and I left the house at 8:20 a.m. We returned at 5 p.m. — no escape plans needed.
In between? Hockey practice, tailgating, and the New York Jets game, back-to-back-to-back. It may not sound like much, but not to me. Ryan was amazing. He proudly showed off his new Jets shirt to other fans. He was patient. He was engaged. He was social. He tried new things. He overcame some longstanding issues. He loved the game, insisting we stay to the last snap of a 35-9 blowout for the Jets.
The day was such a gift for this football-loving dad, best summed up in a text I sent Veronica when she checked to see how tailgating was going:
The outdoors thing bugged him but he fought thru it. He played cornhole and we tossed the football. I am in heaven.
The “outdoors thing” to which I referred is Ryan’s recent (over the last year) unwillingness to eat or drink anything, not even a bite or a sip, outside. He has developed a serious bug phobia and worries that if he eats outdoors, a bug will somehow wind up in his mouth.
Knowing this, and knowing that tailgating was part of the plan for Sunday, we prepped him over the weekend. We told him there are no bugs this time of year. We told him our host, my friend C., would be bringing some of his new favorite foods — steak and burgers — to grill. We told him this is what football fans do.
Ryan doesn’t do anything halfway. When he decides he’s interested in something, he’s interested all the way. That was the difference between this football outing and the last one. This one was Ryan’s idea, having recently decided he would adopt the Jets as his favorite team. He studied the standings. He asked me questions about the divisions and how the playoffs worked. He began to ask about game strategy and some of the Jets’ best players. He rooted against their rivals any time he saw them on TV.
And so when we told him that football fans tailgate at football games, so too would he tailgate. We played catch. He didn’t insist on turning it into a hockey game, like he had at the beach. When C., a seasoned tailgater, showed up with his Jets cornhole board, Ryan quickly mastered the scoring and wanted to play. I suggested we play best-of-seven, a format he’s familiar with from hockey, but he insisted each turn would be one “quarter” of a four-quarter game. We were at a football game, after all.
When the steaks were ready, Ryan looked around nervously but ate anyway. I knew it was hard for him, but I think he wanted to do what was expected of football fans, so he ate. He stopped after a few bites and refused a burger, but this was still progress, not only in overcoming a fear but in wanting to assimilate. Plus, the boy likes his steak and C. is quite the grill master.
Despite all the success to this point, I wasn’t 100% sure about the game. NFL games run three-plus hours and are full of television timeouts where everyone stands around waiting for commercials to end so the game can resume. I did my best to prep Ryan for all the breaks but I wasn’t sure if the game would maintain his interest.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. Not only was he interested, he was engaged. He cheered appropriately. He asked questions. He paid attention to the fate of the Jets’ rivals on the out-of-town scoreboard.
Football is an immensely complicated game that can make little sense to the uninitiated. So I picked four or five things for him to focus on. I showed him the down-and-distance scoreboard. I pointed out the first-down marker on the field. I taught him how to pick out the referee — who announces the penalties — from the other officials (he alone wears a white hat). We even talked about how to predict run and pass plays and what constituted a “win” for the offense or defense on a given play. He discovered the stats on the scoreboard and decided on his favorite — time of possession.
Sometime in the third quarter he told me, “Dad, all the breaks don’t seem that long. They don’t bother me at all.” Chalk up another win.
As the game grew out of reach and the stands began to empty, I asked Ryan if he wanted to leave. The answer was a definitive “no” each time. After the third or fourth “no,” I stopped asking, instead telling him I don’t like to leave games early either, no matter the score.
As we exited the stadium with the remaining fans, Ryan whooped it up with the other Jets revelers. He told me to drive home quickly — not because he was worried about traffic or sick of football, but because he wanted to get home in time to watch the Patriots play the Seahawks. He needed the Patriots to lose to benefit the Jets, after all.
As that game wound down, Ryan celebrated the Seahawks comeback win. He had one more thing to tell me.
“Dad, Sunday is going to be my football day.”
Music to my ears.
Many thanks to C. for offering the tickets, hosting the tailgate, and welcoming Ryan into the fraternity of Jets fans. I wasn’t sure how to feel about the Jets jersey he brought for me to wear but it was David Harris, a fellow Wolverine. Very considerate of him.
Also, welcome new readers here courtesy of the Autism Speaks Facebook page. I hope you find something worth your while and will stick around.