Yesterday, for the first time, Ryan took the ice as a high-school hockey player as the team began on-ice practice for the upcoming season.
There were so many points on this autism journey when I thought that would never be possible. Dreams of watching my son play competitive team sports were lost in the early fog of fear and confusion. Even after some of the fear subsided and life stabilized into a “new normal,” I never dared to dream that team sports, let alone at the high school level, might still be a part of Ryan’s future. There were just too many obstacles. The challenges ran from the sensory (Ryan initially couldn’t tolerate skates or a helmet and facemask) to the behavioral (paying attention to instructions from the coach and following along with multi-step drills) to the developmental (simply learning to put on all the equipment in the proper order and tie his own skates was a task years in the making) to the social (keeping up and feeling comfortable in a locker room full of neurotypical adolescent boys).
Not all the challenges were Ryan’s. I had to learn to let go. To let go of preconceived fears about coaches and parents and a youth sports culture that wasn’t built for kids like Ryan. To let go of the need to constantly intervene and allow him to get his needs met on his own.
Along the way, we were supported in this journey by programs with the proper mind-set and coaches who welcomed Ryan with open arms, tolerating whatever quirks he showed while learning to use his strengths — an awareness and hockey IQ beyond his years, sharpened by thousands of hours of NHL game-viewing — as an asset on his various teams. Yesterday Ryan stood on a foundation that so many had a hand in building when he took the ice.
At some point that typical father-son dream, that of a dad watching his son compete in the same sports he did, comes full circle. It was a dream I held before I had kids. It was strengthened when I learned I would have a son, forgotten when life took an unexpected turn on the autism spectrum, resurrected when my son expressed a desire to play my favorite sport, and, at some point, normalized as he continued to put one obstacle after another into the rear-view mirror.
An autism diagnosis is an incredibly disruptive force. It throws everything into chaos. It makes mincemeat of the best-laid parental plans. But as scary and confusing as it can be to absorb the news of that diagnosis, it’s important to recognize that it does not mean that there is a predetermined outcome for your child. Those dreams you held that you probably forgot about at some point early on? That diagnosis does not make them invalid.
Ryan was excited about yesterday, sure, but I’m not sure he saw anything remarkable about it. He’s a hockey player. He worked hard to reach this point. He was ready to put his best effort forward and contribute to the team in whatever way he can.
Veronica and I feel differently. Yesterday was a landmark day. Ryan did something that just a few years ago we never would have thought possible. A dream fulfilled, indeed.