autism,  exercise,  motherhood

Leaps of Faith

I don’t have any pictures from J’s preschool “all sports class.” It was an OT nightmare, he couldn’t walk one foot in front of another on a line. Jump with both feet off the ground, and all the other “basic” skills you needed to get to the more “advanced” ones. Understanding basic soccer skills was confusing. The whole class was a stress case for Steve and me. I’m not sure if we ever finished the class. I’m pretty sure we dropped out after the third time. It was so hard for J–the coordination, the over stimulation, the unfamiliar place. Just not a great class for an overstimulated little autistic boy.

Signing up a child with autism in a new extra-curricular activity—especially a sport–is a very stressful experience. I can’t just look at the Fargo Parks and Rec catalogue and say, “baseball would be fun,” fill out the registration and send off the cheque. There’s a lot of stewing and agonizing, questions to consider like: “Are we doing this because J wants it or because as parents we want it?” “Will the teachers in the class be accommodating and understating of J’s special needs?” “Will the kids in the group/activity be accepting of J” “Will J be distracting or hinder the learning of the other kids in the group” “Does J have the physical/emotional skills to manage the class?” “Are there enough adults in the activity to help manage the group and J?”

J’s only done a two years of swimming. Swimming was also challenging. He had sensory issues getting his face wet. Luckily he had VERY small class sizes both times. The second year, in fact, it was just J and W in the class. It was pretty much private lessons, and J’s instructor was phenomenal with him.

None of these questions ever have a straight yes or no answer when we first take the plunge, which is why deciding to sign J up for a new activity is so hard and stressful. Every single extra-curricular class we’ve signed J up for—the preschooler “all sports class”, the swimming lessons, the Fargo Parks and Recs Baseball league, even cross country and track—I still can remember every stressful moment of all of those decisions and experiences, the doubt I felt signing J up for an activity with “typically developing kids” when J not only struggles with the autism/social/emotional part of these activities but basic physical coordination too. Some of the experiences turn out great, and some of them don’t.

The harsh reality is that there will never be a group activity or class out there that will fit perfectly with J’s needs. We just have to figure out how to make it work best for him and keep our expectations fluid.

This week I took the plunge and signed up J for a summer weight training class.  It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a while; I just didn’t know how to go about it. J, like a lot of kids with autism, has poor coordination skills and low muscle tone. His arms and wrists flop around like Jell-O, and he doesn’t have a lot of muscle strength in his upper torso. He also has winging scapula, which means his shoulders are really curled forward and his posture is poor. Weight lifting would not only help him with running, but with day to day things he struggles with, like sitting with good posture at the dinner table or carrying grocery bags.

We also tried baseball for a few years. Steve strategically signed up to co-coach for each of those years. It’s was really helpful because J needs one on one direction sometimes, and for newbies to autism, that can be hard to navigate. J’s highlight every time was the Gatorade at the end of the night. Upper body strength? Darn hard to swing and control a bat when you don’t have any.

All of those stressful questions bubbled to the surface again when I debated signing him up for the class. Even though J’s been really successful and gained great physical and social skills in cross country and track, it was still hard to do. The class is run by people who have never interacted with J before. Any new activity is really hard for J, both physically and emotionally. Because of his lack of physical strength and coordination, he will most likely be at a lower experience level than his peers. And all of the other questions of adults/peers/supervision, etc came flooding back again.


But then I started thinking about all of the reasons why this class could be so beneficial to J. He’s had some exposure to the weight room through winter running and track. Building the strength and coordination (especially in his upper body) could improve his running SO much (and he absolutely loves running). It may be a struggle at first, but like most things with J, he ends up loving the things he works at. Because of J’s autism he struggles so much with being in tune with his body. This might be a great opportunity to help him understand his physical body a little better—a struggle he’s had for his entire life.

I also realized that we all struggle with our bodies in some way, whether we’re autistic or not. In fact, it’s a lifelong struggle in many ways to be happy and comfortable in our bodies. Part of our life experience seems to require us learning how to master our bodies, whether it’s learning how to eat in a way to help us feel good and fuel our bodies, learning how much sleep we need to be alert and functional, recognizing when fatigue and hunger affect our emotions, and most importantly, how to be at peace with the things we can and cannot do with our bodies. It’s a relationship we don’t spend a lot of time with, one we often don’t think about, something we’re not formally educated about, and something really important to our overall happiness.

The kids though–always so good with him. (Probably helped too that the league was non-competitive and their season wasn’t on the line because their teammate with autism didn’t have any athletic or coordination skills).

It’s something, I’ve realized, that’s really important to J’s happiness.

I know some kids sign up for these classes hopeful to gain a competitive edge in their sport. I know some of them will work really hard and get that edge. I know, before even starting this class, J won’t be able to hit those types of benchmark goals. But if he can stick with the class and feel more in control of his body and confident in his own inner strength, then we’ll call that a win.

I thought by now, that I’d get better at this—that I’d be more confident in myself, J, and the system out there. That I’d get to that point where I could just check my calendar, write that cheque and send him on his way. But I’m not. I guess I’ll always be an autism mom at heart, no matter how good programs get at accommodating special needs, no matter how much J progresses. It’s still a huge leap of faith. Every. Single. Time.



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  • Carol Forster

    He did well when we did free weights and just made sure that they weren’t too heavy while gradually increasing. He also enjoyed the rowing machine if they have one. Again, just reminding him to keep his back straight. The weightlifting class sounds like a great experience for him. An alternative, just in case, may be a personal trainer…even could be someone from the school that has access to the weight room when not any or not many are around. Looking forward to his progress!