Sunday, December 18, 2011

Cooperatively OR Competitively: Choosing Life Lessons

This week in between yet another antibiotic allergic reaction (this time to penicillin---Plan C is meeting with the infectious disease/immunology doctor at Mayo on January 3rd in hopes that he has a brilliant plan that Caden won’t be allergic to) was the much discussed and often hyped parent child Happy Hoops game at the Y. 

Happy Hoops has been an interesting experience this session.  Caden has done really well in gymnastics for the last 1.5 years at the Y and honestly the classes have done more to improve his coordination and balance than all of the physical therapy sessions combined.  And he has just plain had a great experience at the Y—people are friendly to him and he associates nothing but positive things with the place. This class however was an attempt to put him in an environment where he would have to cooperatively play with “team mates” in order to accomplish a goal.  He’d never played basketball though so we had no idea how it would go. 

Like anything else we practiced ahead of time and showed him where he would be playing—tried to get him use to the idea and it generally worked because he was excited to start.  The first session though he melted down early in the process. Warm up includes a game of “sharks and minnows” which seems designed to give kids practice with defensive and offensive moves. He thought it was scary and soon instead of warming up with the other kids he and a wonderful coach (who conveniently is going to school for adaptive PE) were warming up together over to the side.  Eventually she or another coach would always make sure that Caden understood what they were doing at their “stations” and if he couldn’t handle it they found another activity they could do with him one-on-one. 

Caden seems to have an athletic streak in him and like other sports quickly picked up on basketball. Dribbling is hard for him and seems to be a whole body activity but shooting is a particular strength and soon he was making baskets at the full height nets.  A few friends from his class at school were in Happy Hoops so he was always excited to point out to us that his friends were in the class too. As usual though he wasn’t able to discuss Happy Hoops with his friends when they were at school since it was out of context for him but for the first time he did recognize his friends some place other than school.

Fast forward to the last class session and the much anticipated parent child game. He was excited and asked both of us to go with him (as if we would have missed it). He had a blast when we were just practicing shooting but when it came time to practice defense and offense he melted down.  Initially I thought it was because of the interactive nature but after some reflection I’m not so sure.  We’ve worked really hard to teach Caden “taking turns” and “playing nice” and his teacher noted during his last review period that he is doing really well with this.  Caden, like many kids with autism, is a black or white thinker---there is one right practice and variations are just plain wrong.  He understands taking turns so to put him in a scenario where the “right” thing is to forcefully take the ball away from someone before their turn is up, is just plain “not nice” to him. 

Maybe eventually Caden will be able to understand different rules apply in different contexts but until then I’d rather him understand playing nice before we worry about teaching him to be competitive.  Playing nice is why his friends at school look forward to seeing him each day and it’s why they wait for him after lunch to go outside to recess.  Playing nice is just well for lack of a better word nice.  We’ve been very fortunate not to have deal with aggression or violent behaviors and I’d rather not inadvertently teach him those under the guise of competition.  Note that I’m not saying that all competition is violent or aggressive but for a child who sees in the world in black or white, I’m not sure he would understand, no actually I know he wouldn’t understand, that it’s only acceptable to take the ball if you are in the middle of a basketball game, not playing with your sister or the neighbor or at school, etc.

Now reflecting back recall why we put him in Happy Hoops in the first place--- to put him in an environment where he would have to cooperatively play with “team mates” in order to accomplish a goal---so that didn’t exactly happen the way we had hoped. BUT he did start to express to the coaches when he needed to play off to the side one-on-one; we only had the one major meltdown that first session so that’s a couple of points in my book. He learned a lot about basketball so that’s a few more points as well.  The last second 3 point shot though was that he looked forward to Happy Hoops each week and walked out with a smile looking forward to going back the next week. And to further push our luck we have enrolled him in gymnastics again in the winter session along with group swimming lessons---gulp.