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Play Ball!

Got Special Needs? Play Ball!

My special needs kid plays baseball. He also takes gymnastics and swimming, and plays soccer.

Years ago, I never would have believed these things could be possible.  It was all we could do to get our typical kids to hold their own in some of these sports. How, then, is it possible that my special needs son can do these things?

It turns out, there are programs for kids like him.

It started with soccer. Someone told me that they heard about a free soccer league for special needs kids. We decided to try it out—I mean, it’s free, right? If it doesn’t work out, no big deal.  The thing is, it worked out. To be honest, he doesn’t get much out of the games. But the practices? He loves them. However, I suspect that his favorite part is the snack at the end.

Next, we tried baseball. Again, this is a league entirely for kids of all ages with some sort of special need. Some games go well, some don’t. However, he’s out there, playing, wearing a uniform, and, of course, getting a snack at the end.

Then we tried swimming. He had taken lessons when he was younger. But when our other kids joined the swim team at our local pool, I thought I’d ask if anyone there could give our son some lessons. Their response? Just sign him up on the team! I was incredulous. I again explained that he would never compete, and that he would take full one-on-one supervision. Again, they insisted that I just include him in regular swim team practices. And so I did—and he was included in all team activities that he was interested in, but never forced to compete in a swim meet.

Next, we learned about a Special Needs gymnastics program at the local YMCA. On Sunday afternoons, in a near-empty, fully-equipped gymnastics training facility, the instructors work with him on the bars, tumbling, and—his favorite—the trampoline. He loves it.

In the past few years, I’ve learned some important things.  The families of special needs kids are awesome. On the soccer field and baseball diamond, I see men, women and kids who are absolute heroes. Together, they cheer on their kids and siblings, helping each other when necessary, and laughing together at all of the many things that can go awry on the field. Nowhere else have I seen such shining examples of sportsmanship and camaraderie. A kid and his walker fall to the ground during a soccer game and we all hold our breath; then we let out a group cheer when he pops back up grinning and giving his coach the thumbs-up sign. We all cheer “Go!” when a little boy hits the ball off the tee and starts running for first base, then yell “stop!” when the kid decides to just cut across the center of the field, stripping off his t-shirt in his excitement. These families all share in each other’s joy each weekend—for one glorious hour we are all just playing in a field. If you have never done so, check out your local soccer or baseball league’s Challenger team. If you have a kid who would qualify, I encourage you to join the team. If not, do yourself a favor and go watch a game. It will be the most uplifting, heartwarming thing you do for yourself all week.

I’ve also learned that there are many people who, despite not having special needs kids of their own, will bend over backwards to accommodate our kids in any way possible. Whether they are teaching gymnastics or swimming, or encouraging a special needs kid to join the ‘regular’ team, these people take on our challenges as their own. It is people like this who regularly restore my faith in humanity. The best part is the example they set for the other, ‘typical’ kids. Every time a coach takes on the challenge of working a special needs kid onto the team, every other kid on the team learns from the coach’s example of inclusion and good sportsmanship. This is how we build acceptance and inclusion, and how we develop young athletes into young men and women with good character.

Tell us about your experience with sports and other activities. Have you found something that ‘clicked’ for your kid? Has a special coach or mentor gone out of his or her way to include your child? Have you ever cheered at a Challenger baseball game? Tell us in the comments section below!

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