Early this month, Academy MetroWest hosted a free workshop for parents. Dr. Joe Moldover, a top-notch neuropsychologist in our area, talked about Non-Verbal Learning Disability, Asperger’s Syndrome, and High Functioning Autism. At one point during his presentation, Dr. Moldover described the way kids with these profiles learn social skills by comparing the process to teaching baseball to little leaguers. With some players, if you show them how to hit just one time, they immediately get it. They might not be perfect hitters right away but as they watch other players swing the bat, they learn vicariously and intuitively and, with a little practice, their skills improve quickly. With other players, you have to give them repeated, concrete, step-by-step instruction and progress comes slowly when it comes at all.
It’s a good analogy. For most people, it allows them to compare something they’re familiar with (teaching baseball to kids) to a process they know less about (social skills development in kids with social/cognitive differences). For me, it’s exactly the opposite.
I haven’t played a lot of baseball since the early 1970’s – shortly after people were invented, if you ask the kids I work with. What this means is that I’m much more confident in my ability to work with a child on the autism spectrum and help that kid learn how to read social cues than I am teaching someone the finer points of throwing, catching, and hitting a baseball.
Imagine my daughter’s chagrin.
Lucy is 9 years old now. Her social skills are good but her baseball skills are not. She’s played some T-ball and some softball. She enjoys it but if we set our hearts on funding her college education with a baseball scholarship, we’re going to be dreadfully disappointed. Whatever. Like many parents, I’m sure we harbor some illusions about how gifted our child is but Lucy’s lack of a natural gift for baseball is pretty obvious.
At the end of spring softball this year, Lucy’s coach let us know that our town (Lexington, MA) had other offerings coming up for kids who enjoyed playing. We could sign up for a summer softball league or play Fall Ball. We had a very busy summer and didn’t sign up for summer ball. We heard that Fall Ball was pretty laid back so when Lucy asked us to sign her up for it, we did.
In early September, we brought Lucy to her first game and noticed some big differences between spring softball and Fall Ball. For one, Fall Ball is baseball. They use a hard ball, which is more intimidating than a softball, and kids pitch. A more obvious difference is that Lucy is the only girl on her team and, after 6 games or so, it appears that she’s the only girl in the league.
In the spring, when I was watching Lucy’s games and practices, it was not hard to see the differences in the way the girls on her team approached the game compared to the way I remember the experience for myself and my friends. In elementary school, baseball was an obsession for me and most boys I knew. I collected and memorized baseball cards. I read books about baseball history and statistics. I played Little League. I watched as many games on TV as I could. My dad and I had a Sports Illustrated Baseball game that we played obsessively. Most importantly, when I went over to a friend’s house, we’d usually wind up playing catch. Our focus was on having fun, but when we played, we’d emulate our favorite players and keep trying to get better. Because playing ball was something we did all the time, our skills improved over time.
For my daughter and her friends, things are different. In all the play dates she’s had, I can’t ever remember her saying “Hey – let’s go outside and throw the ball around.” I play catch with her every once in awhile. It’s always fun but, until recently, it wasn’t something she’d ask for a lot. At her first softball practice this past spring, one of Lucy’s friends, a complete novice, was looking around for something and asked herself and her teammates “Where’s my mitt….glove…thingy?” The girls practiced conscientiously but their attitude about the games was much less intense than I remember from my childhood. At one point I wondered, “When does the coach teach them to heap abuse on the opposing team?” It never happened. Imagine that!
At Lucy’s first Fall Ball game, the differences in experience and skills between her and her teammates was glaringly obvious. She came up to bat 4 times and never even came close to making contact with the ball. The ball never came her way while she was in the field, which is good news for everyone (except the opposing batters). As a parent, it was hard to watch. She was totally out-gunned and I was nervous that she was going to be ridiculed, hurt, or both.
After the game, I asked her what she noticed about her skills in comparison to her teammates’. I was trying to be diplomatic but her answer (“Oh…you mean how I’m the worst on the team?”) suggested that I didn’t really need to beat around the bush very much. I told her that if she wanted to stay with Fall Ball, I’d be willing to get up early with her a couple times each week to practice. She readily agreed. Initially, I thought this would a once a week or twice a week thing. In fact, we’ve gotten up early to practice almost every day since then.
By way of providing some context, let me tell you a little bit about the town I live in. The most obvious association people have with Lexington is that it was the site of the first battle in the Revolutionary War. Nowadays, it’s an upper middle class suburb populated by an overeducated, over-achieving group of adults and their families. The wealth in town is, in general, not old money. By and large, Lexingtonians have made their fortunes in the worlds of science, high technology, and finance. The school system has a great reputation but can also be a pressure cooker. A couple summers ago, as his daughter was preparing to enter Lexington High School, a friend of mine went with his wife to a meeting for parents of incoming freshmen. He told me that in the principal’s message to parents, the theme was “You people need to relax and ease off pressuring your kids and their teachers. This is not a do-over for you (to get into college).” In 2nd grade, Lucy wanted to take part in the school science fair. The exhibit next to hers, made by a first grader, was a 3D cutaway diagram of plate tectonics while a kindergartner down the row had an interactive, electronic exhibit about the solar system. In most towns, Little League is the prime vehicle for parents who want to live vicariously through their kids. Not in Lexington.
I mention these things to illustrate the pressure to achieve that a lot of kids in town feel from their parents. My wife and I have responded to what we’ve seen and heard by coming to the conclusion that one of our main challenges as parents is going to be keeping that type of pressure from weighing too heavily on Lucy. Additionally, in my professional life, the model of group therapy we use at Academy MetroWest relies upon cooperative, non-competitive physical play. The model emphasizes trying hard, having fun, and not worrying about how you stack up against your peers.
But practicing baseball with Lucy has taken me out of my normal comfort zone and I’ve found myself pushing her a bit harder than I expected to. On a very pragmatic level, I am decidedly NOT a morning person. I look at normal wakeful consciousness as something to ease into very gradually rather than something to plunge into all at once. So, my feeling is, if I’m going to drag my sorry carcass out of bed early, we need to keep our eyes on the prize and work on skills with some degree of focus. Another issue is that, at 9 years old, Lucy seems ready to really apply herself to something. When you practice consistently and find that your skills have improved, both the journey and the destination are rewarding. So far, I’ve tried to find a balance between pushing for skill improvement and having fun by following Lucy’s lead. It’s worked out well so far but I have to keep reminding myself that if it’s not fun, there’s really not much point to it.
So, here’s what we’ve gotten out of our experience so far. For one thing, Lucy’s skills have definitely started to improve. Let me make it clear that she is, by no means, a good baseball player yet. However, her throwing has improved dramatically and she’s made contact with the ball a couple of times in games when she’s been at bat. Catching is still hard for her but she’s working at it. Our next goal is to see if she can hit a ball into fair territory during a game. Even if she doesn’t accomplish that goal, we’ve gotten a lot out of our practice sessions. I’m immensely proud of her for her positive attitude about it. She has not once complained about getting up early and she’s been a trooper about working hard at something that doesn’t come easily to her. Her skills still don’t stack up all that well with her current teammates’ but when softball rolls around in the spring, I expect that she’ll do quite well. Most importantly, she and I have spent a lot of time together and have had a lot of fun in the process. Daylight Savings Time comes to an end soon and when it does, so will our early morning practice sessions. It’s inevitable that I will look back on them very fondly. I hope she does too.