Aaron goes to a social communication group that meets at our neighbourhood recreation centre. He started going to ‘Friends Group’ two years ago, and at first I was leery about the rec centre. It is stuffed with parents watching their kids play hockey at the arenas and athletic looking people at the gym. (This is not a ‘Sue’ hang-out. I’m a nerd girl who is much more comfortable in a library or cafe).
For a year, I cringed when I walked past the arenas full of boys playing hockey. Aaron would linger at the window and watch the game, until a hard shot bulleted a puck towards the glass, and he’d run off, alarmed by the noise.
Aaron has talked about playing ice hockey for years. It pained me to walk past those rinks and those parents. With their big hockey bags and easy manner, it seemed like they owned the place. This felt like a place that we didn’t belong.
Thinking about my discomfort now, I don’t believe I was pining for a ‘normal’ child who played hockey. But it bothered me that hockey’s competitiveness and speed automatically excluded a boy like Aaron, who could barely skate and was befuddled by the speed of such an intensive game. It bothered me that he felt left out.
So last winter, Mike carefully constructed an ice hockey rink in our small backyard. He shovelled the snow, put down a tarp, pounded in some boards, and went out in the cold, night after night, with the hose connected to the washing machine and laid down the sheets of ice. Finally it was ready. He and Aaron donned their skates and played hockey night after night. Sometimes Aaron threw off his skates and ran around on his boots. He loved being goalie. He scored a lot of goals on his dad. Finally Aaron could play hockey. This spring we’ve signed him up for special needs ball hockey. He will get to play in a team (but without ice). We are doing the best we can.
Walking past the arenas at the rec centre has become less and less painful. The middle rooms in the centre are filled with kids in Friends Groups. Many of the children have autism, some kids have CP, a couple have Down syndrome like Aaron, and a few others have rare syndromes. There are peers, who are volunteers from the high school, and hang out with the kids and role model good social communication. Examples of valuable lessons that Aaron has learned: head up and say ‘hi’. Don’t call people fat, even if they are. Skills that he needs to be a good friend (and to not get beat up in the playground).
Every semester, I watch the new peers get comfortable with the class. Many of the high school kids who volunteer to work with our kids are high achievers, with an eye on a future medical school application. It is heartening to watch their transformation. The first few classes they appear anxious while trying to communicate with kids who have challenges communicating, kids who pace around the room, kids who hide under tables. But slowly the ‘typical’ kids relax, and start actually having fun.
Right now, the group is having a scavenger hunt. They are wandering about the rec centre, looking for items on their list. Many of the parents are in the coffee shop, chatting. I can overhear them talking about transitions, or school consultants, or funding – all the classic topics for a crowd like ours. Other husbands, like mine, have disappeared to the gym. The kids are having a party tonight, so we’ve brought a game and snacks. Aaron insisted on bringing his Battleship game and cheese and pepperoni sticks, so I dutifully stopped at the grocery store and stocked up (he told me to bring lots).
This recreation centre has become Aaron’s neighbourhood hang out. He’s comfortable here, knows his way around, and smiles broadly as he greets his friends. I have finally realized that he deserves to be here as much as the hockey kids. Despite my past reservation, I’m grateful that this group moved out of its home in a church basement and rocketed, highly visible, into the midst of our community. For we all belong here together – the hockey kids, the kids with autism, the jocks, and, yes, even the nerd moms too.