From the moment my son, Charlie, 12, was born, he’s been the consummate sports fan, attending nearly all his older brothers’ events.
In the early days when he napped in his infant carrier, and throughout the following years as he explored new playgrounds at various ballfields, he never minded watching. But as he got older, he grew restless on the sidelines. It broke my heart, as I wondered if he’d ever have the same opportunities to score a goal, sink a three-pointer, or send a fly ball sailing into centerfield. Charlie has autism, and while his speech is limited, his eyes said it all: “When will it be my turn?”
Though we live in a sports-obsessed New Jersey suburb, for many years I had a hard time finding programs that promoted inclusion or offered accommodations for children with physical or developmental differences. We made do with backyard wiffle ball games. But still, our teams were small. There were no uniforms bearing names across the back, no cheering crowd. The experience wasn’t the same.
The spring Charlie turned seven we found a buddy baseball league several towns away. Driving to the field, I was thrilled he was finally making the move from spectator to player, but I was also anxious. With my older sons, I’d watched well-meaning coaches struggle to keep neurotypical teammates focused and engaged—or, at the very least, prevent those energetic fellas from roughhousing their way to the ER.
“How will this go with a large group of children who require extra attention?” I worried.
My fears abated at the sight of dozens of volunteers, aka “buddies,” who were there, eager to assist children they’d never met, many of whom hadn’t held a bat or run the bases before. These peer mentors showed up week after week, providing encouraging words, ready high-fives, and sometimes popsicles. For differently abled kids who don’t have siblings or close friends, that one-on-one buddy time was a gift that simultaneously made them feel special and perfectly ordinary.
Over the course of the season, I watched in delight as skills developed, confidence grew, and friendships formed. Collectively, we, the parents in the bleachers, breathed a sigh of relief and felt the world open a bit, allowing hope to shine through.
Mutual Benefits, Reciprocal Teaching
When a similar program began in our town a few years later, I encouraged my oldest son Sam, now 17, to volunteer as a buddy. Initially, he hesitated. I could read his thoughts: “I know Charlie, but I don’t know the others. How will I know how to help?”
I understood. Differences can be daunting at any age. But when I explained to him, “Without buddies, Charlie couldn’t play,” something clicked. Since then, he has rarely missed a game. I’ve seen my teen put away his cell phone and, filled with compassion and interest, run across the field to help someone else. Now I have the unique perspective of watching my children grow in different ways from the same program.
I’m not alone is seeing the dual-sided benefits. Dr. Bill Sears, of The Sears Wellness Institute, is a pediatrician and the father of an adult son, Stephen, who has Down syndrome. For 25 years, Dr. Sears served as a Special Olympics coach, calling it “one of the most enriching experiences” of his life. He, too, has watched peer mentors blossom in these roles.
“I think the buddies leave the field getting as much if not more out of it,” says Dr. Sears. “During the game they completely get out of themselves and into the special needs kids. There are no ‘selfies.’ They experience the ‘helper’s high,’ which is that priceless feeling you get when what you do helps someone else.”
Dr. Sears adds that while we often think of the buddies as the instructors, often it’s the differently abled children who are imparting life lessons. He shares that one day when his son was running track at the Special Olympics, the runner beside him fell. Rather than continuing toward the finish line, Stephen stopped, helped the fallen runner to his feet, and the two finished the race together.
“This wasn’t something you’d ever see with highly-competitive kids. The crowd was in awe, and you could tell they were thinking that maybe these kids’ minds are actually working a little better than so-called ‘normal’ ones,” Dr. Sears says.
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Happier, Healthier Futures
While fresh air and exercise are important for children and adults of all abilities, Dr. Sears believes sports are “doubly important for kids and young adults with special needs.”
“There’s never been a better medicine ever prescribed than what Doctor Mom said years ago: ‘Go outside and play!’” he notes.
The pediatrician explained that when you move, your body “makes its own medicine” by getting the blood flowing faster, which in turn “mellows your mood and makes you think and act smarter,” not to mention the benefits of socialization.
Chief of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics at University of Rochester Medical Center’s Golisano Children’s Hospital Dr. Susan Hyman, who serves on the advisory board for the Healthy Weight Research Network, agrees that the need for creating opportunities for lifelong fitness for all members of our community is crucial.
“Obesity is a tremendously serious problem among people with intellectual disabilities in adulthood,” she said. According to the Centers for Disease Control, obesity rates for adults with disabilities are 58% higher than for adults without disabilities.
Encouraging typically developing peers to assist and include those with physical and/or developmental differences may result in a healthier and happier future for all, Dr. Sears and Dr. Hyman agree.
“By assuming everyone should be included, they will hopefully create a more inclusive future,” said Dr. Hyman. “Peers who expect children with special healthcare needs to be on teams with them and included in clubs or in classrooms is our goal. We don’t want them to feel sorry or in any way see the participation of people with disabilities as being lesser.”
These typically developing kids, who will eventually become lawmakers, healthcare providers, teachers, and business owners, are witnessing all their differently abled peers are capable of, and beyond that, they’re helping them achieve it. They’re seeing them as real people, not as statistics or a separate population.
As a parent, watching these young volunteers gain an understanding and appreciation for other children and young adults’ strengths and uniqueness, gives me hope for a brighter future for all.
This article was featured in Issue 99 – Navigating Relationships With Autism