Almost one in three young adults with autism is not involved in volunteer, community, or educational activities. They do not interact with friends, nor are they invited to join social activities. This data comes from a nationwide survey by Drexel University’s Autism Institute. The survey focused on what happens when autistic youth transition into adulthood.
Research findings such as this may lead to the mistaken assumption that autistic adults could care less about participating in social and recreational activities. However, more often than not, they simply need to be invited and the community needs to adapt and accept their differences.
In November of last year, I decided to coach a group of third and fourth-grade boys as part of something called Upward basketball. Upward basketball is a Christian-based sports league, with more than a million participants and volunteers. My own church, Brook Hill United Methodist, is one of the 2,600 churches that participate.
Upward’s mission is what got me thinking about coaching again; winning wasn’t emphasized as much as Christian values and character development. Unfortunately, I came to find out that games were held on Saturdays, which is the same day my wife or I typically visit our son each week. I didn’t want to miss that precious time with him, so I started to think about whether he had any interest in being our team’s manager.
When I asked my son Jimmy if he was interested, his first question was, “What would I do?” Once I broke it down for him, he said, “SURE!!” I then had to clear it with the head of the league as well as our pastor. Both were extremely supportive.
Before the first practice, I emailed the parents, letting them know that my son Jimmy would be our manager and described his role. I simply described him as an amazing middle-aged man who happens to have autism. That was it.
Jimmy was the manager of our team (The Mustangs) on game days during January and February. He held my clipboard, handed out wristbands to each of our players, and huddled with our team. Also, he was our biggest cheerleader. I thought Jimmy would make our team “better,” and indeed he did. While he didn’t attend practice (he lives about an hour away and works at Walmart during weekdays), we would talk about him quite a lot during our mid-practice huddle, particularly when we discussed the Upward “curriculum” for the year, which focused on courage, kindness, and patience. Jimmy sat with the team, was accepted by the team, and endeared himself to the players’ parents and grandparents. Further, Jimmy taught us valuable lessons about life, God’s Word, and priorities.
After our last game, the team surprised Jimmy by giving him a “Mustangs Manager” tee shirt, created by a very supportive group of parents and signed by each of the players. And Jimmy gave each of the players a thank you card. He signed it himself but since his writing is not all that legible (he has mild cerebral palsy), he dictated the rest to my wife and she typed what he said word for word:
Thank you very much for having me as the Mustang’s manager. I’ve been enjoying staying in the special room [where we met before the game] and watching all you guys get stars from my father and Mark [assistant coach]. I also enjoyed watching you guys play basketball and also giving all of you hand bands each period.
Please note: I am currently writing a book about my entire family and how we have grown over the years, in large part because of Jimmy. My son Jimmy is a middle-aged adult on the autism spectrum. The voices and perspectives of my son, my two daughters and wife as well as friends and professionals are included throughout. It’s a real, uplifting, and remarkable story; one which I have wanted to share for a long time. The book will be published later this year.
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