‘Let Me Be Brave’

The Kennedys’ Gift of the Special Olympics

Washington Post, January 16, 2005

Learning from tragedy is something most of us have to do at some point in our lives. Families dealing with disability, for example, must face their grief and find a way to live meaningful lives in spite of it. Rosemary Kennedy’s life, which ended this month in her 87th year, was one of disability, tragic mistakes and permanent impairment. Her family, Kennedys and Shrivers working with many others, was able to push beyond the terrible circumstances and forge something noble and enriching out of it: the Special Olympics.

My family stumbled into the Special Olympics when my autistic son was 10 and experiencing one of the most difficult phases we had ever encountered. He’d just started a new school program and was struggling daily to remain there. Every day they told us how Nat had become aggressive “out of the blue,” and that they did not know what to do for him. Even with many meetings at the school and observations by autism experts, the program couldn’t help him. By April he had been expelled, sent home until a new placement opened up.

All that year, despite what was going on in school, we forced ourselves to take Nat to the small gymnastics class being offered at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology by the Special Olympics. I hated taking him, because it made me anxious to be watching over him, ready to jump in at a moment’s notice if he became aggressive with anyone. My husband had less difficulty controlling Nat, so he often went with me or instead of me. Other autistic boys were in the program, and as the parents got to know each other, we also got better at helping the coach work with our kids.

“You have to give them predictable routines, with simple steps, and just repeat that,” was our mantra. The coach, a cheerful college student, was happy to have our direction. By January she could get the kids to tumble, vault and, most impressive of all, to stand in line and wait their turn.

But in early spring, when Nat was expelled from his school program, we almost gave up. I didn’t know if he could continue going to his gymnastics sessions, let alone continue to live at home. I feared for the safety of our family.

Nat did not understand why he wasn’t in school, and this made him more anxious, less able to control his impulses. My youngest was just a toddler, and one afternoon Nat lunged for him. I didn’t know if I could protect my younger boys anymore. My husband had to take time out from work to help me get through the day. I needed to be able to do something for Nat, too, to help him make some sense out of his days. I turned to the coach.

“Sure,” she said, “I can help.” Her courage and enthusiasm reflected the Special Olympics athlete’s oath, which originated with Eunice Kennedy Shriver: “Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.”

She came to our house several days a week and took Nat to the park, where they used the benches and the climbing structures as a gym. Together they practiced his gymnastics routines while I had some time alone with my younger son. I don’t know if it was those few hours outside with his coach, who really understood and cared for him, or the blessed shift from winter to spring or a combination of the two. But whatever it was, the terrible aggression that had taken hold of Nat finally began to ease.

That June brought a new school program for Nat and the Special Olympics Summer Games. By then, he had his routine down cold, and when his coach came out on the mat with him, I knew he was going to do it, and he did. I’ll admit, seeing Nat bedecked in medals was one of the biggest pleasures I had ever had as his mother. Watching him go off with his teammates, knowing he was going to be okay, I felt like a regular mom, not a person in crisis.

I suppose that is the greatest gift an organization such as the Special Olympics gives families like mine: a chance to experience victory, defeat and all the mundane little things in between, such as the return of predictability to turbulent lives. I think that the Kennedys must have realized this too, somewhere along the line in their struggle, that the thing that makes a difficult life worthwhile is to emerge stronger and better when it’s over. I will always be grateful to them for understanding that.