A Special Day

Brookline Tab, June 2004

In the beginning, I wasn’t sure about having my son Nat participate in Brookline’s Second Annual Special Olympics Field Day, which took place on June 4. I had attended the event last year as a School Committee member, not a parent,and it was certainly a huge success, filled with participants of all different ages and abilities, all Brookline kids. There had been a parade, races, games, face-painting, hot dogs. All the ingredients of a happy field day event were there down to the exquisite heat of the early June sun on our backs.

But I wasn’t going to bring Nat because of Nat. His autism makes the out-of-the-ordinary painful and bewildering for him—and for me. My experiences with the world and autism have made me more cautious and more easily put off trying new things than I would naturally be. How often have I tried a new activity with Nat, filled with the tender hope and expectation of the young eager mother, only to be torn by disappointment from either his lack of interest or others’ lack of understanding? The mother-toddler swim program, where all he did was lie on his back staring at the ceiling, while all the other babies laughed and splashed with their mothers. I may as well have been a buoy. The playgroup where Nat sat sucking his thumb or crying, completely unable to join in and play, no matter what anyone did. The early attempts to teach him sports, which he seemed to endure at best. There seemed to be no place where he belonged. I gradually toned down my bright-eyed sparkle when it came to my oldest son and new activities, letting my hope dim to a bearable softer light.

So I was surprised to find myself trying this one. But I had been told that there would be an aide provided for children who needed them. I knew from last year that the School Department had put a lot of thought into this. They really wanted kids like Nat there. So, okay, we were in. We’d stay for a half hour.

We walked down the hill to the Soule Center where there were droves of royal blue-tee-shirted people and tents pitched on the grassy green field. I saw familiar people everywhere, but Nat seemed very tense and had that wild-eyed look he gets before having tantrums. Then we met the aide, Jasmine, who was very petite and delicate, and I thought, “Oh, no. Too fragile.” But she took Nat confidently by the arm and led him away from me. I watched for a moment, full of doubt, and then fumbled with my camera in case there was anything I could capture on film before the whole thing disintegrated for us, which it surely would.

Then next thing I knew, though, Nat was pitching softballs with a group of kids. I ran over there, ready to intervene as soon as he became impatient. But he finished, then walked with Jasmine to the relay race and listened to the instructions. I thought, “Oh, he’ll never remember all that,” and before I finished the thought, there he was, running and then tossing his relay block on the ground, and turning back to retrieve the other one. A friend who was watching him with me, gave me a nudge and said, “See the smile?” I saw. When his race was complete, without more than the requisite hi-five, Nat and Jasmine left us and went over to the giant slide, where she told him to take off his shoes. I was about to tell them how he hates taking off his shoes outside, when he eagerly acquiesced and the words died on my lips. Was this my kid? I had to face facts. Suddenly I was just another mom in the crowd, straining to see her kid compete. Was it the simple, straightforward expectations? This wonderful young teacher? The easy happiness all around us? Whatever it was, things had changed for us, in the blink of an eye.

Then it was time to say goodbye. “Hey, don’t let him go without his medal,” someone shouted. And so Nat was led to the platform where they give out the medals. They placed it ceremoniously around his neck and I snapped away with the camera. I wanted tocry, I wanted to laugh.

All day long, I kept seeing Nat leaning forward to accept his medal. I am certain Nat enjoyed himself that morning, having tried something new and succeeded. Perhaps even more amazing than that, is that I learned something new: that Nat and I have a community that understands and takes care of us and I can count on.

But the best thing I learned today is that maybe now I can even count on Nat.