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Injustice in Special Needs Sports

Anyone who truly knows me well knows that I have never been a “sports” person.  However, having a son changed me in that I have fully participated in every sport out there to see if it brought out any sparks of love in my son.  Since he was old enough to take part in special needs sports, my daughter and I have cheered Chris on in bowling, tennis, soccer, baseball, and basketball.  It was especially costly when he went through a paddle ball phase, because his force was so strong, that the balls were constantly lost from the paddle, and/or the paddles were broken. He went through many dozens of paddle balls each week.  It did, however, increase his hand-eye coordination immensely, and I was told by several professionals in tennis that Chris was able to make shots that some professionals practiced their whole career to make.  

My son, Christopher has had what I’ll label a love-hate relationship with the sport of basketball for many years, due to the complexity of the game and his level of ability, understanding, and functioning on the autism spectrum.  Prior to my son being diagnosed with Autism, I had never been involved in the Special Needs Community.  When I attended Loyola Marymount University, one job I held was working with disadvantaged and underprivileged youth in Inglewood. This was the closest experience I had in interacting with challenged youth.  When I saw the spectrum of challenges so many children faced, I naively assumed the children would receive a fair amount of help based on their unique need.  I assumed the adults and parents would unite in a shared compassion for all the children who suffered.  Sadly, what I witnessed was competition and exclusion amongst the disabled.  Those who were higher functioning would receive special treatment.  They would be regarded as the “stars.”  The others were looked over; isolated.  Being “atpical” and low functioning was, in this regard,    strikingly familiar to being a less skilled player in the “typical” world.

My experience with Special Needs sports was a bit disheartening.  Basketball was the sport Chris was most drawn to, but the concept of the game can be quite complex with rules and player expectations.  Especially, in Christopher’s case, where he had no male role model to teach him at home.  Early on, in Christopher’s basketball years, I had to force him to go.  The lights, the noise, and the people sent him into a sensory overload nightmare.  So, if his morning was too rough or he put up too much of a fight, I allowed him to miss games.  For a couple years, it seemed quite a waste of money for how under involved Chris was in this sport.  I would have stopped going completely, as I most certainly was not trying to torture my child with a sport that was not to his liking or within his capabilities, but each new year come registration time, basketball was the only sport that he continuously voiced that he wanted to be a part of.

When he was finally able to mostly tolerate the lights, noise, and organized confusion, it was painfully clear that he was unable to process how to play the game.  This inability to understand led to a detachment during the game.  He didn’t know what he was supposed to do, but he knew what he wasn’t supposed to do.  It was in doing the things that he wasn’t supposed to do during the game that got him the attention he craved.  Unfortunately, these antics such as grabbing the ball and running the opposite way on the court, for instance, that got him continually removed from the game and benched.  The players who knew the game were never taken out, and it was these same players who would dribble the ball,  get all the passes, and have the opportunity to make shot after shot.  This really has never set well with me, because the players who knew how to play got better, and the ones who didn’t still had little to no understanding of the game. 

This year was the first year that Chris excitedly anticipated each week of basketball.  He was a courteous player who kept his hands to himself.  His understanding of expectations during the game remained low, but he was able to make quite a few shots during the season.  It was very upsetting to see the “star” players never benched, or hogging the ball.  We get it.  You can dribble, pass, shoot, and I think that’s great.  But why aren’t those payers learning the patience and upsetbif being removed from the game, the sportsmanship of sharing the ball, and working as a TEAM?!  I very much appreciate the coaches, mentors, and all those who came together to provide this opportunity for involvement in a Special Needs team sport.  It is just an observation about the injustices that I have observed in Special Needs Sports, not a criticism of the effort.  I hope future years will bring an awareness to involve the lower functioning children more intently, along with teaching the higher functioning players true sportsmanship, which I also see as a critically important aspect of the game.

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