Just before Christmas, I was sitting on the bench at my son’s gymnastics class, chatting with my friends.
A mom and dad walked in. They were holding the hand of their young daughter. She was tiny and full of energy, her blond hair flying around as she bounced up and down in front of her parents.
I smiled at the little girl and listened while the instructor told the parents about the class.
“Each kid is matched up with a helper to move with them through the class. We do stretches and then go through the circuit and we end the day in the big foam pit. Let’s have her join the class and see how it goes.”
The little girl took the instructor’s hand and they walked together to find a spot in the circle. The mom and dad huddled together, watching their daughter nervously.
I leaned over. “Just checking out the class today?”, I asked.
They nodded yes.
Instantly I was transported back to January 2010. That first day when I walked in nervously with my son. This special needs gymnastics class was the first place we went after Howie’s diagnosis. I was on edge, only three weeks post-diagnosis. That class was the first thing I ever publicly wrote about Howie’s autism. It was picked up the next week by Autism Speaks’ In Your Own Words Blog:
“Is your son on the spectrum?”
The question was slightly jarring to me. My son and I had just walked into a gymnastics class for kids with autism. We had received his diagnosis only three weeks before, and we hadn’t shared our news with anyone except for close friends and family. It was the first time we had been anywhere that was just for kids like mine and I wasn’t really ready to talk to a total stranger about it.
“Yes,” I answered, trying to keep the conversation short.
“Hi, and welcome! That’s my son over there, and my name is Sandy. How old is your son? Do you live in town? How long have you known your son was on the spectrum? What was his diagnosis?”
I really didn’t want to answer her. I wasn’t even sure we belonged at this class, and all I wanted to do was pay attention to my son to see how he was responding to the class. I watched the other kids as they came in – six boys and one girl – and my first instinct was that we were in the wrong place. One little boy was crying, another was spinning in circles, and another one was running in all different directions. My son‘s not like that, I thought to myself. This isn’t us.
And then I looked at my Howie. I watched him hold tightly to his one-on-one helper’s hand as they walked on a low balance beam, but he wouldn’t look her in the eye when she talked to him. I watched him try to run away to jump into the comfort of the sensory foam blocks and become so focused on that foam pit that he couldn’t move onto anything else. I listened to him babble while he swayed back and forth on the rings, and saw the terror in his face when the noise level got up too high. The tears welled up in my eyes. We did belong here. This is the right place for him. We had found a safe place for him to exercise and develop his muscles in an environment that understood his special needs. For so long we had avoided the “regular” gym classes, music classes, and playgroups because of his behavior. No one here was giving me the usual disapproving looks we get when we’re out places and Howie starts to act up.
Two years later. Here I was. Asking these parents the same questions asked of me. Watching them wonder if this was the right class for their daughter. I wanted to welcome them in the way my now very good friend welcomed me that day.
“It’s a great class,” I said. “We’ve been coming for two years. It’s been great for my son.”
Sitting on that bench with my friends, I remembered how hard it was to be there that first day.
This other mom was reaching out to make a connection – to find someone else who struggles on a daily basis like she does – something I myself had been desperate to do for weeks and months. I was instantly welcomed into a community of people who “get it.” No one batted an eye when Howie buried himself under the foam blocks at the end of class so he didn’t have to leave. I got comforting looks of understanding from all the parents and teachers when he had a major meltdown leaving the gym, and big thumbs up from everyone when we finally got our shoes on and went out the door. These were moms and dads who shared my daily difficulties of just getting out of the house. Finally we were somewhere that felt like we belonged.
I remember feeling so alone before that moment. Now I sit on the bench with the women who are now my lifeline. Part of a community that understands me and my son.
Howie and I went bouncing hand and hand out of the gym when the class was over. The dad was getting the details on paying for the class when we were leaving.
“Will we see you next week?” I asked.
“Yes, most definitely.” he replied.
“Will we see you next week?” asked the mom.
“Absolutely,” I replied.
This Saturday will be the first Saturday in two years that we will not be on the attendance list for the special needs gymnastics class. Howie’s recent behavior changes have made it difficult for him to participate appropriately in class. He’s becoming more aggressive and non-compliant. We’ve had to leave the class early two weeks in a row, the last time because he hit his one-on-one helper. He needs a break. I need to figure out what is causing these changes before he or someone else gets hurt.
Howie probably won’t care, since we’ll make sure to see his friends from class in other settings. I am sad. Very sad.
It’s not just because it’s the one hour a week I get to talk with my friends while our kids are occupied, although that it a huge part of it.
This was our place. The very first place we felt accepted. Our very first community.
That little girl and her parents walked into gymnastics to find a place for them.
We’re walking out of gymnastics having found that place.
We may be leaving the gym, but we’re a part of this community forever.
“And it’s so hard to do
And so easy to say
Sometimes you just have to walk away
And head for the door” – Walk Away by Ben Harper