My son with autism once again changed my life last winter. It was one of those warm winter days where scarves and gloves obscured the short sleeves. On this day, I was to teach my son the grit and speed and skill of a ballplayer on the hallowed grounds of the basketball court.

A Game Changer

My son is tall, lean but solid, with big hands, good balance, and immense concentration. Before the curtain closed on his eighth year, my son’s game would be pure without a stutter of any kind.

Like other boys his age, my son desires to play the great game, not sit on the sidelines unknown to it. Dribble here, dribble there, master the bounce pass, perfect the look-away and flash the lay-up. But the rules and nuances of the game allude my son—he isn’t quite there yet. Yet, he asks this day nonetheless, “Daddy, I want to play basketball?” Ask no more my Prince…you shall indeed.

The path to the court is short and barren from last week’s cold. My lessons along the way are full and balmy, however—with precision, I bestowed upon my son the sacred teachings of Dean, Bobby, and Wooden. The befriended butterfly and invitations to puddle-jump distract him, but I ignore the carelessness and continue my dissertation. I imagine his eagerness to learn to play overflowing.

The first bounce of the ball warms the sun. The day is perfect to feel the grip of the ball, keep eyes on the front of the rim, run the first drill, use your legs, shoot, and follow-through. My instruction flowed as some of the greatest words ever written—but, my son read none of them, and he forsakes every word.

Less than five minutes later, he disconnected entirely, strolling beyond the sidelines with a disappointed gait and unresponsive to my pleas to return to the lesson. At an adjacent playground, he found something to really play with—a mile-high slide. He climbed to the top and called for me. I arrived, ball-in-hand, at the base of the slide.

“Roll it up, Daddy!”

I obliged with a careful, slow roll skyward. He caught it and rolled it down with a good pace back to me.

“Catch it, Daddy!”

“Roll it up faster!”

“Catch it between your legs!”

“Now go over there and catch it!”

We did this—over and over, each time, each roll, each catch, all a little more creative than the toss before. That day, together, we created, mastered, and played an entirely new game. The name of that game is known only to my son, but I found myself smiling widely nonetheless.

We left the playground as the winter warmth gave way. On our short walk back, I did not say much, only reworked quietly how to change my training calculus. Then, my perspective changed for eternity—my son took my hand, his eyes met mine with a rare fixation, and he said, “Daddy, that was a really fun game. Can we come back and play tomorrow?” Finding it difficult to swallow I replied, “Of course we can.” And at that moment, I felt illiterate to the world, and whispered only to myself, “What the heck are you doing, Dad?”

See, my play sought to be “good” at something—a hidden motive for acceptance and respect. My son, however, did not seek any purpose beyond play itself. He wanted nothing more than experiencing a moment with his Dad and happiness outside the desperate dependency on artificial norms. With that short exchange, he taught me, like Coltrane and Miles, that my son does not play to-do—he plays to experience.

My son’s imagination frolics in a space outside of rules, or perhaps exists in no space at all. I learned that winter day that it is me who is restrained and who sits on the sidelines – not him. I defined his space where I think success, acceptance, and rightfulness reside, and where I think the ball should bounce. Boy, was I wrong—when you define the space of a child with autism, you lose, and you flirt with losing him. Worse, you frustrate their already intolerable interaction with the world. A world of two cities – one city is subservient to norms, where most of us live, and his city, a world away, is one of true lawlessness to defined concepts.

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And this is not merely “outside the box” thinking—rather, it is an imaginative playground where no box exists at all. I now fully embrace my son’s imagination because it is well beyond my own. This is not because he somehow functions in a higher state of being—rather, it is because he operates often unbound by socialized concepts. He does this largely because he doesn’t understand or interrupt many of these concepts correctly and thus, he doesn’t feel defined by them.

It is an immeasurable gift to unlocking doors most of us do not see. In a sense, he is a disembodied spirit outside regulated notions of fun, acceptance, success, and fulfillment (and apparently basketball as I know it). I entered that day knowing exactly what it meant to play ball and to be good at it. What I did not know is that basketball is not always basketball – nor does it have to be. It can be whatever the imagination wants it to be, which may well exceed Naismith’s lasting creation.

My connection with my son is not dependent upon the rules of basketball—or any game for matter. It rests on my willingness to ignore the Sports Dad on the sidelines, and plug into my son’s world—no matter how brief that visit may be.

The only lesson learned this day was how shackled I am to own my finiteness. When my son comes to me with an idea, I support it 110 percent, whatever it may be…now I find sometimes that I am the student and he is the teacher. When my son came to me that winter day and said, “Daddy, I want to play basketball?” I should have answered, “Sounds like fun, but how do we play?”

This article was featured in Issue 94 – Daily Strategies Families Need


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