Archive for Amazed & Awed

Number 9

Blake Bortles and Oviedo Challenger buddy CJ Williams

Blake Bortles and Oviedo Challenger buddy CJ Williams

Any little boy  who has thrown a football around the yard dreams of playing in the NFL.  Heck, half the middle aged men in America sitting on their sofas working on their love handles during “the game” are still secretly dreaming about it.

The NFL.  The pinnacle. The elite.  The very top of a very long, very steep, very hard to climb ladder.  It’s years of hard work, sweat, endless practices, study, physical exhaustion, pain, self denial and a personal inner drive that almost defies description.  It’s the place where the best are separated from the merely very, very good.  It’s the end of the line for a lot of dreamers.

Last week was the NFL draft.  Last week, hundreds of hopeful college players sat by their phones, waiting for the call.  And last week, for a handful of special young men, that dream came true.

One of them is VERY special to us.

Those of you patient enough to have followed my bloggish ramblings over the past year may remember that CJ is an enthusiastic member of Challenger football.  Challenger is a football program that lets children with disabilities actually play the sports they love to watch and dream of.  Challenger pairs these children with a volunteer “buddy” from a high school varsity team.  Right from the start, there were some amazing young high school football players that came out to buddy with the kids.

One was a local Oviedo high school quarterback.  He and CJ took to each other right away.  Aside from partnering with CJ at the Challenger games, he would come by just to hang out and shoot hoops or to sit in CJ’s room with him and watch old football games.  And I do mean old.  As in, games from the 1990’s.  Games from when before CJ was born.

CJ doesn’t watch the same football as the rest of us, and he doesn’t watch it the same way either.  You see, CJ has memorized the old games…play by play.  And when a big play comes along, CJ pauses and fast forwards through it…and then turns to tell you what happened.  In the more than half a decade CJ’s buddy has been visiting him, I don’t think he’s seen one significant play on our TV.  And he’s never once questioned it, redirected CJ, or lost patience with our grainy, flickering well-worn VHS tapes of forgettable football with all the good stuff “edited” out.

This young man has repeatedly been kind to my son…faithfully kind, and so very patient and full of good humor.  And over time, as my trust in him grew, my mother’s heart healed a little bit and my faith in the good things in this world was given a boost.  I was grateful, every time I saw CJ’s excitement when his buddy would visit, and I began to hope hard as I watched a dream unfold.

CJ’s buddy got to play football in college.  He was red shirted his first year and did not start for a couple of years.  It had to have been frustrating and he must have been discouraged at times.  Even with college classes and practice and a steady romantic relationship to tend to, he continued to visit CJ when he could over the holidays.  Once, he had three days off between exams and practice for his bowl game.  He came and spent more than two hours of that time with CJ…you guessed it…NOT getting to see the big play.

I kept accusing his mother over and over of forcing him to come visit.  She kept insisting over and over that she had not.

His jersey number in high school was # 9.  In spite of his buddy having a perfectly good name, CJ insisted on calling him Number 9 at all times.  We got used to it.  However, once he was in college, he was no longer a 9.  He was now # 5.  CJ went out of his way to explain that Number 9 was Number 5.  I am sure people thought poor CJ was so confused and did not know his numbers, but he was spot on in his own loyal way.

Blake Bortles and Oviedo Challenger buddy CJ Williams

Blake Bortles and Oviedo Challenger buddy CJ Williams

Four years of college came and went.  Things started to change.  CJ’s buddy was tapped to play.  Bench went to second string to first string.  Play he did.  And the university team started to win.  And win.  And win.  CJ’s pride and excitement for his buddy was a joy.  He knows little about rankings or scouts or drafts.  But he knows what a dream feels like.

Meanwhile, I was standing to the side with my mouth open, watching this young man’s star rise beyond wild dreams, holding my breath, watching his family holding their collective breath…so, so proud.

Not too long ago, CJ was watching old highlights from 50 years of FSU football.  (Yes, we have old FSU games.  We can’t help it.)  CJ knows all the players, the plays and everything that has ever happened on the FSU field.  That day’s respite worker asked him who his favorite player was.  He answered right away that it was # 9.  She was trying her best to figure out who #9 was, as there was no #9 on the TV screen.

Well…..#9 IS his favorite player EVER.  #9 comes to his house.  #9 spends time with him.  #9 plays big football, but #9 is HIS friend.  #9 is in the big photo framed on CJ’s wall.  #9 has nothing to do with FSU and everything to do with CJ.  # 9 is #5 now, but he’s still #9.

Last Thursday night, #9 was drafted into the NFL.  He got the call.  #3 draft pick and the #1 quarterback pick.

Let me say that again:  #3 pick in the draft, and #1 quarterback.

Never, ever tell me dreams don’t come true.  Sometimes, nice guys do finish first.

The Jacksonville Jaguars and the NFL might think Blake Bortles is #5, but to CJ and me he is and will always be HIS #9.

In between pro days and the combine, Blake made a special trip out to Challenger practice to meet with the kids.  We knew he was coming, but were not allowed to tell anyone.  NO ONE.  The coaches didn’t even know.  Blake’s mom printed 200 5×7 photos and Blake signed his name to every one and took photos with the kids for over an hour.  He did not leave until the last kid and parent had every photo and autograph they wanted.  Keep in mind this is a young man who was just days away from the draft…someone under tremendous pressure from all sides…and this was where he choose to focus his time and attention.

We were not allowed to call the press.  We were not allowed to even tell the Little League players he was coming.  He came in the back way and went out the back way.  This was before the draft and we wanted to help him get some good press going in.  Coverage of an event like this could have been PR gold for Blake.

No.

We offered to tell anyone that might help.

No.

We wanted to make sure that people knew what kind of man he was when no one was looking.

No.

That wasn’t why he was there.  That was never why he’d been there.  He got it, even if it took us a while to catch up.

CJ got it all along.  Blake was there for HIM.

Of course, word did get out.  Oviedo Little League was contacted last week by the National Little League.  They wanted to know how Blake was connected to Challenger.  They interviewed the director of Challenger.  They wanted photos.  An article was in the works.  I sent in photos as requested, just as originally taken.  The article just came out and CJ is mentioned.

Blake Bortles, Lindsey Duke and Oviedo Challenger buddy CJ Williams

Blake Bortles, Lindsey Duke and Oviedo Challenger buddy CJ Williams

I love that everyone now knows that THAT is how Blake acts when no one is looking.  And I love that they know it after the draft, so they can believe it just like we always have.

(PS….his brother does exactly the same thing.  His brother, Colby Bortles, plays baseball at Ole Miss.  We’ll be seeing him in the MLB draft in a few years.  Love, love, love those Bortles boys!)

Blake and his beautiful girlfriend Lindsey have been CJ’s friends, supporters and fans from those first football tosses on the Challenger field when no one could have imagined the paths two entirely different boys would take, or that a dream could be so generously shared.

To # 9 who is #5 but always #9, thank you…and I’m still holding my breath…for both boys.

Long Live The King!

King-or-Queen-Crown-largeBack in October, I wrote a post called “Haunted Homecoming.”  In it, I was struggling to come to terms with CJ’s peculiar popularity, which has taken him places in the high school hierarchy that most of us could only dream of when we were 18.  I watched him hover around the Homecoming King and Queen that night, inside the group but a million miles away at the same time.  And it hurt.

Since then, CJ has been hanging out with friends through the Best Buddies program.  Best Buddies is an organization that pairs typical students with special needs students.  During the year, they eat lunch together and spend time together.  Typical kids spend time with the special students and everyone’s horizon grows.  It has resulted in some incredible relationships for some families I know.

CJ’s school started a Best Buddies program a while ago.  The program creates opportunities for the buddies to do some of the same things every other student does.  For example, right now they are having a Walk-a-Thon to raise money and they’ve asked each student to try to raise $50.  In less than 2 weeks, CJ has raised over $300.  He is the highest on his team so far.

Tonight…was the Best Buddies Prom.

I thought it was just for his school.  At first, I was just confused.  I know what “Prom” looks like.  I had no idea what “CJ’s Prom” was supposed to look like.

CJ Tux T

 

I knew he would never wear a shirt and tie.  So, I ordered a green novelty t-shirt online with a tux jacket and tie printed on the front of it.  He always wears green shirts anyway, and this way he would be in a “tux”.  I knew the kids at school would love it.  I celebrated my cleverness online with friends.

 

 

Then I found out that the event won’t be at his school.  Instead it’s at the local Shrine Temple.  Okay….

Also, it’s not just going to be his school  It’s going to be kids from all over our area.  Ah.  It’s one of THOSE events.  I have seen photos of other people’s kids at these functions.  They all wear shirts and ties and even jackets.  NOW WHAT?

Even my husband said that he could not wear the t-shirt, and that’s saying something. So off to the store with CJ.  Joy.  Shopping with CJ is like shopping with any boy who hates to shop, but really really magnified.  I make him try on A shirt.  One.  Fortunately, I found a green one.  I then find a tie that matches.  I would have then celebrated my cleverness online with friends, except it is going to take an Act of God to make him wear this getup.

It seemed premature.

CJ green shirt

Last night was The Night.  We started getting ready hours early.  I got him to take a shower.  I shaved him.  Remember about trying not to cut a moving object?  I rock.  No blood drawn tonight!  It takes 20 minutes to get him in his pants, belt, socks, shoes, and shirt.  I even got the shirt tucked in.  I made my husband tie the tie on himself before he went to work, as I haven’t tied a tie since it really mattered, which I think would have been my wedding, and maybe not even then.  I didn’t even try to get the tie on CJ.  It went in my purse for the future battle in the parking lot at the Shrine Temple.

 

It is not hot here in Florida right now, but by then, I was sweating like I had been working out, which in a way, I was.  To escalate the entire traumatic process, I insisted on taking photos at each step.  I decided that it would be funny to have a step-by-step of the torture I was inflicting on him.

I think I really do have an evil streak.  Like any good parent.

The whole way there he asks me which way we are going.  Do we turn here?  Which direction now?  I keep taking deep breaths.  He wants to know what time I am picking him up.  He wants to make sure they know how to reach me.  Will I be waiting in the parking lot?  I assure him that I know how to get there and continue to give him the next turn over and over.  I explain that of course, they will want my number.  I promise to be there right at 9 PM.

It was CJ’s brand of nervous, but I realized he was nervous about Prom.  Like any high school kid.

CJ shirt tieWe get there and have the “you HAVE to wear the tie” fight in the parking lot.  I finally get it on him.  We compromise by leaving the top shirt button unbuttoned.  I just leave the tie a little loose.  And Lo! and Behold!  He looks good!  I mean really good.  Almost normal good.  And that’s really good!  I am so relieved.  As we walk in, all the men are wearing ties and several are wearing jackets.  Everyone looks fabulous.  The girls are all done up with dresses, hair and make up.  This is a real prom.  We see several friends of his from other schools that he knows from baseball.  We even see his favorite friend.  I am relieved.  CJ is relieved.  In fact, I can’t even find him now.  I’m the mom with the camera and I wanted a picture of him with his friend.  Oh well, maybe when I pick him up.

 

We get to the front table and they have him sign in.  There are blanks for name, school, etc.  He walks up and signs a huge “CJ” in the middle of the page.  They look a little taken aback.  Secretly, I like his approach, but I walk up and shrug and sign him in correctly.  But wait a second.  There is no place for contact information.  ????  Beg Pardon?  I was then told that this was Prom.  No parents allowed.  There was a “lounge” over there for parents to wait in.  Wait for 3 hours?  No thank you.  I made dinner plans.

Just before I left, I tell them that he is very concerned that they know how to reach me.  Doesn’t he know my number?  Ah, no.  No, he does not.  They direct me to the woman in charge who takes my information.  I get temporary “mom with camera” permission to go into the room and take some pictures.  Inside, I am greeted by a beautiful young lady who is taking photos with CJ.  She informs me that she is the buddy from his school.  My internal jaw drops.  She says that she loves him and is always trying to get him to look at her, but he won’t.  I explain that he literally can’t look at pretty girls.  The prettier they are, the worse it is.  She is happy to take my number and promises to call if he has any problems.  I think I may have influenced her.

At 6:15, I happily go off to dinner, feeling things are far better than they could have been and sure that CJ will have a good time.

At 8:15, as I am leaving dinner, my phone rings.  It is a buddy from his school.  CJ is ready to leave.  Seriously?  Wait!  I have 45 more minutes.  I beat down my internal timekeeper with a sigh and tell them I am on my way.  I am really disappointed.  If he’s calling me to pick him up 45 minutes early, he must have had a tough time.

I walk in expecting to see him miserable.  Instead I see him dancing with a gorgeous blonde girl in a pink dress.  I walk up and he introduces me (he has to ask her name first).  She does not go to his school, but was having a great time dancing with him.  I thank her, blinking a bit at her pink blonde gorgeousness.  And then CJ’s buddy from his school comes running up to me.  She is practically bursting with excitement, exclaiming that she took photos for me.  I…thank you.  I ask her to send them. She keeps talking…a lot…something about the crown and the queen and the photos she took.  Now I am confused.  She is going to send me lots of photos of two kids I don’t know and haven’t met?  Then she looks at CJ, and back at me and says “He is the King!”

Wait.  What?  WHAT????  How many Kings are there?  Is there one per school?  One for the special needs kids and one for the typical?

No. There is one King.  ONE KING.

CJ IS THE PROM KING!!!!!

Now, I am shaking.  I am confused.  How did this work?  How did they pick him? Who picked him?  She had no idea. She said that he was having such a good time that they must have just wanted him to be king.

I have no idea who “they” are, and at this point, I don’t care.

I am trying to not cry as he leaves me standing there.  He is the King.  He is done.  It’s time to hit the road.  He tries to leave immediately while I am still standing there in shock, but they have stationed a guard at the door.  This poor guy’s job is to block the kids trying to leave without their parents.  CJ, however, got right by him.  And then we have the guard running toward the exit door, trying to stop The King from leaving the building.  CJ was bigger then this guy.  He kept telling the guy that I was coming.  Of course, the guy didn’t know if that meant “right behind me” or “an hour from now.”  Finally the poor guy saw me in the hallway and was so relieved.

I am just trying to get out of there without breaking down.

We got to the car and CJ wanted to know what was wrong.  Was I mad at him?  What did he do?  Who upset me?  I was shaking and still trying to not cry.  I called my mom to tell her.  I couldn’t  even get the words out.  I started crying and had to wait to calm down enough to talk to her.

I posted on Facebook.  I called everyone.  And this morning, I still can’t process it all.

All he has talked since is how much fun he had.  For someone going to a dance, who hates evening events and crowds, he had a pretty awesome time.

Last night I was thinking of all the times I had cried because CJ would never be anyone’s dream prom date.  I was thinking of all that I always thought would never be.  And last night, I realized that sometimes CJ’s reality is better than anything I could ever have hoped for.

As our friend, Steve, would say, “CJ has now surpassed us all”.  None of us were ever Prom King or Queen.  None of us would have even dreamed of it.  CJ wasn’t anyone’s Dream Date when he arrived.  But when he left, he was King!!

And he has the crown to prove it!

CJ King

 

 

 

Long live King CJ!

Just One of the Boys

Man caveIt wasn’t long after CJ was born that I noticed something: Men…are different from women.

A little late, you say, given that I already had a kid?

No, no, no. Not THAT kind of different. It’s just that I’ve noticed that men have certain…well…qualities.

Most men don’t want to engage in long meaningful conversations.  They don’t want to look at each other any more than they have to to get the channel changed or another beer brought from the fridge. Men think that sitting on a couch facing the same way silently watching TV for hours is socializing. When they do get up and move around, men prefer to do something.  Build something, throw a ball, run, mow, fix, etc.  And most men prefer doing one thing at a time, completely, before moving on to the next thing. Multitasking is unpleasant and to be avoided.

I have seen men I love work side by side for an entire day and not know one darn thing more about each other’s lives at the end of the day than they did when they started that morning.

Me: Thanks for fixing the car. You guys did a great job.
Him: No problem!
Me: Hey, how are he and Karen doing with the new baby? That first week home from the hospital is always rough.
Him: …. They have a new baby?
Me: Yes…. You know…the one that was born two weeks ago after her mother died and he lost his job of 15 years?
Him: …. Oh. He didn’t say.

Does any of this sound kind of familiar? Maybe a little bit…autistic?

There. I said it. Really, I had to say it. Because it explains so much.

From the start, men have always been attracted to CJ.  No matter how much his autism was driving his behavior at any moment, men have rarely had a problem having him around.  Men usually think he’s funny even when he is acting crazy.  When he was a baby, big, tough men would stop me on the street or in stores and tell me how cute he was.  Seriously, one day a work van stopped right in the middle of my street when I was crossing with CJ. A tough-looking construction worker leaned out of his window and said, “That is one cute baby.”  Fifteen years later, I am still a little shocked.

Even now, it’s no different. Football, basketball, you name it. All the players love him. He’s the kid who gets the shout outs and the “Woot!” when he shows up on the field. It’s something about his energy, I think. Autism or no, he just radiates “BOY!” And men and boys, without comment, without full eye contact, without question…they see it, they know it, they honor it and the door to the man cave opens wide.

Over the years, there have been several boys in our lives who never seem to notice CJ’s autism, or if they do, they just don’t care. I guess if you discount lack of conversation, lack of eye contact, hyperfocus on one thing at a time while excluding everything else, side by side parallel activity and the need to raid the refrigerator every 30 minutes, for a boy there aren’t really any “issues” with CJ.

CJ has never really wanted to play with Legos or action figures.  But somehow these boys have gotten him to participate many times.  I am always confused when this happens. The boys have all been considerably younger than him, but I’ve realized that CJ is being patient with them while they are being patient with him. Everyone wins. They are having Man Moments.  Somehow, the Man Factor can trump autism every now and then.

We were at the beach with close family friends not long ago when one boy got CJ to build a sandcastle with him…for over an hour.  He directed CJ to go and get water and told him where to dump it.  They built and built and I kept watching, waiting, and thinking that CJ would have had enough any moment or want to leave five minutes later like he usually does.  But he was was fine and he kept on being fine, which meant we got to hang out and have a normal beach day. Later that night, looking out of the window of our condo, CJ was concerned to see someone digging on the beach.  He wanted to make sure they were not wrecking his “castle”.  I asked if he had had fun building it.  Instead of the usual “yeah” or “fine,” I got a big “YES!”

He wanted to keep talking about it, too. That day, CJ was just one of the boys.

Thanks Zachary!

So Typical

E & CJ 2I’ve been thinking about this post for days, because there’s still a part of me that can’t wrap my head around it all.

What do you say about the miracle of The Typical?  What do you say about someone who is born into this world extraordinary, simply by being ordinary?

We waited a long time after CJ was born before we even dared to consider having another child.  Both Chris and I loved CJ completely, but at the same time, we were scared to death.  For a whole handful of reasons, we finally decided to go forward, hoping for something that anyone who hasn’t borne a child with a disability would simply take for granted.  My soul went on tiptoe for nine months.

And then came Elizabeth.

Elizabeth with her clouds of hair that shift from chocolate to caramel in the sun.  Elizabeth with her pixie smile and her all-girl attitude.  Elizabeth, my completely typical, utterly unique daughter.

She excelled on every level from birth.  She walked before she was 9 months old.  She didn’t bother to toddle…she just skipped right over that part and stood and walked.  She took her first steps and then she ran!  She could speak in full sentences in her tiny, tiny voice before she was a year old.   One day, when she was about a year old, she was walking around when I heard her count to ten to herself.  I almost fell on the floor.  I had spent years with tutors, therapists and manipulatives trying to teach CJ to count to 10.  He was now 8 and still couldn’t do it.  That had been our normal.  And I knew then and there I was in trouble.  Now I was dealing with both ends of the spectrum.

Elizabeth was born older than her years in so many, many ways.  They call such children “old souls” and she came into this world with a strong sense of right and an inner knowing.  Give her good information and she will (usually) make good choices.  She is confident and direct and she continues to be (mostly) unimpressed by people with special needs.  Life with CJ has led her to conclude there’s nothing special about it.  CJ is special because he’s her brother, not because he has autism.  We have a friend with a daughter with Down ’s syndrome.  E usually goes out of her way to help protect this girl.  Lately, she has been irritated with her and not always so nice to her.  I finally realized that she was treating her like she treats anyone else annoying.  The girl was a person and she was irritating her, period.  I couldn’t say she was wrong.

Elizabeth is around special needs kids on a regular basis and doesn’t seem to care much.  I always say that nothing intimidates her.  She lives with CJ.  She is not scared of boys or kids bigger than her.  She will take on the big boys at school in foot races (and often wins).  She takes on the bullies too.

She is a normal 10 year old girl.  This means she drives me nuts.  She rolls her eyes.  She fights with her brother.  She doesn’t do her chores when she’s supposed to.  Sometimes she’s messy and thoughtless, like any kid.  But she is also wonderfully understanding and kind.  She will stop whatever she is doing to help me with a problem with CJ.

Once I was in the middle of telling her how much she had irritated me that week by not doing what she was supposed to…and then I realized that she had dropped what she was doing to help with CJ more than one time in the last day.  I took a deep breath and then called her back over.  I told her that I really appreciated how she helped me, and that it really made a difference, when I was in the middle of something, that I didn’t have to stop to take care of what he needed.  She looked at me and said, “I don’t mind.  I want to learn as much as I can about helping people with Autism so that one day if I have a child with Autism, I will know how to help them.”

???!!???

Not “Autism is my worst nightmare”.  Not “having a child with any special need of any kind would ruin my life”.  Not even “CJ has ruined my life”.

I never would have guessed.

For the parent of a child with autism, there is no typical.  There is only extraordinary.

 

Thank you

Autism thank youAs I continue this journey with the support of friends, we have set up a Twitter account and a Facebook account for Autism Moves Out (something I never thought I’d do).  I think I mentioned in my very first blog post that I wasn’t really sure if a blog would be worthwhile…or even possible for me to do.  I’ve had this idea…this vision in my head for a while now but I figured that stories about my family and our “adventures in autism” wouldn’t really be interesting to anyone who wasn’t living it.

I’m not sure what I expected exactly.  I have told people about the blog and tried to describe preparations for a foundation.  I figured some people would laugh.  I thought some people would ignore me or just change the subject.  I figured that unless you had a reason to care, you wouldn’t.

I have been thrilled to find that every single person I have told about this has been interested.  Almost all of them have asked good questions and/or offered information.  I have had people send me contacts and web sites.  I have had people tell me about group homes for other disabilities.  This has lead me to my favorite site so far, a company that is a home for Alzheimer’s patients and uses a model close to the one in my head.  People I don’t even know and have no idea how they found me are reading the blog and liking me on Facebook.

This has helped fuel me and make me believe in this more and more.  The more people I meet and talk to, the more I realize how many parents there are out there that need or will need the same things we do, and this only motivates me to continue.  My greatest hope in all of this is to not just make a true home for my son, but assist others in creating homes of their own.

Thank you.

 

It’s a Gift

autism smiley-faceLast night, I was reminded of something I so often forget (or at least lately I do).  I was reminded how funny CJ is.  I was reminded how happy he can make the people around him.

We went to a graduation party for one of his friends.  This young man is “typical” and everyone there was “typical.”  Yet most of the people there knew CJ, or at least knew of him.  They were all very nice and as I watched, I realized they were genuinely happy to meet him.

He was not crazy about the more crowded area towards the back of the house where everyone was congregating.  So he positioned himself at the front window.  He would look out between the blinds and then, as people walked up to the door, he would jump up to greet them.  “Come on in!” he would say over and over.  “Come on in!”  Every single person walked in with a smile on their face.  Someone commented on it to me.  She was smiling…thought it was great…and all of a sudden, I had a flash of something that happens every time we go out of the house.

Think Walmart or Sam’s Club.  Now, think Walmart or Sam’s Club on a Saturday.  Uh huh.  Exactly.  Most people coming out of either place on a Saturday are not happy about it.  They don’t want to be there.  People sort of trudge out of the store looking grim, looking harassed, looking down frowning or hurrying straight ahead, trying to get to the car before their toddler goes head first out of the cart.  One friend I have says she hits Walmart like a surgical strike, with a goal to beat her last best time getting in and getting out.  Everyone knows that you only go to Sam’s or Walmart or any big store on a Saturday if you have no other choice.

And then here comes CJ.  We will walk into Sam’s or Walmart on any given Saturday.  As we walk in, CJ always greets each person he sees…every one of them.  “You have a great day!”  “See you!”  “You have a great day!”  He has a huge smile, and will at these moments often look directly at people.  Remember, he’s nearly 18 and he’s six feet tall now.  People’s are usually startled for a moment, but then their reactions are almost always positive.  When they see him smiling and talking to them, they can’t help but smile back.

And he had everyone at the party last night smiling.  The other mother and I were remarking that a kid being cute is often the thing that keeps a parent from reacting in an “inappropriate” manner.  I have a vivid memory of him at a young age.  I don’t remember why, but I was so mad at him.  I was speaking in a loud tone of voice (insert “screaming in frustration” here).  He just looked at me and then he grinned that huge grin of his.  I couldn’t help it.  I started laughing and then so did he.  And once CJ laughs –  everyone laughs.  You just can’t help it.  I finally looked at him, and in between cracking up with laughter I said, “You are still in trouble!”

Well, sort of….

Autism Kicks Off

Challenger Football-Autism Kicks OffOne of the great joys of CJ’s life is sports.  He helps with the varsity baseball and football teams at high school.  The true love of his life is HIS Challenger baseball team.  He has been in heaven since we discovered Challenger.

With Challenger, for the first time he was allowed to play…really play…with his own peers.  These peers are HIS friends.  He talks about them.  He has photos of them in his room and in his albums.  He talks about them and even hopes to eventually live with some of them.

The biggest difference between Challenger and other leagues is that Challenger lets the kids play.  The kids have buddies, but they are high school kids, not adults.  And the buddies are not allowed to pick up or even touch the ball.  The only exception is if a kid can not physically pick it up.  They will then pick it up, hand it to the kid, and the kid will throw it.

When we started, the kids couldn’t do anything. Balls were going everywhere.  Almost everyone hit off a tee.  It was controlled chaos, and one might think, seemingly pointless.  But now, only a small group hits off the tee.  The kids attempt and often complete plays.  When they are out, they are out!  There is no “everyone gets to run bases”.  It’s the real thing.  They love it!  They love tagging each other out.  They learn to deal with getting thrown out.  It’s real ball with real kids and the only exception to the general rules is that, at the end of the game they all “won”, if you ask them.

The buddies are varsity high school baseball players from the local schools.  We have had buddy players who have gone pro and to college on scholarships.  We have several who come back to visit or participate when they are home.  I have seen times when the buddies were getting more out of this than the kids themselves…more than once.  There is something to be said about arriving, bummed about losing a major game, and then watching these kids and spending a Saturday morning with them.  It puts things in perspective.

I have a couple of things I say over and over.  When you have a child, you have the same dreams for that child as everyone else.  It is a boy!  He will play little league!  If he is good enough, he will play in high school.  He shows some early talent, so who knows?  He may get a college scholarship.  And the ultimate dream for everyone would be to play in the pros. Why not?

Then you get “the news”.  One by one your dreams for your child fall away.  There will be no pros, then no college, then no high school.  Little league?  Maybe a “special” team.  You look, and find that no one will actually let these kids play, though.  And then we found Challenger.  Challenger gave back to all of us a little of what we had started to think he would never have.  He has HIS team with HIS friends.  He gets to really play.  He loves it!

The other thing that I say over and over is that if you think the youth of America are going nowhere good, come out on a Wednesday night or a Saturday morning and sit with us.  The buddy’s teams may play until after 9 PM and then will have practice on Saturday morning.  But they still come out with our kids.  They have jobs, girlfriends and are taking tough classes to get into college.  But here they come.  We have had buddies take off of work to come with us to jamborees.  We have had adults rearrange out of town trips to be back for games or so they don’t miss practices.

There are AMAZING kids all over!  And CJ helped me see that.