Please allow me to explain myself. Perhaps I’m just trying to make excuses or make myself feel better, but this anti-football (until high school) mother just signed her sixth grader up for football, and I’m still a bit sick to my stomach about it. I’ve read the articles about the dangers of football and passed those articles to my son to read. So why did I do let him play this year when I’ve told him no for the past two years? Honestly, his Nonverbal Learning Disability (NLD), with the Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) and ADHD sprinkled in is why.
This summer, we moved from a place where Cameron knew to a place he doesn’t. He started middle school this school year with not one soul he knows. He does not do well with change, so I thought he’d be the one struggling most with the move, but it turns out his seven-year-old sister was the one crying like I’ve never heard her the night we said good-bye to our house. I should add that we moved only 20 minutes away from our old house, so the kids still go to visit the old neighborhood, sometimes as often as once weekly. I should also add that Cameron’s best and maybe only true friend also moved away from the last district, so Cameron was going to have few solid connections with friends he could trust at his old school.
After the move, Cameron seemed to transition well, although he told me that while he may look fine, he feels like crawling into a ball and screaming most of the time. And he did have some rough days a couple of weeks after the move where he was relentlessly mean to and critical of his sister. He made us promise to never move again, partially because it’s been difficult and partially because he says he loves the new house and he’s happier than he’s ever been. We moved from a tri-level with a one-car garage and close neighbors to a two-story colonial in a small neighborhood with big wooded lots situated in the middle of a country field, and he loves the space. He loves having room to move and run and play. He has even met another kid in the neighborhood and they seem to get along well.
So I signed him up for football because of all of this. I didn’t realize until after I’d done it that this town is hugely into football. This made me very nervous since subcultures freak me out, and I think some parents with kids in sports are dangerously close to a subculture. But I signed him up so he wouldn’t go into his first day blind; he may actually know some kids when he starts school. I signed him up because I know how he struggles with social situations and I want to arm him with everything I can to help him fit in a little. I signed him up because we actually missed the deadline by a lot and he cried and said he knew kids who play sports are more popular and that might help him. I signed him up because someone from the team called us to let us know he could still join even though we were way past the deadline (like by months), and the 3% chance I told Cameron he had to play actually happened. I signed him up because a mom once said to me that her sensory-seeking fifth grader was joining because it was actually a place that he could run into things without being told not to. I don’t have to tell Cameron to keep his hands to himself in football. I signed him up because he is football-obsessed and has wanted to join for years. And maybe the kids on the team will accept him for who he is and maybe even become his friends—even if only one does, it’s a win for our family.
His first week of football, I made a decision. Last year he played flag football and the coaches were really hard on him. They expected him to read a map of plays off his wrist, which works for most kids but not for someone with processing issues. He didn’t know where to go until he actually ran the plays several times, and then he was actually pretty good. The coaches didn’t know how to work with him though, so they were frustrated, as was Cameron. It was painful to watch. This year I made a choice to tell the coaches about how he learns best. When the opportunity arose, I explained his processing issues and that he will learn the plays but may take longer than other kids. I explained that what he has is a “cousin” to Asperger’s and may have actually been diagnosed as such depending on the psychologist. The coach’s eye lit up at this and I felt like I struck a chord. I know that NLD is not Asperger’s but when it comes to explaining it to people who don’t know, it’s easier to say it’s a cousin to it than trying to list all of the things that NLD means to our family. People know Asperger’s; they’ve usually never heard of NLD.
Because Cameron was late to start, he wasn’t allowed to do any contact for his first five practices, which is the norm. This put him right up to the first scrimmage. He forgot to tell us that he had to be there at 7:15 for his 8:00 am game, so we rushed him out the door in 15 minutes immediately after he woke up. Even at 7:15 we were sweating in the sun, watching our recently-awakened son stare into space as the team ran through plays he didn’t know because he hadn’t received the playbook via email because, again, we were so late to sign him up. My husband, Jon, grew frustrated watching Cameron stare at the other teams, the trees, the sky, anywhere except where he should be, so when it was Cameron’s turn to practice a play, Jon actually had to walk away. We heard how the coaches were yelling at the boys for not doing what they were supposed to, and we were prepared for that to happen to Cameron. Natural consequence. Then a miracle happened. When Cameron was up, the coach went to him, looked at him, told him exactly what to do, and said he’d stay there with him while he ran through the play. Cameron caught the ball and had to be reminded what to do next, but was rewarded with “knucks” and a pat on the back from his coach. I cried. I mean not just tears welling up in my eyes, but straight up crying. Who knew such a simple act could conjure up so much emotion? Those little things count so much when you have a child with challenges in any way.
At the first opportunity I had, I thanked the coach and told him how much it meant to me. This is the part that gets a bit hairy… He said he knows Cameron has Asperger’s so he’s going to learn it differently than other kids and some kids don’t respond to his intensity so he is able to bring it down for them. I did not correct him. Literally as I write this, my son is at football practice where they think he has Asperger’s because of me! I didn’t write that on the form I filled out, I wrote NLD, ADHD, SPD. But I’m assuming they didn’t read that. Does this mean I have Munchausen by proxy?
I knew I’d read somewhere that Asperger’s are NLD are interchangeable, so here’s what I found on “NLD on the Web”
“There is clearly a great deal of overlap between Aspergers Disorder (AD) and Nonverbal Learning Disabilities (NVLD), so much so that it is possible that the symptoms of each describe the same group of children from different perspectives—AD from either a psychiatric/behavioral perspective, and NVLD a neuropsychological perspective. The specific conventions of these diagnoses may lead to a somewhat different group of children meeting diagnostic criteria, but it is not clear that this reflects something ‘true’ in nature. That is, it may only be convention that separates these two groups.”
So that means I’m in the clear, right? It is important to me that he Cameron is accurately “labeled,” but maybe here it doesn’t matter because it’s semantics. Whatever I said to the coaches, they’re seeing it in Cameron and they are helping him grow because of what I pointed out to them.
I should add that the other parents are not a subculture, but rather they sat with their bags of food and sun umbrellas for four hours in the 90 degree heat and watched their sons without saying too much. That made me feel better too. I am so hopeful that the move we made will be a positive one for both of our kids. It was the most emotionally draining, physically exhausting summer ever, which may explain why I had influenza as I wrote this post. So far, uprooting our family seems like a step in the right direction, but it’s too early to know for sure. Cautious optimism…