Saturday, June 19, 2010

The US Open: Leaderboard

As of 11:27 AM CDT, Ernie Els is tied for second at the US Open in Pebble Beach, just two shots off of the lead. While most of the US coverage is focused on Phil Mickelson, I'll stick with Els.

Back in 2008, after failing to win a PGA Tour event in 2005, 2006 and 2007, Els won the Honda Classic. Five days later, Els held a press conference and said, "I have a son with autism - his name is Ben."

I get that.

In a game dominated by mental toughness as much as physical ability, it's no surprise that Els struggled from 2005-2007. His mind was getting its ass kicked on a regular basis. Here's how he described it to Parade Magazine:

"I was feeling sorry for myself. You're a man, you have your boy: You want to play football, soccer, and golf with him. Out on the Tour, you miss a couple of putts, and you don't play well. That's an emotional roller coaster, regardless of what's going on in your personal life. Then, all of the sudden, you connect the two--my God, my son has autism--and you really feel a bit depressed."

No celebrity story about autism resonates with me more than Els's. It isn't the fact that his son, Ben, is Robbie's age. It isn't the fact that his daughter, Samantha, is Kelly's age. It isn't the fact we're both outstanding golfers. It isn't even the fact that our personal trajectories' with autism almost occurred at the exact same time. It's how he and others describe his experience. The similarities are just hard for me to miss.

Els tried to keep Ben's condition private. He tried to deal with it on his own for a long time. That doesn't work. It's a lesson most of us had to learn the hard way. For Els, it took strokes off his game. For me, it put pounds on my waist. He kept an outward appearance of calmness and hid the fact from the people closest to him, including Chubby Chandler, his manager. As CBS Sports reports:

On the surface, Els always looks calm. When he was winning 15 times between 1994-2004, he looked calm. When he was winning just once from 2005-09, he looked calm. Even his manager and close friend, Chandler, didn't know.

I get that.

"At the time, I couldn't see what he was going through," Chandler said. "I couldn't see the bad side. But now that it's good, I see the good side. I see how relaxed he is. He's serene." It starts with a first step.

I have a son with autism.

The hardest words I've ever said. And they're still hard. But once you finally say them - and mean them- the damn breaks. The water rushes out in a fury. Eventually it empties and you start to get your life back. Your game. Your sanity. Your waist. Now, off to the gym.

(Thanks to Mike S. for the Parade link)

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Hiatus: What Gives?

It's been over two months since I last posted. Seems hard to believe to me. Did I take a two-month vacation from autism? No. Unfortunately, it doesn't work that way. Did I spend the last two months enjoying autism? In a way, yes.

Robbie's school year ended a week and a half ago. The lead up towards the end included a few bumpy days but nothing what we experienced last year. It's hard to believe the year's over and just how far we've all come.

But the last day of school was the icing on the cake. That day we learned that Robbie had been awarded a "Junior Self-Manager" award. It is given to children at his school that demonstrate the ability to manage their behavior appropriately during the school day. This isn't something for the special education students. It's for all of them. For Robbie to have achieve this represents a dramatic improvement in behavior management.

Progress is a lot like knowledge. The more you acquire, the more you realize is out there. This is no different for Robbie. The incredible progress had made over the last school year has helped me realize that there are other areas - areas I'd written off - that we should explore. A key goal, one I've been hoping for him to pursue, is to improve his social skills. Because of what he's achieved this year, he will be participating in a small social skills group next year at school. We will also be working with him to establish friendships over the summer to get him interacting with more kids.

One type of goal I hadn't considered is improving his physical activity. While he will resume his occupational therapy over the summer, I don't see that as the same thing. I'd never been able to interest Robbie in any kind of physical activity, whether its sports or simply playing catch. But then Rodney Peete's book, Not My Boy, gave me an idea. Rodney devised a simple plan to engage his son, RJ, to play with him. He didn't ask his son an open ended question like, "Do you want to play catch?" He made a specific statement: "We're going to go outside. I'm going to throw the ball to you ten times and you're going to throw it back to me ten times. Okay?" Voila! He played catch with his son.

When I presented this to Robbie in the exact same manner, I experienced the same results. Thanks to Rodney Peete, I played catch with my son for the first time. It's not easy to keep him interested or getting him to keep doing it. But he's done it and now I know it can be done. Knowing how debilitating PE is for him at school (and that it will only grow worse over time), it's critical he improve his physical skills. The difference now is that I think it's possible.

So yeah, I've been enjoying autism for a while. It hasn't gone away and probably never will. But I'm going relish those few moments we get when things finally go our way.