Mafe Maria: Personal stories by autism parent mentor, Maria Stultz

Moving into Fear

For several years, Joaquin has participated in recreational basketball leagues coached by his dad. Basketball is not only this child’s most ardent passion; it’s also been a very powerful vehicle through which he has stretched his sensory sensitivities along with his motor, learning, and social skills. With this particular season I had heard from him and his “papa coach” that Joaquin was very challenged by the kids in the team. This particular group, they said, was extremely active, and the kids would often play rambunctiously throughout the practice. Joaquin hated it, I learned. But I wasn’t very involved in my son’s basketball life out of the house, and so I would just tell him to be patient and understanding since the kids were probably using practice time as an outlet to let go of all the energy they couldn’t release in school. You can’t control them, Joaquin. So you might as well try to soften your sensitivity to give yourself a more comfortable experience, was my (not very wise) advice.

At the end of January I started working with Tali Berman (an autism specialist I’ve followed for years) to guide and support my home program at this stage of our journey, and in order to show her a complete snapshot of Joaquin I went to basketball practice to observe and record some video. I saw the stimulus: Kids roughhousing around Joaquin while waiting in line for their turn to do a drill. I watched Joaquin’s response: Uncomfortably avoiding being touched while keeping his place in line—sometimes losing it—while desperately trying to listen and follow the instructions. I watched a scrimmage, and a few days later, a game against another team. Joaquin was usually in the periphery of the action, running a little behind the group and keeping himself in uncrowded spots where he could get rebound balls and shoot baskets. It was amazing to see him do all this. My baby! Learning in a group, tolerating overwhelming sensory input, working in a team, following rules, dealing with fast moving objects… A miracle considering where he began! And I realized that this fear of contact was totally on his way, and if he could shift it the results could be amazing: On his basketball skills (extremely meaningful to him), and in who knows what other areas (neuroplasticity is a beautiful thing).

Joaquin loves roughhousing with me and plays rough 1:1 basketball with papa. He trusts that papa won’t hurt him, while kids may. But regardless of injuries he assured me: He simply didn’t like physical contact with children. I watched him closely and noticed: It looks like he can tolerate some contact with them; what he appears to fear is the unexpected, unpredictable contact. The kind that happens during team practice.

So I had an idea. I’d help Joaquin perceive many variations of unexpected unpredictable physical contact while he felt safe. I’d blindfold him and take him through three stages: First he’d lay on his stomach, then he’d sit on the ground, then (if he felt like it), I’d have him stand. And in each of those positions I’d surprise him touching him with different objects, different intensities, in different ways. He agreed enthusiastically and we played this way for 15 minutes. Then we reversed roles and he surprised me with contact while I was blindfolded. Next day we did it again wearing a blindfold and headphones playing classical music in order to be even more surprised without visual and auditory input. We did it for 15 minutes again.

After our first session he told me: I noticed something! I realized that I could take it. I nodded and quietly cheered in my mind. His awareness that he could take all this unexpected rough and subtle contact and still remain anchored, grounded, and safe could create very significant change. I hoped to see some changes but didn’t expect them; he’d been challenged by this for months! We went to basketball practice the next week…

Not only was Joaquin now comfortable with the roughhousing around him; he was putting himself closer to the kids to see if he could get a little bumped. He was amused and smiling, watching them wrestle understanding “they’re just playing and having fun”. When practice was over, two of the kids stayed shooting baskets. Suddenly Joaquin started trying to steal their ball engaging playfully aggressively with them. “Papa coach” and I watched in awe and silence as the three kids played basketball with two balls. For me, time stood still. Joey looked at me and said You are the Joaquin Whisperer… Joaquin would steal, slap, jump next to them trying to catch the ball. And he did the same on the weekend game, and he’s kept doing it ever since. Not fearless yet. But taking risks and moving closer and closer to his fear and love for this contact game.

I didn’t do it. He did it himself. Because he wanted to get better in his game. He allowed himself to perceive differences. And this small victory started a cascade of exciting developments that keep coming every day. Joaquin is blooming like a flower and it’s not even spring yet.

Perceiving variations of unexpected and unpredictable physical contact. This is the end of our second 15-minute session. At this point he feels safe on his feet and has become aware that he can take it.
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