How Team Sports Helped One Very Special Kid
(By Guest Contributor Michelle Berkley)
As I sat in the bleachers game after game during my son’s sixth grade rec basketball season, I couldn’t help but notice Drew Sonn, a teammate with incredible passing skills. Drew always hustled, played hard, and handled the ball well, but rather than using these skills to take the ball to the hoop, more often than not, he passed. From Drew’s hands, the passes would come hard and fast to the open man or someone cutting in the lane, many times surprising the player himself. Week after week, Drew found and connected with his teammates through passing. Toward the end of the season when I complemented Drew’s mom, Erin, on his ability, I was surprised to learn that Drew has Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), a developmental disability that according to the CDC affects one in 68 US children.
Erin says she always knew Drew was different, but his official diagnosis of ADHD, mood disorder, and ASD did not come until Drew was nearly 9 years old. At that point, Drew’s team sports experience was already well established. A Tee-baller at age 4, Drew became “obsessed with baseball. He would watch, play, read about, discuss, and dream about baseball.” At 5, Drew added a second team sport, soccer, and since his diagnosis, he has played on flag football and basketball teams. Erin says Drew’s “choice of sports was never impacted by his ASD.”
Deciding if and when to share Drew’s diagnosis is a continuing struggle for Erin, especially since Drew often appears to be a normally developing 12 year old. But, some of Drew’s sports-related struggles are hidden to all except his family. “I get really, really nervous before games because I was always worried about my performance and how I would do, so I would stress and stress over it. I’d be up all night playing the game in my head as if it already happened. I would wake up nervous the morning of each game.” This crippling anxiety made Drew cranky and irritable and his family dread game days… until they delivered him to the field.
Experts including Julia Connelly, Ph.D., a psychologist and the clinical director at University of Utah Health Care’s Autism Spectrum Disorder Clinic, are most apt to recommend individual sports such as swimming and gymnastics for kids with autism, noting that team sports are often a struggle for kids with ASD because of communication and social difficulties. This rings true for Drew who says “team gatherings, social situations are uncomfortable for me,” and typically avoids dugout and sideline banter and prefers to opt out of end of season parties. However, Drew wants others to know that his autism doesn’t affect his success in sports. In fact, Drew excels in team sports. One of his many accomplishments in team sports was his selection to the Arlington Little League Division 4 All-Stars all four years of eligibility.
Within this past year, Drew has taken on his first individual sport, wrestling, and is planning to add a second individual sport, track. But, his decisions are fueled by a quality he shares with many competitive athletes, a desire to be the best at what he does. Drew feels he has more control over his results if he only relies upon himself, and credits sports with helping him “stay disciplined and more focused on a goal.” A highlight of his young sport’s career was winning his school’s annual push-up contest and pacer test (running endurance). “Being the best at these competitions made me proud and confident because I realized I was the strongest kid in the grade, and I felt successful because it was reward for my hard work.”
Although Drew is gravitating away from team sports, his mom Erin says the experience “has been great for Drew, not just for providing him with opportunities to be successful, confident, and proud, but also for social modeling. In the dugout, on the court, and on sidelines, Drew has been able to observe same-aged peers interacting in typical fashions. He learns to navigate social relationships with peers and coaches by watching what the other kids do. Team sports have enabled Drew to move beyond an internal, individual focus, and recognize his role in a larger group with a common goal.” And, although Erin supports Drew’s choice of sports, she is hoping his passion for his first team sport, baseball, will reignite by high school.
Michelle Berkley is a NASM Certified Personal Trainer and Youth Exercise Specialist, Youth Group Fitness Instructor, and mom of two kids who play a variety of youth sports.