It’s the end of summer but most people still want to play — at the beach, on a bike, or on the baseball diamond. For many, that urge even intensifies as the days grow shorter and the weather turns crisper. But my oldest son Nat, who is 33, is ready for the softball season to end.
Nat loves sports, but he is also profoundly autistic, so activities that rely heavily on interpersonal dynamics and communication — like softball — are challenging for him.
Nat’s attention disintegrates easily because he can’t quite modulate the sensory information all around him. He requires long periods of quiet to process questions — longer than most people are willing or able to give him — and so he often misses out on opportunities to connect. The arcane rules of softball probably make little sense to him: When do you run? When do you stop running? It depends on the situation, of course, but Nat craves absolutes, he needs certainty. He thrives with simple rules, predictability and steady action. He’s a terrific swimmer and a decent basketball player. He’s also an avid Red Sox fan, but that might be more about Fenway’s atmosphere than the game itself.
Nat lives in a group home with four other men who have similar challenges and similar interests. The place is hopping with activity and routines, and Nat loves it there because its predictability is infused with just the right amount of chaos for him. And, because the organization that runs the home believes in strong community and enriching activities, they participate in a softball league with other group homes. Nat goes along because he loves being with his housemates, and so he has been on their “Red Team” for the last few years.
Like most adult softball leagues, the teams are equal parts social and serious about their games. Unlike most local adult leagues, this one relies heavily on support from many, many coaches and others. The players arrive in vans filled with their constant companions, the group home’s residential staff. There are few spectators other than the staff, the group home residents who choose not to play — they come because of the camaraderie — and my husband and me.
And even though we have gotten used to Nat ducking the ball in the outfield and being tagged out before he reaches first base, we try to go to every Thursday night game and support him.
Deep inside, though, I’m not just cheering for him. I’m watching him with eagle eyes, making sure he’s doing okay physically and emotionally. I constantly worry about Nat because he can’t tell me if he’s unhappy, or in pain, or confused until suddenly, boom, he’s in a rage.
Because he was abused six or seven years ago, sending Nat to live in a group home was an act of faith. Even with a thorough investigation, we do not know what happened to him or where it occurred. So we simply moved him back home for a while to heal, regroup and find new places for him to work, play and live.
It took a lot of research, courage and trust to support Nat’s leaving us and going to a new home. But this group home has been special from the start. The other housemates are mostly cheerful and kind, and share his interests in sports and music. The staff are caring and really know Nat well. It was no surprise that he liked attending softball practice with his housemates, even though he can be as still and imperturbable as a statue in the outfield.
The arcane rules of softball probably make little sense to him: When do you run? When do you stop running? It depends on the situation, of course, but Nat craves absolutes, he needs certainty. He thrives with simple rules, predictability and steady action.
During one recent game, we arrived just as Nat was up at bat. It was a perfect late-summer evening, with air that was fresh and soft rather than sticky, infused with honey-gold light. Support staff from Nat’s group home and the opposing team’s residence stood scattered around the field, almost as numerous as the players, because so many of them require some sort of encouragement or reminders of what to do next.
Nat stepped up to the tee and took a soft, lackluster swing, but managed a hit. And, as always, he stood still, not sure what to do next. Staff started shouting and gesturing for him to run to first. Nat did an agonizingly slow run over to first base and — miraculously — he was safe. But when the next player cracked the ball like a pro and ran towards first, Nat did not move until one of the staff gently touched his arm and pointed him to second.
A few moments later, the bases were loaded and Nat was on third.
When the hit came, my breath quickened. This was it. Everyone within 10 yards of Nat was jumping, yelling, and pointing the route home. There was just enough time for him to make it to home plate — if he could understand what to do and not get overwhelmed.
Nat moved hesitantly, and then faster. I caught a glimpse of his face and his eyes looked different to me. Sharper? More open somehow? The roar around me and the collective energy of teammates and staff seemed to rise up like a wave, rolling inexorably towards Nat. We willed him to make it home, trying to carry him there. He looked straight at home plate and in that moment I knew that nothing would stop him from getting there. And indeed, Nat scored a run for possibly the first time in his life. He didn't visibly respond to the crowd, he didn't pump his fist. He didn’t smile. But his eyes — they were so clear and focused. He knew what he’d done. I cheered until I was hoarse and coughing.
Why was he able to do it, after all these years of indifference and spaciness? Was it the repetition? Sometimes, if he does some things long enough, he gets better at it. Or was it that tight, buzzing excitement focused on him, raising him to unexpected stardom? Did he feel that, did he understand it?
I hope so. I think so. But what I know is that with this special community — with his happy housemates, the caring staff, his dad and me — cheering at his side, he is safe. He is included and appreciated. And he will always know how to get home.