My family stumbled into the Special Olympics when my autistic son Nat was 10 and experiencing one of the most difficult phases we had ever encountered. Before then, we had only known Special Olympics as a charity we gave $25 to every year.
Nat had just started a new school program and was struggling daily to remain there. Every day they told us how Nat had become aggressive “out of the blue,” and that they did not know what to do for him. Even with many meetings at the school and observations by autism experts, the program couldn’t help him. By April he had been expelled, sent home until a new placement opened up.
All that winter, despite what was going on in school, we forced ourselves to take Nat to the small gymnastics class being offered at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology by the Special Olympics. I hated taking him, because it made me anxious to be watching over him, ready to jump in at a moment’s notice if he became aggressive with anyone.
My husband had less difficulty controlling Nat, so he often went with me or instead of me. Other autistic boys were in the program and as the parents got to know each other we also got better at helping the coach work with our kids. The coach, a cheerful college student, was happy to have our direction.
By January she had taught the kids to tumble, vault and, most impressive of all, to stand in line and wait their turn.
In early spring, our home situation had become very shaky because Nat was so volatile. I feared for the safety of our family. I needed to be able to do something for Nat, too, to help him keep it together. Something told me I could turn to the coach.
“Sure,” she said, “I can help.” Her courage and enthusiasm reflected the Special Olympics athlete’s oath, which originated with Eunice Kennedy Shriver: “Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.”
She came to our house several days a week and took Nat to the park, where they used the benches and the climbing structures as a gym. Together they practiced his gymnastics routines while I had some time alone with my younger son.
I can’t say for certain what made the difference, but I believe that those few hours spent outside in the bracing air with his coach, who really understood and cared for him, helped Nat feel calm and safe. Our difficulties finally began to ease.
By June, Nat had his routine down cold. When it was his turn to compete, his coach came out on the mat with him to cue him. Afterwards, seeing Nat bedecked in medals was one of the biggest pleasures I had ever had as his mother. Watching him go off with his teammates, knowing he was going to be OK, I felt like a regular mom, no longer a person in crisis.
Perhaps, then, the greatest gift Eunice Shriver gave to families like mine was not necessarily the shiny gold of victory but also the chance to experience all the mundane little things in between, such as the drudgery of practice, the slow dawn of “getting it.”
For me, Special Olympics will always mean the gift of blessed predictability to our turbulent life. Eunice must have understood this firsthand by the way she worded the Athlete’s Oath: “Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.”
Not only the athletes, but their families as well, experience bravery every time they let their special children go out into the world and struggle. I believe that Eunice, too, understood that the thing that makes a difficult life worthwhile is to emerge stronger and better when it’s over. That is how she lived and that is how she died.
Susan Senator is the mother of an autistic son and the author of "Making Peace With Autism" and the "The Autism Mom's Survival Guide," coming in spring 2010. This commentary was adapted from an article by Senator that originally appeared in The Washington Post.
This program aired on August 11, 2009. The audio for this program is not available.