Playing Baseball with Autism

Strike one and Coach Bill, standing prepared at the dugout doorway, ran to Caelan to grab his bat. We knew it was coming; we saw at practice that, if his swing didn’t hit the ball, which it rarely did, Caelan would waive the bat around, yell out “That’s not fair,” and stomp in an impulsive outburst. He had similar reactions every single day of first grade when Student of the Day wasn’t him. Despite the teachers explaining consequences for negative reactions, he couldn’t calm his bubbling emotions. However, in this baseball game and at ten years old, the umpire would take him out, seeing the bat could cause major injury to anyone close by him.

My heart pounded; I cringed. I feared what all the other players thought. I wanted him to be accepted, to have friends. I wondered if the other parents could tell he was a “high functioning” kid with autism or just thought he was unruly. On the outside, he looked like any other boy on the field: a good-looking kid with a slender body, a sun-kissed glow, and inch-long sandy brown hair brushed forward and slightly messy. On the inside, he functioned much differently. He navigated with a hypersensitive intake of most external sensory interactions –the various sights, sounds, movements, textures, and smells were amplified to him.

Strike two and three of that first ballgame went by quickly with Coach Bill buffering Caelan’s reactions. Coach, a burly, stout man with ruddy skin, a permanent baseball cap, and endless patience, walked him back to the dugout, holding the bat himself.

“I just want to hit the ball sooo bad,” Caelan said to me with tears and anger in those chocolate eyes after he came out of the dugout so I could help calm him down.

“It’s not easy, Bud. And you can’t have fits out there. You know this,” I explained to him again.

“I wish I could take that bat and…”

“You stop right there,” I said in a firm whisper to avoid even more attention from the peering parents and teammates. “You have two options: get back in there and try your best or you can come out here, sit with me, and watch the boys play and have fun.” 

I’m sure some teammates were familiar with this unusual, typical Caelan behavior, since he knew a few kids from school. Caelan viewed classroom activities as competition, often resulting in a meltdown – the tornado of yelling, crying, and throwing his body – when he lost the game in class or PE, when he didn’t get a sticker for good behavior, or even with a change in his schedule. I received weekly emails and phone calls from school because of behavioral issues. Any triggering situation guaranteed an honest, emotional response.

Impulsive reactions weren’t Caelan’s initial red flags, though. He started crawling around the house at about seven months and perfected walking right at a year old, which were developmentally on task. However, when other moms told cute stories of new words their babies spoke, I felt I was missing out because mine only said a few words. Speech therapists worked with him those first couple years and by age three, it was time to try developmental preschool to help with social interactions to draw some words out of him.

I knew my sweet, nearly nonverbal boy needed this resource, although it was unnerving letting him go to preschool. He didn’t speak enough to describe or explain himself. I didn’t know if he felt abandoned or alone; I didn’t know what he did while he was away. After a couple hours, the bus dropped him off and I searched his eyes for happiness as I jabbered several questions he had no words to answer. He asked for his “cup, cup pwees,” and hopped on the couch. I asked if he had a good day again and he echoed my words “good day,” before falling asleep without finishing his sippy of milk. A Post-it note in his backpack said “He had a great day!” and that was it.

By kindergarten, his vocabulary was nearly age-appropriate, but more quirky behaviors became routine, like him constantly repeating certain words and unceasingly drawing similar or identical images on papers and in notebooks. He often spun the wheels on his bike instead of riding it, lined cars in rows, and stacked boxes and toys when he played. He loved talking to himself or monologuing. He covered his ears with a look of panic with loud sounds like fire alarms and sometimes refused to go to the restroom with automatic flushing toilets because of the abrupt, rushing sound. And the woman at Build-A-Bear stared him down like he was an alien for covering his ears when we went up to the rumbling machine to stuff his bear. Foods with any soft or gooey textures were out of the question. He spent hours obsessing over certain topics (telephone poles, satellite dishes, Alvin and the Chipmunks, Mario Bros). Many times he was oblivious to emotional reactions of people around him, if someone were crying or upset or even if other kids played with each other. His teachers tried to let him know if his daily schedule would change because those transitions stressed him. His response to being overstimulated with any number of situations could be crying and yelling out in emotional eruptions with meltdowns. 

Late kindergarten he received the diagnosis, after having a meeting at Riley’s Children’s Hospital in Indianapolis. After talking to a therapist, answering questions, and her watching Caelan’s behavior, she wrote up a report stating he had Autism.

The diagnosis gave me relief and broke my heart. It meant that he wasn’t defiant or difficult, and instead he couldn’t process life the same way as others. However, knowing he was a Spectrum kid made me feel alone and sad for him. I didn’t know any parents who had to raise a kid with these eccentricities. And I was afraid that it meant his future wouldn’t be full and happy and everything every other kid experienced. 

I googled Autism to learn more and try to wrap my mind around it all. When I learned the common tendencies of severe cases of Autism, who often don’t speak, never make eye contact, and seem like they’re in another world, I counted my blessings and was thankful for my affectionate, talking, life loving kid.

I decided to take each situation as it came. And when he wanted to do things, like play baseball, I signed him up to ensure he interacted with people,  exposed him to different environments, and let him explore various interests. Although, I had my hesitations.

“I just wanted to let you know that Caelan has never played baseball,” I said to Coach Bill when I first met him.

“That’s okay. We’ll work with him,” he said with reassurance.

“Well, he also has coordination and dexterity issues. And he will most likely have meltdowns on the field. Have you ever worked with any autistic kids?” I spurted.

“No, no I haven’t,” he said, leaning in toward me; his kind eyes showed interest.

“He gets overwhelmed easily, so I’m concerned he may need some extra firm guidance,” I explained.

“I have no problem with that. We’ll work with him and see how it goes,” he said, without hesitation. His reaction warmed my heart.

At first practice, the other boys and their equipment bags were scattered in the dugout, still with last season’s memories and dirt bonding them together. Caelan was ecstatic to see classmates, calling out “Look, look! It’s Aiden from school!” His innocent excitement was met with stares from his teammates.

To warm up, the boys ran across the field. When Coach sarcastically yelled “You wanna run more?” they hollered back a collective, “Nooo,” while Caelan’s lone voice yelled “Yeeaah.” He actually loved to run around chasing kids. The first time Caelan went to bat, he didn’t know how to stand or hold the bat, which made some boys snicker. After Coach placed his feet and molded his body in the right pose, he was so eager for the pitcher to throw the ball and to hit it that he didn’t care how he stood or held the bat. Every time he went up to the plate, he had to be remolded.

Playing outfield wasn’t any better. I sat thinking of different scenarios– when the ball was pitched and hit, where the ball flew, who would catch the ball, and how to get the runner out. I knew Caelan wouldn’t be attuned to or interested in those motions. And after a couple of practices, I found I was right. He stood in right field swinging his arms back and forth, taking his glove off, and sometimes even yelling out, “Can I come back in,” or “When is it my turn to bat?”

I coached him on the way to games, explaining how the other boys paid attention to the ball in order to score a point. I pointed out how he had to wait his turn to bat and go to the outfield just the same.

“Okay. Okaayaa. I know already,” he reassured me as he jogged to the dugout. However, when he came from an uneventful outfield span, huffing and angry, I’d call him to me again.

“You cannot yell ‘This is boring’ when you’re out there, Bud. You have to watch the ball and be ready.”

“But it’s not fair. The ball’s not coming my way. I just wanna play,” he would justify.

Most people would feel the boredom or frustration in these moments of life and be able to dismiss them somewhat easily. When Caelan takes in his surroundings, his interpretation is more intense and he often gets overwhelmed, and his expression of that sensory overload is to go off. It became routine after the first couple of games. 

“Here he comes to bat; I’m so nervous,” I said to Amy, a mom I sometimes talked to.

“Don’t be. He always tries his best; he’ll do just fine,” she said. I wanted to correct her. I wanted to say that I held my breath every time he went up to bat, petrified he would strike out, start screaming while flailing the bat around as an extension of his arms, knocking out the poor kid behind him, a catcher or even the umpire or coach, who were not as padded and just trying to gather his spewing emotions as both teams gawked, or worse, laughed at his childish, honest reaction. Instead, I just nodded in response.

Not fully understanding the difference between strikes and balls, Caelan knew he would get about three times to try to hit the ball. And while the positions of the other kids – bent knees and backs angled, the bat tucked just right and ready to swing with force like the tension from a loaded spring – Coach still had to tell Caelan not to stand on home plate and to keep his feet in the box the two or three, sometimes four times when he went up to bat every game of the season. He rarely bent his knees and, when it came time to swing, it was a cross between golfing and slow-motion T-ball.

Caelan couldn’t connect the bat to the ball and would explode in emotion. But the kid could tell you the years of World War II, who was involved, and other fun facts. He could tell you the title of each Star Wars episode, the years they came out, and hold his own in a conversation about characters, plots, and favorite parts with any older lifelong fans. Want to know about aviation? Ask him anything, but he has his biased opinions of airlines and airplanes. Another one of his interests had him quizzing anyone about world geography and country capitals with an added twist on famous world monuments. Most people failed. He can also play three instruments.

I think it’s this spark that makes Caelan so interesting and draws people to him. His honesty and willingness to show raw emotion in any conversation or situation especially draws adults in. Sherri, a Sunday school teacher, came to me amazed at the depth of conversation he had over a concerned classmate. Jill, who helped him in the Resource Room when he had meltdowns or needed extra help, showed both tough love and genuine interest when she worked with his almost daily frustrations. And many adults – teachers throughout the years, the dentist, waitresses, sometimes even strangers – who have interacted with him have told me how interesting and enjoyable he is to be around.

After the first few games, Caelan’s teammates started to cheer him on when he was up to bat. However, I noticed the adults also started to show interest, clapping and encouraging my number twelve to try your best, wait for a good pitch, and just try again as he walked to the plate.

Midseason, the boys weren’t doing well during a cold, drizzly game, where parents hunkered under umbrellas and covered with blankets. The innings and batting lines felt like I was watching grass grow, every bit in slow motion. Some parents even hoped for a lightning strike to end the game early. Finally, Caelan was up to bat, but with the seating at first base and the dugout blocking much of the line back to home plate, I couldn’t see him batting very well. Leaning forward, I just prayed he wouldn’t get upset while I was so far away and not able to talk to him from the plate or the dugout. Then, the other parents started yelling “Run, Caelan! RUN FAST!”

I gasped. My eyes filled with tears as he made it to first base. 

“GO, GO!” the crowd cheered, and he ran to second base and then third.

“STOP,” the crowd shouted in unison. It was the first time he hit the ball and made it on base; pride and nervousness welled up inside me.

The boys scattered for the next hitter. They had one out and were down by a few points. The following teammate hit the ball and made it to first base. Caelan stayed on third. The next teammate, a reliable hitter, barely smacked the ball and ran to first, but was tagged. Two outs.

I’ve heard parents say it was just like the movies, from time to time, but here I was, in that moment. I just wanted him to score. Just once. And it all relied on the next kid, who wasn’t a strong batter. After a strike and a ball, he hit a foul. I watched Caelan’s frustrations ignite as he threw up his hands and roared “come on!” across the field; the third-base coach talked to defuse him.

With the next pitch, the ball pinged from the bat, passed the pitcher, and flew between the first and second basemen, rolling through the outfield; it fueled the crowd to come alive and scream out – FAST! Go, go, go! Get in there! Don’t stop! Go home! Go home! The outfield boys stumbled with the ball, which allowed all three runners to round the bases and score. Teammates welcomed the boys to the dugout like they were heroes.

That excitement was snuffed out after the next batter struck out and our own outfield boys couldn’t keep the other team from scoring several runs in that last inning, easily getting defeated.

It didn’t matter to Caelan. Some teammates and many parents patted him on the back and said “great job” as we dissipated with the crowd toward the parking lot. He replayed the moment for me from his perspective and said, “It was awesome, wasn’t it!? Man, it felt like I won a trip to Disney World.” I smiled and nodded; a few players who were used to scoring overheard Caelan and threw out some nasty stares of rejection, as if saying what a stupid dork.

Caelan didn’t notice, though, and continued his enthusiastic report. I wanted to smack the looks off their faces and wrap Caelan with wings of protection.

Caelan’s next game was over before it started. A pregame warm-up ball hit him on the head; although there was no bruise or sign of injury, it shook him up. He sat down with ice and said he felt too sore to play in the game.

After that, he wouldn’t catch the ball in his mitt. Caelan hopped to the side and chased the ball in the grass every time it was thrown to him. Batting was like trying to get a squirrel on a leash because he squirmed everywhere and swung just to get his batting done. He wanted to quit, but I believe you finish what you start, so I had him play the last few games.

“Since no one ever sings the National Anthem, I asked Coach Bill if I could before the next game, and he said it’s okay,” Caelan told me on the drive home.

“No. You’re not going to do that,” I said with firm discouragement. “You’re not going there to sing and play around in the dugout, Caelan. You’re there to play ball.”

His lack of awareness of social norms scared me. The other boys were there to play ball and win games. Some were the rough and tumble type; the others were the popular kids at school. And here Caelan was in a league of his own.

It took me back to a conversation I had with one of my closest friends. Local coaches sought after her son; playing baseball came as naturally to him as overreacting was for Caelan. She proudly recapped the exciting moves he made to score points and shield the opposition. And when I described Caelan’s hiccups and troubles, she said “He’s probably better off being the mascot than a player,” and laughed. I smiled, but it took everything in me to hold back my heavy hearted tears. 

It’s hard. I know those norms of society, usual behaviors, and what’s popular at his age and beyond. He doesn’t see it at all. My heart ached at the thought of him not being accepted, or worse, being made fun of or looked at like a weirdo by his peers because of his differences. At the same time, I recognize his amazing, God-given uniqueness and warmth. I shouldn’t care about social norms and allow this kid to flourish in his individuality and teach him to be confident. Still, on the way to the next game, I told him to not even attempt singing in the dugout.

Caelan spent pregame chasing down the balls his teammate threw his way. Then the coaches called the boys to the dugout to get organized and pumped for the game. As I sat with the other parents and after just a moment of silence, I heard Caelan’s voice start with “Oh say can you see…”

The parents, kids around, and even the other team stopped talking and stood still, as if a pause button were pushed on everything except Caelan’s voice. He didn’t miss a note or a word. He had no inhibitions regarding social circles or who would like his singing. He was blinded from it and that allowed him to be free.

“… For the land of the freeee, and the hooome of the… braaave,” he ended, when various voices yipped and howled, “Plaaay ball,” with clapping all around. In that moment, he brought everyone together. Several parents came up to me saying how he created such a beautiful moment, something no kid had ever done in the years these kids had been playing ball together. One of his coaches told me Caelan was his favorite player because he was a unique, one in a million kid.

Every practice and game I worried for Caelan, wanting him to just play like the other boys. It’s what I thought he wanted. Maybe it wasn’t. Perhaps he would be a better mascot than a baseball player. And, as I had to learn, that’s okay. He will be okay.

Caelan is sometimes odd, but I love that about him. If it’s not the norm, I have to remember to just shrug my shoulders and say “Oh well,” or just hope he’s truly accepted and not made fun of in those quirky moments. Being different isn’t always easy, but it doesn’t mean it’s bad or not acceptable, and that’s a sermon that needs to be preached more often. He’s a happy boy. He is healthy, safe, and intelligent. And Caelan might have difficulties in some areas of life, but I undoubtedly know he will be a bright light in the future no matter where life takes him.