Saturday in the park with autism

When Birth to Three (early intervention services) first came to our home to assess my son at 18 months old, they asked my husband and I what specific goals they thought he should work on. Our response was seemingly simple, if not selfish and self-serving.

Ethan Walmark at bat

“We’d love Ethan to greet us at the door, and say ‘I love you.’” After a period of time — a long period of time — Ethan ran to the door whenever we arrived and said, “How was your day? I love you.” Mission accomplished.

The day Ethan turned 3, he was seamlessly transitioned from Birth to Three to Stepping Stones Preschool, a local integrated (i.e., typical and atypical children) preschool program set within the local elementary school. Stepping Stones places a premium on language, communication, literacy, social and emotional development, physical development and health. Children attend classes that students in the typical elementary enjoy such as art, music, media center, physical education and all-school assemblies. Ethan’s experience was so exceptional that my “typical” daughter enrolled in the program as well.

Daddy’s request

At one of our PPTs (Planning and Placement Team) or IEPs (Individualized Education Plan-Program) or ESYs (Extended School Year) or BLTs (whole wheat, no mayo, please) meetings — after a while the multitude of acronyms become one endless stream of vowels and consonants — we discussed Ethan’s assets and ways to improve or encourage new skills.

As our eponymously named “E-TEAM” meetings are a collaborative effort, Michael and I were once again asked what skills we wanted Ethan to develop. Michael spoke first, and when his voice cracked and I saw tears in his eyes, my heart broke into a million little pieces.

“I would really love for you to help teach Ethan to throw a baseball,” he said, “because all I want is to have a typical father-son game of catch in our backyard, like I used to do with my dad.”

After a period of time with additional help from our private occupational therapist Barbara Greenspan and our private physical therapist Kathleen Stowell — a long period of time — Ethan’s throwing and catching became more accurate. Mission accomplished.

Our insane yet spectacular Saturday

Today’s children are over-scheduled. I never thought I would be one of those parents, but somehow, it happened. (Sort of like how old men suddenly get eyebrows as thick and bushy as Vietnamese jungles, and sprout insane amounts of hair from their ears and noses.) Sure, Ethan and Eliza had weekday activities — therapies and sports, respectively — but now Saturdays are our family’s most insane day of the week with this schedule:

  • Eliza morning: Softball (one hour)
  • Ethan morning: Baseball (one hour)
  • Eliza noon: Soccer (one hour)
  • Eliza afternoon: Horseback riding (Half to one hour). Now, we are not to the manor borne; we are not from the “horse set.” However after Eliza saw Ethan ride — horses are known to calm people with autism, help them focus, be “in the moment” and think more clearly — she needed to ride as well.
  • Ethan afternoon: School of Rock (three hours), and a private piano/keyboard lesson (45 minutes).

At day’s end, the kids were still full of energy; my husband and I collapsed from exhaustion. “Good day?” I asked my husband. “Spectacular day,” he replied with a huge smile. Of everything we had done with our kids that day — herewith Walmark Family Fun Day — what made the day so memorable was that I was able to witness my husband’s dream become reality.

Play ball!

Eliza Walmark playing baseball

While we both take tremendous pride and joy in Eliza’s accomplishments, she is a natural athlete who seems to excel at anything athletic. For Ethan, however, athletic endeavors are rarely innate; such is the nature of autism.

Michael beamed with pride as Ethan grabbed his mitt to take the field with the other 6- and 7-year-olds, and was in sheer bliss when Ethan got a hit each time at bat. Thanks to Ethan’s private speech therapist Shari Goldstein, when Ethan didn’t like a particular pitch or swung and missed, he looked directly at the parent/pitcher/coach and confidently said, “Let’s try that again,” or “One more time, please.”

On the same playing field

Ethan Walmark and Dad, Michael

My children will always achieve what they put their minds to. For me, the true victory was that whenever Ethan was up to bat or made a nice play on the field, the parents and kids on both teams (most of whom know Ethan is on the autism spectrum) vociferously and unabashedly showed their love, support and acceptance of him with cheers and claps. One parent even called out to me, “Hey Mom! You must be very proud,” and indeed, I am. Very blessed, too!

If the adage “charity begins at home” holds true, then I have full confidence and hope that the kids of Ethan’s generation will grow up to be rich in acceptance and understanding, not only for Ethan, but for the 1 in 50 children on the autism spectrum today. That is part of my dream.

While Ethan probably won’t grow up to be the next Derek Jeter or Alex Rodriguez — although he has put up better numbers than both gentlemen this year — one thing is certain. While I don’t need him to go to Harvard or Princeton, and I don’t need him to be an Olympian, I just want him to have enough skills — social and otherwise — to “be on the same playing field.” After a period of time — a long period of time, and with the help of many — Ethan is literally and figuratively on the same playing field. Mission accomplished.

Please help level the playing field for the 1 in 50 children diagnosed with autism, through a donation to Ethan’s Autism Speaks E-TEAM.

More about Ethan and autism

Imagine a world without autism
Autism rocks the house
My Phil of autism


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