By Dr. Alycia Halladay, Chief Science Officer of the Autism Science Foundation
This was my third year attending Scoring Goals for Autism in Wayne, Pennsylvania, and it’s amazing to see the growth, expansion and yet consistency in the program. What I mean by “consistency” is the volunteers are gracious and friendly, the participants come from all ends of the spectrum, and it is a moving experience for anyone who participates. Some people I recognized from years before and some were newer, but all of them were smiling when they walked in and smiling when they left.
My daughter Sarah who is on the autism spectrum has been going to Scoring Goals for Autism as long as I have, and we always look forward to the event. As a result of the program last year, she decided she wanted to join our local instructional, recreational soccer league for six-year-olds. I signed her up reluctantly, but the past few seasons have been uneventful and Sarah was really getting the hang of playing. Unfortunately that stopped on Thursday. She got in a little bit of a tussle with another player, who she has known for two years. Sarah apologized to her (begrudgingly, but an apology is an apology), and after the practice I apologized to her mother and thought the whole issue had been settled amongst the parents. However, on Friday I got a call from the coaching staff to tell me that as a result of the altercation, the parents of the other girl were concerned about Sarah’s future participation because of her aggressiveness. This is a pretty typical story even in 2017. Later on Friday, when I went to pick Sarah up, this girl and some other kids were yelling at Sarah for what had happened, with Sarah’s head buried in her chest. So when we showed up for the event on Saturday, Sarah was in no mood whatsoever for soccer. Here is a picture at the start of the day.
Sarah’s volunteer buddy, Kelly, was absolutely amazing. Even though it was a hot day and the air conditioner could not keep up, she had Sarah running around, talking, and interacting with other kids. When another little girl knocked down her tower, I thought there would be a scene. But she looked at Kelly and said, “that’s okay.” By watching other kids playing games in such a loving, non-competitive environment, all for fun, it became okay for her to just love kicking the ball around with other kids.
By the end of the day, after drills, games, knocking down towers and bowling pins, kicking balls into the goal, and even having the chance to help other get through the same routines, her mood lifted and she told me she wanted to go back to soccer practice to try it again. The point of her being on a soccer team is not to become the next Mia Hamm. The goal is to allow her to develop social skills, get to read emotional cues, and most importantly, share the joys of playing sports with other kids her age. And yes, to learn to understand and regulate her emotions appropriately.
Scoring Goals for Autism isn’t just about soccer. The inspiration for the program, Tommy Bak, loves to play soccer, but the program exists to allow people of all disabilities to play sports in a nonjudgmental, supportive, safe environment with other people of differing abilities. Here is Sarah at the end of the day, looking forward to next year. There were a lot of Sarahs there that day, maybe not just like Sarah, but in the same boat. Thank you so much to Scoring Goals for Autism, especially the Bak Family, who is able to reach people with autism through this important event.