We enrolled Jack in karate four years ago.
On Saturday mornings, we dressed our four-year old autistic son in his stiff white uniform and Joe drove him to class at the local karate studio. It was an unmitigated disaster. For forty-five minutes Jack would whirl and spin around the circumference of the room, circling and circling while the instructor worked the rest of the class through choreographed movements and talked about things like discipline and respect. Joe spent the majority of the hour chasing him and trying to get him to mimic the exercises.
Jack just didn’t get it. He didn’t get that you weren’t supposed to take all the mats and balls and set them up as your own personal playground, and he didn’t get the dynamics of a group class. And he certainly didn’t get the ideas of discipline and respect.
It was one of the few times I saw Joe emotionally distraught about Jack’s limitations; he came home one day after a particularly trying class and said “I just can’t watch him like that anymore”. We quit after two months.
In general, Jack’s not a fan of organized athletics. Last year he was in the adaptive soccer program, and although he possessed a modicum of skill, he hated it. Every weekend he began an anti-soccer campaign that started with offhand comments like “Soccer is bad for me” and “That field is bumpy”, and ended with one of us coaxing him into the car and trundling over to the field, with phony we can make this work for an hour grins pasted on our silly faces. On the drive there he’d gather steam, bolstering his arguments by screeching “It’s too HOT out!” Sometimes he refused to play.
Midway through the season we sat him down and explained he had to do something, some kind of sport with a team. We gave him a choice: he could continue with soccer or we’d try karate again, and he agreed to stick with soccer until the end of the season. But during the next game, in front of what seemed like every mother and father and uncle and teacher and grandparent in town, he sailed down the sideline kicking the ball and shouted “I want to do KARATE INSTEAD!”
And on that brilliantly sunny October afternoon, it occurred to me: regardless of ability, concepts like competition and winning are nearly meaningless in Jack’s autistic mind. The idea of creating team dynamics by passing the ball and scoring points are nearly foreign to a boy who, if left to his own devices, would choose to play alone with a radio for hours.
At the end of the summer, as I was starting to organize our schedule of afterschool activities, we asked him again. “Jack, what would you like to do for a sport this year?” And he answered; “Karate”. Joe and I exchanged wary glances, anticipating long afternoons of cajoling him into his uniform and chasing him around the studio. Long afternoons of put that ball back and sit with the others.
But then he said “With all of us. With all of our kids.”
And something else occurred to me: although he doesn’t understand keeping score or competing for wins, Jack does understand family. He understands the idea of sticking together and playing fair. He understands loyalty and love. He understands that he feels good when his siblings are near him.
A new karate studio opened in town a while ago, and Joey and Charlie took classes there last year. I approached the owner about the possibility of creating a “Cariello” class, with all five kids receiving instruction at once. He was thrilled with the idea, and so were we.
Last Friday we had our first class. All five Cariello kids trooped in, clad in white, and imitated the kicks and punches and ki-yas the instructor demonstrated. All five kids sat when they were told, stood when they needed to, and laughed out loud with each other. Each one learned about discipline and respect.
What a difference four years, three brothers, and one sister make.