Special hockey for autistic youth is therapy on skates

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  • Jack with his medal Jack with his medal

SILVER SPRING, Md., March 27, 2012 —There are less than two minutes left on the clock in this, the final tournament game for one Maryland hockey team. The coach takes a player—number 42—and positions him in front of the opposing team’s net. He raps his stick on the ice, then raises it in the air to signal to the coach at the other end of the ice that the puck needs to meet this player’s stick.

The coach gets the opposing goalie’s attention and gestures at number 42. The goalie nods. The puck makes its way to the pair and the small player hits the puck but misses the net. The coaches get the puck back to him and keep the other players off of him long enough so that finally the puck meets the net and the arms of the team shoot skyward in celebration.

It has taken two teams, multiple coaches, and one determined player to make this one goal in this one low-stakes game happen, but based on the cheers and celebration from both the ice and the stands, you would never think that this game was unimportant. Number 42 has been playing hockey for two seasons and this is his first ever in-game goal.

Number 42

Number 42 is my 8-year-old autistic son, Jack, and this moment meant the world to him.

This is special hockey, an utterly unique and uplifting experience for players with developmental disabilities and their parents and coaches. Based on the players’ level of ability, some games are extremely competitive and some are more about experiencing teamwork and practicing skills. All of the games, however, focus on sportsmanship, cooperation, and self esteem.

Jack skated onto the hockey rink for the first time nearly two years ago at his first practice for the Montgomery Cheetahs, a special hockey team in Montgomery County, Maryland. At the time, he had worn ice skates only once. Since then, he has worked to learn to skate, handle the puck, listen to his coaches, and manage to deal with the sometimes overwhelming stimuli and emotions that come with being a hockey player.

Jack scored his goal at the American Special Hockey Association’s JSBIA Special Hockey Extravaganza in Jamestown, NY, last weekend. There are more than 50 ASHA teams across the United States in more than 30 cities. The ASHA tournament hosted hundreds of these hockey players and their families for a weekend of hockey games and socializing over the course of three days. The tournament match-ups ranged from “C Team” games—those in which my son played—all the way to games played by the “A Teams,” special hockey’s best players.

Number 42 on the ice

Number 42 on the ice

Every special hockey player and his or her family has a story to tell about why the sport matters and how it has affected their lives. It is difficult to do justice to them when it is hard enough to decipher that complicated mixture of joy, magic, and love that combines so indescribably in a parent’s heart when watching this sport.

The Montgomery Cheetahs, my son’s team, are a scrappy all volunteer-led team populated by elementary school kids all the way up to young adults. The Cheetahs are home to both my son’s C Team and a more advanced “B Team,” which tore up the ice in most of their games at the ASHA tournament, but that was also able to pull back and subtly give their opponents a break when they knew the game mattered more to their rivals than it did to them.

Special hockey focuses on good sportsmanship, with spectators cheering all goals, regardless of which team scored it; with one player helping another player up off the ice after a fall, even if they play on opposing sides; and, as I watched in one A Team game, a player who missed a penalty shot skating over to fist bump the goalie who blocked him. Watch special hockey for an afternoon and you will see these kinds of moments over and over.

The reason for this sportsmanship is partly because of the integrity of the players and partly because of the emphasis that special hockey puts on community and teamwork. Without a doubt, the players learn to play competitive hockey, but at the same time, special hockey serves a therapeutic purpose, with far more emphasis on social skills, responsibility, and attitude than medals and final scores.

Most, but not all, of the Cheetahs are on the autism spectrum. The team welcomes players of all ages and all developmental disabilities with open arms. There are players who skate on community or high school teams in addition to the Cheetahs and there are players who will never leave the C Team. Each one of them is an important and valued member of the organization.

The Cheetahs were originally born as a Bar Mitzvah service project and have grown into a large organization with dozens of players of all skill levels. The board of directors and coaching staff are all volunteers, most of whom have children on the team as well. Grins dominate the faces of the coaches every time they skate with their players, be it practice or game. They clearly love their team and live to teach and skate with them. Their pure joy in coaching these particular kids shines through everything they do.

The team is also supported by more than 90 teenage mentors, 40 or so of whom attend practice regularly. These typically developing teenagers work one-on-one with many of the players at every practice to teach them the basic skills of skating and hockey. These volunteer mentors not only teach the Cheetahs about hockey, but encourage them and keep them on task. I’ve watched my own son challenge his mentors as he gives them a crash course in autism and I have seen these teens rise to the task nearly every single time.

Hopefully these wonderful volunteers will carry the stories of these players to their schools and families. I hope that they learn as much from our players as the players learn from them. I truly believe that this partnership between young people with disabilities and typical teens has the potential to make a real change in the world in terms of awareness and acceptance of differences.

The Cheetahs work hard to keep hockey accessible to all families and try to keep costs down for player families. The team maintains an equipment locker full of donated gear, allowing players to assemble the complicated system of pads and body protection at no cost. They maintain an impressive array of skates, pads, sticks, and helmets for the players to choose from.

Furthermore, the Cheetahs rely largely on donations for the $20,000 it costs annually to pay for ice time. This year, the Cheetahs are holding their first annual Cheetah-thon fundraiser on May 12 to raise money for this very thing with 100% of funds raised going directly to ice expenses. The public is welcome to attend this D.C.-area event and all are encouraged to donate.

Jack with his tournament medal

Jack with his tournament medal

My son Jack—number 42—has had a difficult year. Third grade has been tough on him. He spends most of every day doing schoolwork that butts up against the deficits that stem from his autism. His self esteem has suffered over the past few months. He has learned some recent harsh lessons from unkind peers. So much of his life is spent working from a deficit model.

The Cheetahs, on the other hand, focus on his strengths. They give him a space to concentrate on what he is good at and to build on that. While he has started to notice that his school peers stare at him when he veers from the norm, the Cheetahs and these tournaments give him the ultimate safe space to be himself with peers and adults who understand him and love him for being exactly who he is.

After Jack scored his goal, I caught up with him in the locker room. I congratulated him on his goal and said, “I am so proud of you!” He looked at me and said, “I am proud of myself.”

That is the magic of special hockey right there.

If you would like to be involved with the Cheetahs, visit their website for more information. Please consider attending their Cheetah-thon or donating to their cause. More information is available at the Cheetahs’ skate-a-thon fundraising site. The Cheetahs will use 100% of your donation to fund ice expenses for the team. To find a team in your area, visit the ASHA website or the Special Hockey International website.

Read more about the Montgomery Cheetahs on Jean’s personal blog, Stimeyland. Jean writes for Stimeyland and an autism-events website for Montgomery County, Maryland, at AutMont. You can find her on Twitter as @Stimey. Read more of Jean’s work at Autism Unexpected in the Communities at the Washington Times. Please credit Jean Winegardner and the “Communities at WashingtonTimes.com” when linking to this story.


This article is the copyrighted property of the writer and Communities @ WashingtonTimes.com. Written permission must be obtained before reprint in online or print media. REPRINTING TWTC CONTENT WITHOUT PERMISSION AND/OR PAYMENT IS THEFT AND PUNISHABLE BY LAW.

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Jean Winegardner

When Jean had her first child in 2001, "autism" was about the scariest word she could think of. Six years later when her second child was diagnosed with PDD-NOS, a form of autism, she was just happy to have a word to help him get the services he needed. Her autism journey has been full of tears, laughter, love and at least one attorney.

Jean blogs about her life with her autistic son, Jack, on her blog, Stimeyland. Her two neurotypical children, Sam and Quinn (one older, one younger than Jack), make frequent appearances there as well. Also at Stimeyland? Jean's quirky sense of humor.

She also runs AutMont, an events calendar listing autism-related events in Montgomery County, Maryland.

Raising a child with special needs is hard for so many reasons, but after living with Jack, Jean wouldn't trade him for anything in the world. Come along with Jean as she experiences the joys that come with parenting a special kid.

You can email Jean anytime at stimeyland at gmail dot com or follow her on Twitter, where, as "Stimey," she offers her world view in snippets of 140 characters or less.

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