Kai has never really been able to participate in after-school activities like soccer or baseball for two reasons: the first is that he is terrible at activities like soccer and baseball, and the second is that our nonstop therapy schedule made it impossible. His neurologist was always after me to put him in sports with other kids, to which I would waspishly reply that the neurologist was welcome to haul Kai’s carcass to soccer or whatever, but that I was just too tired after speech, OT, social skills and vision therapies to drive him anywhere, much less help some sixteen-year-old Park District employee teach an autistic kid how to play a team sport.
But then we found ourselves suddenly free of these time constraints. Dropping OT and social skills group meant that we could put Kai in some classes and sports. Ryan, too, would be free to take classes and hang out with friends. So we put her in the unfortunately-titled-but-hopefully-fun Happy Hands Art Class. I put Kai in a Lego building class. And they both wanted to take Tae Kwon Do, or, as Kai calls it, Ninja training.
There is a martial arts studio not even a block from my house. This studio has been recommended to me over and over. It seemed like a no-brainer, especially after I told the manager a little about Kai.
“We get tons of autistic kids,” he said to me.
So yesterday after school, I told the kids they would try out Ninja Training.
I asked Ryan to go upstairs and change for Tae Kwon Do. She chose a purple dress, which is not at all what I meant, but arguing about clothes with Ryan is hard so I left it alone. At the studio, they tossed her into the mix of kids with barely a word of explanation, purple dress and all, but she punched and kicked along with everyone else, kids who called the teacher “sir” and stood in perfect formation. They had a lesson in Stranger Danger and even practiced resisting being kidnapped, which was both alarming and probably a good idea.
She skipped up to me after class and declared it to be “super fun,” and we were one down and one to go as I told Kai to take off his shoes and socks like the other kids and head out on to the mat.
I told the instructor that Kai has autism.
“I have autism in my family,” he said, “and we have lots of autistic kids here.”
Kai walked up to him.
“I need my ninja clothes,” Kai said, meaning the white uniform all the other kids had.
The teacher didn’t bat an eye. “Well, if you like the class we’ll get you some ninja clothes.”
“Okay,” Kai said, and I realized that I had been holding my breath.
The thing is, that people always say that they’re cool with autistic kids, but this is not often the case. It’s more like they’re cool with the idea of the existence of autistic kids, just not in their class. Autistic kids tend to zig when they’re supposed to zag and frankly most people cannot handle this. But as I watched Kai in class, the instructor seemed to get him.
Kai was watching himself in the mirror rather than watching the instructor, so the teacher asked all the kids to look at him.
“Look at me, not the mirror,” he said.
Several kids were watching themselves and a few turned to look at the teacher.
“Look at me, not the mirror,” he said again.
Now everyone but Kai had turned to look at the teacher.
“Look at me, not the mirror,” he said yet again.
And, with what looked like a great effort, Kai finally turned his head.
I was in heaven. Maybe this is exactly what Kai needs! He needs to focus. Perhaps he could use Tae Kwon Do/Ninja Training to learn to pay attention in class.
Kai was having a hard time standing still, so the teacher asked everyone to stand perfectly still. If you moved, you had to do 10 push-ups.
Several of the other kids had to do the push-ups, but not Kai. He stood perfectly still.
I was ready to start writing checks at this point. I even began to indulge in a fantasy, that this would be Kai’s narrative—overcoming autism through martial arts. He would get a black belt and have one of those viral videos where music plays and words flash on the screen: “…and then he discovered Tae Kwon Do.” (Cut to a shot of Kai meditating, then getting up from the floor without using his hands and assuming a fighting stance) “…and suddenly he felt comfortable in his own skin.”
And then, 11 minutes into class, Kai broke from formation and walked up to the teacher, a guy who puts kids in formation and requires that they call him “sir.”
“Any ice water?” Kai asked.
“No,” the teacher said.
“Whew,” Kai said, wandering aimlessly through the other kids, who were standing at attention. “I’m getting thirsty.”
Kai went back to his spot and sat down.
“Oh my god,” I said, more loudly than I’d meant to. Several of the parents turned to look at me. I willed him to get back up.
I thought the teacher might get mad, but he didn’t. Instead he asked Kai to stand up, which Kai did after the instructor gave him until the count of five, but with much griping and a heavy sigh.
Next, the kids were asked to do two front kicks with the teaching assistant, and then run to the teacher, who was holding a mat, and perform something called a flying kick.
There was a girl there, probably Kai’s age, named Janelle, who executed these moves perfectly. There were a couple of boys who tried very hard, but ended up falling over after the flying kick. There was an older girl who had so much force with her flying kick that the teacher was surprised. When it was Kai’s turn, Kai ran into him with his shoulder, linebacker-style.
“Do it again,” the teacher said. “No hands, no shoulders, just a kick.”
Kai tried again. It wasn’t perfect, but at least it was a kick and not a tackle.
“Good,” the teacher said.
Then the teacher produced a dollar.
“Okay,” he said, “the first person to kick me so hard that I take a step backwards gets this dollar.”
“Ooo,” Kai said.
The kids all tried to knock the teacher back with their flying kicks. Janelle had a great kick, but wasn’t big enough to move him. Those two boys kept falling over. Kai flew at him with a combination push-kick that got him another reprimand for not using just his feet. The older girl won the dollar.
And that was when Kai lost his shit altogether.
He let out a howl of grief and pain.
“I wanted the dollar!” he wailed.
His face was red and he was swiping tears out of his eyes.
The kids were still kicking, Kai included, though he was crying.
“I wanted the dollar!” Kai said again, and he ran toward the instructor, leaving a scream of rage in his wake.
“You can be mad,” the teacher said. “Let it out on the mat.”
Kai did exactly that, continuing to kick the assistant and then fly at the teacher, performing a sort of tackle kick that the instructor didn’t bother to correct. “Good!” was all he said.
Other parents began to bury themselves in their books and phones, eyes anywhere but on Kai. I grabbed him at one point and asked him to stop crying, but he was too far gone.
“I want a dollar,” he wailed, over and over and over and I wanted the earth to open up and swallow me, for time to speed up, for the wine-equivalent of the Kool-Aid man bust down the wall and provide the dual comforts of alcohol and a good, old-fashioned distraction.
Janelle ran up to me and handed me something.
“Give this to your son,” she said, and skipped back to her place in line before I could react.
I looked down.
She had given me a dollar.
After class, I found the instructor.
“So,” I said. “What do you think?”
He looked at me for a long moment. “I liked that he kept at it,” he said finally.
I’d liked that, too.
I mean, if there hadn’t ever been the possibility of that damn dollar, this might have gone great for Kai.
“I know Ryan wants to come back. If Kai wants to…” I trailed off.
“I’ll have to talk to the team,” the instructor said. “We’ll let you know about Kai.”
This would have ordinarily made me furious, but I found that, aside from being too worn out by Kai’s freak-out to summon any rage, I understood perfectly. Kai was a giant, 75-pound distraction in a class about respect and focus.
“Kai would have to conform to the class,” the instructor said.
“I understand,” I said.
I sat down heavily next to Kai on a bench and sighed.
You’d think I would no longer be surprised by anything that Kai does, but there you go. Kai surprises me all the time.
Janelle walked by and I gave her back her dollar.
“Honey,” I said gently, “I can’t take this from you. I can’t tell you how sweet this was of you, but I can't take your money.”
She took her dollar back, looking slightly hurt. I felt terrible, but I can’t take money from little girls, even if they mean well and the dollar probably would have solved everyone’s problems.
While Kai put his shoes and socks on, I thought about his first time at OT, how he sat in the corner and cried, how the big space had overwhelmed him and we had to do OT in a tiny, closet-sized room using picture schedules until he felt more comfortable, and I wished there was a way to do that here, how he could do this if he had the right support, how he is a hot mess when you tossed him cold out in the real world, which I always forget and always breaks my heart.
I felt a profound sense of hopelessness and exhaustion.
“Take a big breath and calm down,” Kai said to himself, and he did exactly that which was nothing short of amazing.
I looked at him.
“Did you like Ninja Training?” I asked him. “Would you want to come back?”
“It was hard, but I can do it,” he said.
And with that, Kai surprised me for the 1,346,876th time.