"Allison, did you see? I was a leader today at practice!" exclaimed Shawn.
Two hours earlier, Allison Parkhurst, one of Cunningham's Special Therapies Specialists and coach, had witnessed the notable event. 14-year-old Shawn, who struggles to understand social cues and get along with peers because of his autism, had taken steps to help a fellow team member who was struggling.
It all started when Kacey, who is also 14, became frustrated at practice. This isn't uncommon because Kacey has been on the verge of quitting basketball for several weeks. While he loves the other sports programs at Cunningham, he struggles with the rigor of practice and his inability to keep up. His desire to belong and the relationships he has developed with his teammates are what keep him coming back to practice time after time.
Shawn faced similar challenges during this year's volleyball season. He would refuse to participate in school in order to lose practice and game privileges. For most of us, it's hard to comprehend that way of thinking, but it was a coping mechanism for Shawn. Shawn managed his fear of failure by practicing self sabotaging behavior. If he couldn't play, he couldn't fail. Unlike Kacey, basketball is Shawn's favorite sport to play. Being a part of the basketball team has turned Shawn into a completely different kid.
As the team ran their distance drills together, Kacey started lagging behind the rest of his team. He wanted to just quit running right there on the gym floor. Shawn noticed his struggles to keep up and began calling out encouragement to Kasey along the way. Shawn began to run with Kacey and his cheers quickly inspired the other players to provide encouragement too. This was a breakthrough for Shawn as he displayed empathy for his teammate. All of the kids joined in, completing the running drill - as a team, finishing together. Some kids completed more drills than were required just so they could support Kasey.
In one simple moment Shawn became a leader, and they all became a team.
*All names are changed and images are selected to protect the privacy of our youth.