A Bay Area basketball league for children with autism gets kids off of the bench and into the game of life:
Autism Family-Style Basketball
Every Friday night, a gymnasium in San Leandro is filled with the sounds of kids playing and shouting excitedly.
"Daniel! Eric! Jeze! Jere!" they enthusiastically greet each other, leaping up and down. They're ready to run, to practice catching and throwing, and to shoot baskets—these autistic children are here to play basketball with friends who are just like them.
But things haven't always been this playful.
Eight years ago, Laura Brashaw-Ve'e found herself the single mother of her 2-year-old, low-functioning autistic son, William, after 14 years of marriage. Raising an autistic child has unique challenges, but doing it alone proved to be exhausting and endlessly demanding. Laura and William both became unbearably lonely (the world can be an especially dangerous or intimidating place for families living with autism; consequently, parents who cannot afford a professional supervisor or aide are often trapped at home).
At home, children like William create relationships with their immediate family, but miss out on an important milestone: friendship.
Seeking help for herself and her child, Laura was quickly disappointed with the lack of community support for single moms of autistic children. In 2007, she saw an opportunity to fill this void by founding Autism Family-Style, a program that offers tools and advice on teaching minimally verbal children who have difficulty learning. And she didn't stop there.
Knowing that children like her son also benefit from social and recreational connections, Laura started the AFS Basketball league in May 2011. The program aims to provide a community for both parent and child, allowing the family to get out of the house, but remain in a safe—and fun—environment.
The enclosed gymnasium is the perfect place for this group of kids, says Laura, who hopes that the program will grow nationwide. During the basketball sessions, which happen 4:00-5:30pm each Friday night, parents and coaches encourage the kids to run to their hearts' desire. And, the kids are never far from sight.
The sessions are broken down into three levels. The first is basic basketball skills: passing to one another, dribbling, catching. They then move on to more advanced skills like shooting baskets, and finish off with game activities. Beyond communication and motor skills, the kids unknowingly battle what is possibly their greatest challenge: making true friends.
"I started the basketball league when my son was 10, because he was showing signs of loneliness and depression. Now my son is happier and more focused," says Laura. "As a result, I am better able to enforce other areas, like academics, when the time comes."
In addition to the weekly basketball games, Laura has even invited the families to pool parties. Because of Laura's outlook, the kids (and their parents) have something to look forward to every week. Children who previously communicated with only their mom now have a whole network of friends who are similar to them, a team.
Thankfully, Laura assures, "loneliness is 100 percent treatable." After a few weeks of basketball, parents notice the kids' self-esteem and happiness quickly improve, which can benefit other aspects of everyday life, like education.
Nhu Ly says that since joining the AFS Basketball League, her son gets more exercise than he ever has before, and he is elated every Friday because he knows he gets to see his friends—friends he didn't even know a mere three months ago.
Nhu herself has benefited from the program, thanks to the community of parents. "I help them with their children, and when I need help, they help me," she explains. AFS has created a network of friends, support, and community, benefiting the parents just as much as the children.
While exact statistics vary greatly, parents of children with autism tend to have a higher risk of divorce. This often leaves single-mothers to care for their autistic children, who are statistically more often male. Laura recognizes that moms fear dealing with rough outbursts or battling a strong boy in public; in the absence of a father, feeling a lack of security keeps many of these moms—and their kids—at home. So, Laura hired male coaches to serve as strong male role models, and she even offers uniformed security escorts for single moms and their kids. She says that AFS prides itself on the security it offers to its patrons. Safety for mothers and their children is a luxury that, she says, is sometimes looked over in other services.
Laura set out to create a safe space to allow parents and their children to get out of the house without losing a sense of security. In the process she has created a community that never existed before in San Leandro. Children, who never had friends until recently, now shout each others' names in glee. Parents who used to feel exhausted and alone now have the help of a team of like-minded parents. It seems that Laura has indeed found the cure for loneliness: basketball.