And Then, Martin Does the Rejecting

You know, from last week’s post, that Martin has started participating in mainstream gymnastics. His class meets Thursday afternoons at our local JCC.

I also mentioned, in that post, that Martin attends a three-hour special-needs program at the JCC on Saturday afternoons. The Saturday-afternoon affair is a mixed bag: The kids swim, cook, do arts and crafts, and play outside, and those in attendance have a wide variety of challenges, from autism to cognitive impairment to hyperactivity. Martin has participated for almost two years. He’s always seemed to enjoy himself.

Last month, on a Saturday, two days after his first Thursday gymnastics class, Martin said he didn’t want to go to his JCC program that afternoon. At first, I thought he didn’t want to go because Adrian and I were both home and the weather was nice. I was planting my organic greens while Martin played on his swing set and Adrian worked. Martin had seen me prepping vegetables and fish to grill, and he might have thought that he would miss a cookout if he left. (The food was for family dinner that evening.) “Don’t be silly,” I told Martin when he said he wanted to stay home. “You love going to the JCC.” Still he persisted. Still I thought that he was just reluctant to leave a lazy Saturday in our yard, and that he would be eager when we arrived at the JCC.

He wasn’t. He walked in with me, and even hugged his friend Will hello. Then he grabbed my waist and begged me to take him home. I try not to give in to Martin’s activity whims; if I did, we’d be forever paying for lessons that he doesn’t use, for classes that he wants one week and not the next. So I tried to leave the classroom. Martin, in very un-Martin-like fashion (these days, anyway), started to cry. I asked the instructor whether anything had happened to make Martin uncomfortable. No, she replied, not that she could recall. I thought back to the previous Saturday. Adrian had picked up Martin and brought home a cheerful boy. No apparent issues. Now Martin kept crying. Eventually I did leave, without him. I snuck back and peeked in his group’s room. He was sitting on the floor, playing with a toy intended for a baby, pouting. He looked as miserable as mysophobia in a dumpster.

I phoned Adrian from the car. Was it possible Martin had a bad experience at the JCC? Had someone hurt him? Was I wrong to leave him there?

No, Adrian opined. We’ve never seen any indication of that. Martin is always in a good mood when we pick him up. He’s never appeared frightened or abashed. Plus, there are so many staff members present that he’s never alone with anyone. He just didn’t feel like going. Stop worrying

Indeed. When we returned three hours later, Martin admitted he’d had a good time.

The next Saturday, two days after his second gymnastics class, Martin again said he didn’t want to go to the JCC. In this encore, the tears started earlier, before we left home, and Martin was more insistent still. He did not want to go to his special-needs program. Adrian and I got Martin calmed down, and asked why he wanted to stay home. The conversation went something like this:

Adrian:           Martin, listen. We know you don’t want to go. Can you tell us why? Did something happen at the JCC?

Martin:           Because I don’t like it there. I don’t want to go.

Me:                But, Sweetie, you’ve always loved going to the JCC. You have fun there.

Martin:           I want to go to the gymnastics class on Thursday.

Adrian:           You go to both. You don’t have to pick. You go on Saturday afternoon, and then again for gymnastics class on Thursday.

Martin:           I just want to go to gymnastics class. I don’t want to go on Saturday anymore.

Me:                Why not?

Martin:           Because I don’t like it.

You get the idea. It was a frustrating conversation. Nevertheless, two themes emerged: First, Martin had no problem with the JCC. To the contrary, he was anxious to go back on Thursday to his gymnastics class. For that, I was relieved. At least I could stop worrying that he’d had some negative experience or been accosted by a staff member or any of the other random horrors that float incessantly through my motherly head. Second, since he started the gymnastics class with typical kids, for whatever reason he did not want to return to the special-needs program.

As it was the second week in a row, and Martin was more determined than we’d ever seen him about anything, we agreed to let him stay home. Even after we affixed conditions to the deal—no iPad, no snacking before dinner—Martin accepted.

Adrian and I speculated what might be prompting the change of heart. Now that Martin was participating in a “typical” class, was he starting to understand the difference between mainstream and “adapted”? Did he want to identify himself more with the typically developing kids? Was he rejecting his special-needs peers? Or having experienced gymnastics, was he no longer so into the less-challenging fun program? Was he just spending too much time at the JCC?

By coincidence, the first Saturday that we let Martin stay home, Jenny was observing the JCC’s Saturday-afternoon fun program. Jenny is the facilitator who takes Martin to Tuesday-afternoon Kids’ Klub at our church, and also is a graduate student in special education, and the observation was an assignment for her course work. Later, after her observation, I asked Jenny for her thoughts on Martin’s wanting to stay home. Jenny said it might be a combination of factors. She noticed that the kids with more challenges in the Saturday-afternoon program kept the instructors busy, and so Martin and some of his higher-functioning (ugh! that expression again!) peers were left to their own devices. She also said that some of the kids had behaviors that might be agitating Martin, and that the room got busier and nosier than Martin is used to otherwise.

Jenny’s opinion, based on her experience at the JCC special-needs program and our church’s mainstream program: half and half. Half, the myriad special needs and activities on Saturday afternoon are not what Martin is into right now. Half, Martin wants to be more like the typically developing kids in the church club and the JCC’s gymnastics class.

My response? Half and half. Half, I am sorry if Martin has started rejecting the special-needs community of which he’s been a part for years. I want my son to be happy to play with any child, whatever his or her challenges. Half, I am bubbly-giddy if, in fact, Martin sees himself as typical and the mainstream kids as his peers.

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