Today M played in a rugby tournament at the local professional stadium. In itself that would be a cool event for any 11 year old. For M though there is a history attached that makes it a triumph in many ways.
When we moved to this area four years ago, we knew no one. Over the first few months we networked a lot, and met a group of local home educators, one of whom coaches at a (fairly) local rugby club.
M was invited to join the club - and after a lot of discussion we encouraged him to do so.
For a while things were OK, but it was clear that M had a learning curve to climb. I had a couple of conversations with the coach about ways to help M integrate with the team, but I thought things were going in the right direction.
About a year after he joined the club I got a message suggesting that M was well and truly out of his depth, that he wasn't coping with the social interactions at the pitch side, and we were asked to pull him out of the squad. Things - I was told - were way beyond the point of being salvageable.
We spoke to M. My husband and I had long meandering conversations. We felt that the situation wasn't all M's fault - in part the coaching team noticed him joining in with others messing about and targeted him unfairly, in part there was some bad blood on various sides, and in part M didn't understand what he needed to be doing or what he was doing wrong.
We asked M if he wanted to stop going to rugby - he didn't. We asked if he wanted to switch to another club (my preferred choice), but no, he really didn't want that. So we set about identifying what the issues were and doing our best to help M to work things out.
A major issue was personal space - at the side of the pitch, when queueing for warm up or training exercises - so we worked through some exercises and talked a lot about that.
We also talked about how M makes himself more visible than other children. When there is a group messing about M is the most uncoordinated, the loudest, the one taking it a step further than the others. So we talked about resisting the urge to join in with poor behaviour. In some ways that felt unfair, but M often gets told off for doing what someone else got away with moments before.
The last part was focusing - and that we couldn't fix by talking. M found it hard to stay focused for the whole training session, or for the match, and would end up away from the play with no idea what was going on.
It has taken a while, but between the work we have done, a bit of maturity, a slight change in the coaching set up, and the team learning to get along, M is now doing well.
With junior rugby there is a slow introduction of the physical elements of the game - they start off playing "touch rugby" (a touch instead of a tackle), then move on to "tag rugby" (pulling off a Velcro tag rather than a tackle) , then tackles are introduced, and then scrums. M's age group (under 12's) play with full tackles and a scrum.
M has found a place in the scrum, and has settled with the squad. There are still issues that an NT child wouldn't have, but he enjoys the game, and plays well.
Today the tournament had a limited number of players per team - and M was chosen - but more than that, he scored a try :) When they got home M was so happy and proud of himself.
By persevering with rugby, instead of simply walking away M has learnt so much, and he is now a valued member of the team. It might have been easier to pull him out, but I'm really glad we didn't!