“I’m going to get you mother-f#!$#%!” was the first thing I heard as I watched four boys with Asperger’s and their four friends join about 100 other males prepare for battle. My first thought was one of relief. That voice isn’t familiar — not one of mine. And I knew what “my” boys were thinking — that guy just broke a rule, no cursing. As the boys stood with their masks, protective gear, and paintball guns, I was internally placing bets with myself — a great way to keep from losing money.
First bet: Within 30 seconds, someone will come back to our table out of ammunition after a trigger-spraying of the wall. Second bet: All of the “don’ts” from our 5-minute “lesson” from the teenage referee will happen simultaneously. In essence, a paintball rifle will be used as a bayonet, club, and choking device to yield an up-close kill shot to the head. Third bet: A hit will engender an insurmountable meltdown leading to a hasty departure for all. I know what you are thinking — the biggest bet of all is taking the boys in the first place. You got me there.
I admit, as we spent four weeks planning on this visit to an old limestone refinery in Kansas City, I thought that perhaps I was crazy. The parents sure did. Putting GUNS in the hands of these boys so prone to anger and aggression? Allowing them to SHOOT each other and random strangers? Preparing them for WELTS that would ultimately bruise? But the boys were so excited. It was contagious and hard to disagree with.
To say today went smoothly was an understatement. The situation was stacked against success. We were late to the cave due to the joys of GPS — a cardinal sin. Loud, echoing caves and an odd stench bombarded us as we walked in. Rapidly and randomly sputtering guns made for an auditory nightmare. Cursing, shoving and competitive players threatened to trample the boys. Our “introduction” to the sport was likely a lesson on how not to explain anything to anyone with AS. But, miraculously, after almost two hours, we parted with our guns somewhat sore and completely happy. Imagine my shock. In underestimating Asperger’s, I underestimated the boys. That, unto itself, was my first lesson. Here were a few others:
1. My clients like the concept of shooting (i.e. video games, Nerf gun, archery, etc.) but today delivered the reality. And that reality was scary at times. The boys pretended to get hit to get out and take a break. I don’t blame them. Hopefully, though, they have a new respect and healthy fear, rather than just awe and desire, for the use of guns.
2. The referee that taught the Paintballing 101 was bombarded with good-old Aspie questions. You know — what’s the gun made of? What happens if I shoot the gun with my plug in? How many balls fit in the canister? Surprisingly, he took it in stride, laughing with the boys, answering their questions honestly, and sharing in their enjoyment. These boys were exactly like the 15 before and the 8 after — eager, curious, and excited.
3. My bet that a direct hit meant a quick finish proved true and false. (I took the money away from myself and then gave it back!). A quick finish didn’t have us piling in the car. The boys reloaded, rested, and waited for the next round. Their ability to cope was bolstered by the rules of the game — you hit, you’re out. Black and white (and welts all over).
When I asked the boys what part of the activity they enjoyed, one answer stood out. ‘
“Monday morning.” The other boys and I were confused. “Why?”
“I’ll be able to answer for the first time ‘What did you do over the weekend.’”