An overcast day at Townsend Park and a mother sits in the stands with a smile on her face.
On the field her child flies from sideline to sideline, making life miserable for the Meadow Ridge visitors. She makes a tackle and her coaches yell words of encouragement. A teammate helps her up and she’s back it on the next play, a whirling dervish in white and a marvelous sight for Charlene Groves-Vula.
She has always been her daughter’s biggest supporter, and no one in the stands yells louder than she. But even Charlene was never sure this day would come.
This day. This sport. These teammates and for two hours on a Saturday afternoon, happiness.
Fitting in. Belonging. Acceptance. Foreign concepts for eight year old Brooklynne Groves-Vula through most of her life.
She has autism.
In most ways you wouldn’t know, because she is ‘high functioning.’ But there are things about Brooklynne, things she says or does, that set her apart. She is easily overwhelmed and has trouble with discipline and self control. She struggles to focus on the task at hand and gets fidgety. In Grade 1, she couldn’t handle more than two hours, even with an education assistant prodding her to pay attention.
When Brooklynne gets fidgety she starts talking. A lot. Using language that would make a road-raging trucker blush.
“She has an older sister who’s 22,” says Charlene. “Brooklynne grew up with teenagers hanging around here, and she more than picked up their language. She mastered it completely. She can tell you things most adults would cringe to say.”
In a world where children pick on you for the colour of your shoelaces, or anything else that doesn’t conform to the norm, Brooklynne’s ‘eccentricities’ made her an easy and frequent target.
Knowing her daughter’s difficulty making friends, Charlene was shocked when Brooklynne came home last year with a birthday party invite. So excited, Brooklynne hustled her mom out the door to buy a present and buzzed with anticipation all week.
But, it turns out the birthday girl knew two children with the same name.
On the big day, Brooklynne ran up the walkway and rang the doorbell. The door opened and the birthday girl stared at her, before delivering the most hurtful words.
“Oh, you were the wrong Brooklynne!” the girl said. “I didn’t want you to come!”
Brooklynne cried and cried and was so devastated.
“She thinks everyone hates her,” Charlene said. “They don’t hate her, but they don’t want to play with her.”
For the first six years of Brooklynne’s life, her father was stuck overseas, trying to work out immigration issues in Kosovo.
Charlene was left on her own.
“Most people who saw Brooklynne in public would have thought that she was a very undisciplined and poorly parented child,” she said. “I know I’m not the best parent in the world, but I’m doing the very best I can. So for someone to just my child as undisciplined and me as a poor parent, that really hurt my feelings.”
That said, for a long time, Charlene almost identified with the poor-parenting theory.
Brooklynne wasn’t diagnosed until two years ago. Until then, Charlene was convinced there was something she was missing, something she was doing or not doing, that was causing all of these problems.
“At one point I took two months off work without pay because I couldn’t cope any more,” she said. “I would sit in a janitor’s closet and cry as the school phoned again to get me to come and pick up my daughter.”
Charlene spent hours online researching intervention tactics, and adopted a ‘little rewards’ strategy to motivate Brooklynne. Do well at school and get a TimBit. Nothing huge, but enough to reinforce positive behaviours.
“Provide little motivators all the time, and the positive behaviours become entrenched,” Charlene reasoned. “When she’s at home she gets marbles which she can translate into TV time or computer time or 10 cents apiece if she wants to save up and buy a Lego.”
The strategy was yielding modest success when Brooklynne’s father finally won his battle with Immigration Canada and was allowed into the country in December of 2012. He arrived in Chilliwack with an Eastern European style of parenting, trying to make up for lost time with a rigid do-what-you-are-told approach.
That didn’t work with Brooklynne, who also has oppositional defiant disorder — a general disdain for authority figures.
Epic clashes followed.
“Where he comes from, kids like her just aren’t out there and I don’t think he understood the disorder,” Charlene elaborated. “Children with Down’s Syndrome, as an example, are still called Mongoloids. Kids like Brooklynne don’t go to school. They just keep them inside, where no one will see them. So I just think he got her and didn’t know how to cope with it.”
As Brooklynne and her father slowly learned to co-exist, Charlene’s neighbour, Alicia Walsh, came to her with a game-changing suggestion.
Alicia’s son, Treyvon, grew up playing football. Alicia thought the structure and discipline of the gridiron would benefit Brooklynne.
Charlene was hesitant, picturing in her head the oft-violent game she sometimes saw on TV.
She was worried her daughter would get hurt.
“Brooklynne hurt?” Alicia asked incredulously.
It did seem laughable. At eight years old the girl was already four-foot-nine and 90 muscular and athletic pounds.
It was her future opponents who should have objected.
The Chilliwack Minor Football registration fee of $160 made for a cheap gamble and Brooklynne was assigned to the atom White Giants and head coach Eric Sondervang. Before the first practice, Charlene spoke to the coaching staff (Sondervang, Mark Beck, Ken Redekop, James Bergin, Allan Grant, Scott Stoughton and Stem Ruetz), priming them for the adventure ahead.
Charlene was worried Brooklynne would be overwhelmed by a new sport, new rules and the general chaos of young kids.
Initially, she was right.
Every time someone hit Brooklynne, she sprawled on the field, crying. She thought everyone who so much as brushed against her was doing it on purpose, trying to hurt her. She yelled and screamed and used every swear-word imaginable.
“Then she’d come up to me after practice and tell me, ‘So and so is an a—–e! Did you see what he did? He knocked me down!” Charlene said. “I tried to explain to her that these kids were just doing their jobs, but she kept at it, until finally the coach asked me to stop hanging around. He pretty much told me to go away.”
Brilliant move! With her mother banished, Brooklynne stopped playing for attention and started playing.
And she was good.
She was always a kid who thrived on touching, and could hurt you with a hug if you weren’t ready for her. Tracking down a ball carrier from her defensive end position, and bringing them down with boa constrictor-like tackles came naturally.
Like her father, the coaches didn’t know how to handle Brooklynne at first.
But they took the opposite of his heavy-hand approach, letting her get away with too much. She was out there swearing. Once in a while she’d just wander off to roll on the ground while the coaches turned a blind eye.
That changed from day one this year as the coaches quit the special treatment.
“They didn’t hesitate to holler at her like they do the other kids, and they addressed the swearing with her,” Charlene chuckled. “If she swore they’d yank her off the field, and she wouldn’t play. When she swore at school she knew the consequences weren’t going to be too grave. She’d get sent home, which is what she really wanted. But with football, if she got kicked out of practice she wouldn’t get to play in the games. She cut it out pretty quick.”
As Brooklynne has improved her focus and become a better player, she’s been rewarded with more playing time.
As she’s terrorized opponents she’s gained confidence, all of which translates into other areas of her life.
A more focused Brooklynne is making strides in Grade 3. No longer does she require an education assistant 100 per cent of the time. It’s at 40 per cent and dropping.
Most importantly, she’s finding acceptance among her peers.
Among the White Giants she is a valued teammate. The only girl on the team, she still has her moments when she annoys the boys.
But those moments are increasingly rare.
“It might have been a cumulative effect with tutoring and counseling and her maturing, but it was definitely noticeable by fall of last year, and the only constant has been football,” Charlene said. “So I attribute a lot of the improvement to football. That’s how she identifies herself now. She builds a lot of her world around it.”
The best news of all? Brooklynne got a birthday party invitation from one of her teammates last year.
This time she trotted up the walkway and rang the doorbell with present in hand. This time, the door opened and a smiling boy welcomed her to his home.
This time, she was the right Brooklynne.