BENNINGTON – If you were to attend any of Manchester Elementary Middle School’s football games this season, you’d notice they have an extra player on the field. This player, Stephen Cummins, may not have much of an impact on the score of the game, but he sure does have an effect on his team – and the game undoubtedly has an effect on him.
Stephen, 12, has autism. His mother, Maria, is his biggest fan and, more importantly, his biggest advocate. His support and encouragement are palpable when he’s on the pitch, and it’s clear she would be on the pitch with him if she could.
In fact, until this year, it always has been. This is Stephen’s first year on a school team.
“He’s been playing since he was very young,” said Maria, who teaches at Shaftsbury Elementary. “But the only difference is that I was on the field with him, running the bases in baseball or running alongside him in football.”
“Very embarrassing, I’m sure he will say at some point in his life,” she added with a laugh.
Now on his own for the first time this season, opposing teams welcomed Stephen as a ’12th man’ on the pitch for the Manchester-Dorset college football team, as he was in Friday’s game against Grace Christian School.
Stephen showed substantial stamina, staying on the pitch the entire game. His assistant who helps him with extracurricular activities, Chelsea Palacios, shouted every few minutes from the touchline: “Find the ball, Stephen!” to recenter it. And off he went, scrambling to get back close to the action.
As has always been his way, Stephen didn’t show too much interest in playing ball, but just being on the pitch seemed more than enough for him.
“He’s not aggressive, so he won’t be looking for the ball,” Maria explained. “He’s literally like, ‘Oh, there’s the ball. No, please, after you.
Maria and Chelsea are waiting for the day when Stephen might decide he wants to step into the mix and go kick the ball himself, but for now seeing how happy he is to be on the pitch makes all the difference. interesting experience.
Maria said that beyond allowing him to be on the pitch, she didn’t seek any special treatment for Stephen. Stephen reflexively dodged most of the times he heard the ball kicked on Friday, but Cummins said he had already been hit.
“If he’s hit, he’s hit. So is everyone,” his mother said matter-of-factly. “Everyone asks, ‘Do you want us to do this or that to protect him?’ But are [other kids] wrapped in bubble wrap? Nope.”
Maria also expressed her appreciation that vice-principal Kendra LaRoche asked both teams to stay on the field one game and set things up after the game, so Stephen could score his own goal.
“The whole crowd went crazy. They all applauded him and clapped his hands off the field. It was like a ‘Rudy’ moment,” she said. “He loved it. He loves cheers, loves applause. He had the biggest smile on his face. It was beautiful.”
Maria said it was a fantastic moment, but she doesn’t ask for it either. She doesn’t want the game to stop just so Stephen can score, or it’s all about him. She just wants him to enjoy participating like everyone else.
“He loves being in it and being part of it, and he knows very well when he’s not,” Maria said. “Separating him is very painful for him, not just for me as a mother.”
Stephen being on the pitch hasn’t just been good for him. His presence seems to galvanize the team and has been invaluable to the other youngsters.
“It feels good to have him in the team. The team appreciates him too,” said Bayron Apuhango, one of the college coaches. be patient. It’s a good experience for them to do that.
Stephen’s enthusiasm rubs off on other children in the myriad of other activities Maria keeps him engaged in as well. She shared an anecdote that particularly moved her over the summer during a circus camp at the Southern Vermont Arts Center.
“Stephen’s smile is contagious, and it’s great because other kids notice it,” she said. “[The kids] were all lined up for the show and one of them said, “Hey, we need to smile.” Be like Stephen,” and it warmed my heart.
Maria said Stephen has tried many activities since he was very young.
“I’m huge for throwing everything at him and seeing what he likes,” she said. “And it’s very clear if he doesn’t like something. He will say no. So it’s not like I’m imposing anything on him that he doesn’t want.
Maria says the song “Try Everything” from Disney’s “Zootopia” serves as a motto for her and Stephen.
“I sing in the car because apparently that’s where I think I have a great voice,” joked Maria. “I can’t walk through the chorus without crying because of that part that says, ‘Look how far you’ve come.'”
Maria describes some of her daily engagement with Stephen, and some of the routines and developmental milestones she shares with him. She makes it a point to give Stephen chores to teach him responsibility and brings him to Hildene where he volunteers on Sundays, feeding the goats and stacking the hay.
Maria adapted Stephen’s prayers before bed at night to include saying what he is grateful for, to foster more meaningful conversation rather than just having it be something he had memorized. Maria said those things he’s grateful for lately are the soccer field and his teammates.
Maria wants everyone to know that Stephen can and should be held accountable for his behavior and that he was taught to behave like any other seventh grader. She encourages everyone in his life, like teachers and assistants, to hold him to the same level.
Maria cited an example of people saying “Hello, Stephen” and Stephen continuing to walk by without responding because he sometimes needs time to process. Many people will ignore this and say, “It’s OK,” in an effort to be polite, but Maria says she needs the help of her community at times like this.
“No, it’s not OK. He says, ‘Please.’ He says thank you. He opens doors. So hold him accountable,” she explained. “If you don’t hold him accountable, how do you help?” Where is my village?
Cummins is also quick to dispel any myths about autism spectrum disorders, citing a simple and powerful phrase often used by parents of autistic children.
“If you’ve met an autistic child, then you’ve met an autistic child.”
“It’s not Rainman,” she added.
Maria is however proud to mention some of Stephen’s talents. Stephen has perfect pitch recognition, which he takes advantage of to play the xylophone in the school orchestra, and he is taking voice lessons. Maria also mentioned his love of computers and how he learns coding. The plan is for him to assimilate everything and be able to teach sixth graders soon.
As well as 12-year-old Stephen, Maria also has a 5-year-old son, James. Her husband, Jim, who played 15 years in the NHL, is now on the road, often scouting for the Calgary Flames.
Hopefully, Maria finds some comfort in knowing that her first-born exhibits many qualities not seen in many children of the same age.
“If he’s into something, he’s really into it,” she said. “He’s going all out, which is great. He doesn’t let go. He doesn’t leave anything half done, which is really beautiful.
Maria Cummins is not raising an exceptional young man with autism – she is just raising an exceptional young man.