PROSPECT — Robby Shaffer isn’t quiet any longer. At least not with the student athletes of the Woodland Jr. Hawks.
On Saturday at a game against Newtown Gold at Canfield Park, 9-year-old Robby, who was diagnosed with autism at age 2, stood beside coach Pat Gibson just off the field to encourage his team.
He yelled out, “Hard work!” The team returned with a resounding, “Pays off!”
“Hard work!” he repeated a second and even a third time, with a louder voice at the urging of Gibson.
The boys screamed, “Pays off!”
They then lined up and took off for the field, where the team, led by Robby clutching a football, ripped through a banner held by members of the Woodland Jr. Hawks cheerleading team. He grinned as he and his teammates tore through the white paper.
The boys call him, “Coach Robby.”
Or even, “Coach Robert,” said Robby last week before football practice at the Town Hall field.
“The reason why I like being part of the team is because football is a pretty nice sport, you know” Robby said. “And I like to watch the football players do stuff. And I like to help out with them all the time. Do stuff with them.”
His mother, Kelly Shaffer, 47, league cheer coordinator and cheer coach, in an email said her son was diagnosed with autism at the Yale Autism Clinic when he was 2 years old. He wasn’t talking or making eye contact, and was spinning and flapping constantly. He now is mainstreamed in fourth grade at Community School, she said Saturday.
According to the website Autism Speaks, autism is a general term for a group of complex disorders of brain development. These disorders are characterized, in varying degrees, by social and behavioral challenges as well as repetitive behaviors.
An estimated one in 88 children in the U.S. is on the autism spectrum, according to the organization.
Shaffer said she was told over and over that because of her son’s social skills he would never play a team sport.
This past spring at football and cheerleading sign ups, Pat Gibson, who is also league president, asked Shaffer why she wasn’t signing up Robby for football. She told him Robby is autistic and that his social skills wouldn’t allow him to play a team sport.
“And I was just like, well, he can be part of the team,” Gibson said. “We’ll make something happen whether it be a coach helping out or bringing the water out at half time or something like that.”
They put their heads together and made Robby an assistant coach.
Woodland Jr. Hawks, affiliated with American Youth Football, has 18 players, ages 7 to 9 in second and third grades. It includes Region 16 students from Beacon Falls and Prospect, plus Waterbury and Naugatuck.
Practice runs every day in August, and three days a week since school started, Pat Gibson said. After Saturday’s game, the team has two games left in the season.
“He’s our little motivator,” Gibson said of Robby. “He’s starting to get more comfortable and getting the confidence up. He’s actually telling the kids you need to tackle harder, you need to wrap up … you need to do A, B and C.”
Pat’s wife, Louise, a league representative and “Team Mom,” said from the first day that Robby was with the team, he was very quiet.
“He was very reserved because I don’t think that he knew what to expect,” Louise Gibson said. “He has come out of his shell so much that the kids were commenting last night about Coach Robby and how he was yelling at them to do their exercises.”
When Shaffer dropped off Robby at the first practice, she knew in her heart she would receive a call, saying Robby wanted her to pick him up, or he would tell her how he never wanted to come back.
Robby doesn’t like to leave the house ever, she said. She also has seen him being bullied so many times at the playgrounds.
But she didn’t get that call. And her son didn’t say those words.
“When I picked up Robby that night, he talked non-stop about how great it was,” Shaffer wrote in the email. “I cried.”
Instead of wanting to shut himself inside the house, Robby’s ready and willing to come to practices and the games, she said.
Sitting on the metal bleachers before practice last Wednesday, Robby said his favorite part about the sport is the boys playing football.
“I like to watch them during games or practice,” he said. “See what they have done wrong or what they have done right.”
Robby helps collect the cones, cleans up after practice and, sometimes, he gets to blow the whistle. But not as often as he would like, he said.
“Sometimes they need my help or something. So I just do it. Whatever they tell me to do,” he said.
Shaffer in the email said this is the first time someone has given her son a chance. In such a short period of time, Robby feels like he belongs as part of something and that regardless of his autism, he is important, she said.
When she first went to thank Louise for what Pat and the league has done for Robby, she said Louise told her that, “’They are learning as much from him as he is from them.’ And that really touched my heart,” Shaffer said.
Louise Gibson said there’s so much that a person doesn’t know.
“And you learn,” Louise Gibson said. “How good is it to learn first hand. And our kids are learning, too. It teaches them to be more tolerant of other people, people who may have differences. They learn to embrace that.”