We knew by the time she was five.
I grew up in a family of ballet practice, splintered bleachers and high school soccer finals. Giving birth to the first grandchild in the family, my dreams naturally drifted towards years of the same. Whatever my daughter wanted to do she could try. If she liked it I would be that mom, the one peeking in the dance studio window or wearing two layers and a blanket for the last sport tournament of the fall.
Her autism diagnosis came long before we decided on tap shoes or a basketball. We waited for her first words and precious seconds of eye contact as her peers performed in a first recital and caught a ball with just one hand.
Trying to make life work, I enrolled her in city recreation programs. I coached to smooth over the differences, to talk for her and keep her attention somewhere on the field. What other parents noticed was never said and I protected my daughter's right to play with a ferocity born the day someone told me she would not do what others her age could do.
My plan worked until her teammates progressed far passed her ability level. I couldn't hold her hand and run along the field or remind her of the ball that just touched her foot. Parents began worrying about winning more than about including and there wasn't a place for my daughter anymore.
I withdrew her from the city soccer program knowing kindness and acceptance was far more important than a team jersey or the end of the year banquet. We found the Special Olympics just as she became old enough to participate in any sport I could talk her into attempting.
Soccer, basketball, swimming, track and field and bowling, have consumed her time for years now. She is old enough to know exactly what she wants to do and to critique the volume of my sideline cheers. Each sport is made up of a team of her friends, all with different challenges that none of them seem to notice. She has walked her high school hallways and our local grocery store with a gold medal around her neck and will tell you exactly how many days until next season begins in case you want to see her win a game.
I have dropped her off at practices with volunteers who dedicate days and weeks and years of their time because they know my daughter and so many kids like her deserve a chance to play.
I have sat on splintered bleachers and wore two coats to cheer until my voice is hoarse and I have watched, through tears, as she has scored goals and hugged teammates and lifted trophies in the air.
And I have carried, just as carefully as any gold medal, the gift that Special Olympics has given to our family. A perfectly built place where my daughter will always belong, where she will win far more often than lose, because everyone has told her she can.