PAWTUCKET – As dusk settled over Slater Park early Monday evening, Cub Scout Pack 3 leader Caroline Strange asked her boys to “place your seats” on the grass outside the playground and beging stretching out their arms and legs.
After all, she told the contingent, you can't sprint a few 25-yard jaunts without a proper warm-up.
“Is this a race?” asked one cub, to which Strange responded, “Yes, it is.”
“What's the prize?” queried the same boy.
“You can stay in the troop,” replied Strange, obviously holding in a chuckle.
She then informed them this was the initial step for each to earn a “Physical Fitness” badge.
While the boys stretched in various – and hysterical – forms, J.J. Sobczak leaned back, pulled his left sneaker up high with his left hand and screamed, “Look at me!” When no one seemed to notice, the eight-year-old, losing his balance even flat on his back, hollered again, “LOOK at me!”
Strange smiled and said, “That's very good, J.J.” Soon after, another pair followed suit; hey, they wanted some attention, too.
J.J.'s mom, Heather Sobczak, stood nearby and said softly, “You see, he is just an ordinary little boy.”
Sobczak and her husband, John, had craved scenes like this shortly after J.J. turned two; that's when doctors diagnosed him with Autism.
The Autism Society of America defines it as a complex developmental disability that typically appears during the first three years of life, and is the result of a neurological disorder that affects the normal functioning of the brain.
It impacts development in the areas of social interaction and communication skills; both children and adults with autism typically show difficulties in verbal and non-verbal communication, social interactions and leisure or play activities.
Actually, it's one of five disorders that fall under the umbrella of Pervasive Development Disorders (PDD), a category of neurological disorders characterized by severe and pervasive impairment in several areas of development.
Despite that affliction, the Seekonk couple remains adamant J.J. experiences the same type childhood other kids do.
“I go out of my way to make sure he'll have the same memories as every other kid: Playing sports, being a Cub Scout, going to school, having friends,” stated Heather, who has two other children – Lukas, 5, and Adison, 4 – who don't fall on the list of Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). “He deserves that, no doubt … He knows he had autism, that he's kinda different, but he doesn't let it get in his way.
“The cubs he's with, they're awesome,” she added. “The leader's awesome. They've all been great. I wanted him to be a part of something like other boys are, and I thought the Cub Scouts would be it. I called the Narragansett Council of the Boy Scouts, and they told me the Seekonk troop was huge. I knew J.J. needed something smaller.
“They told me about Pack 3, which consisted of about eight boys. When I signed him up last September, I explained his needs to Caroline, and she accommodated him. The kids are all there for him. The big thing is they give him friendship; they accept him for who he is, and they let him be a part of their group.”
Nearing tears, she mentioned, “They've given him confidence. He feels like he belongs to something, that he's one of them. I'm so thankful for that.”
Heather admitted being “floored” when J.J.'s physician explained, just after the Fourth of July 2005, that he had high-functioning autism.
“He officially was diagnosed at two, but I knew when at eight months old something wasn't right,” she insisted. “You could tell by his speech, or lack of it. I was looking at other babies, and they were playing and socializing. J.J. would just sit there. He wouldn't make sounds like other babies would.
“We'd go to a restaurant and put him in a high chair; we'd put toys on the tray in front of him, but he wouldn't play with them as ordinary little boys would,” she continued. “Because he was my first child, I had people tell me I was overreacting, he was just a slow starter, and I was worrying myself to death. Doctors told me the same thing. You don't ever want to think anything is wrong with your child, so I said, 'I'll listen to you.' You never want to think the worst.”
There was good news, however. Heather indicated she walked into a bookstore just before the diagnosis and gave him a book “to keep him quiet.
“He opened it up, pointed to the first page and said, 'One,' pointed to the second page and said, 'Two,' and he kept counting,” she recalled. “I was, like, 'What's going on?' He had never been exposed to numbers because we were so concerned about his play skills; we never got to teach him how to count or say the 'A-B-C's.'
“We were too busy teaching him to say 'Mama' and 'Dada.' When he counted to 10, I almost fell on the floor.”
Noted Rita Wibberg, the children's grandmother and caretaker when Heather is working as a science teacher at Warwick Veterans High School: “The thing is, when he was younger, doctors didn't think he had autism because he had 'joint attention,' meaning he was able to share experiences with others.
“He was very friendly, and children with autism aren't supposed to be so outgoing. People think of those with the disorder as mentally retarded or like (the movie) 'Rain Man.'”
Heather didn't break down, but instead set out to learn everything about the disorder.
“Now I had a name to it,” she explained. “Now I knew what I was facing. I wanted J.J. to live a life just like every other kid. We made sure he had the right services; we'd drive him to wherever he needed to be – speech therapy, occupational therapy, etc. We got him into a social group with other kids, and took him to applied behavior analyses, which taught him how to act, play, be quiet.
“It was really tough on us because I was working, and so was John (as an accountant in Boston),” she continued. “If it wasn't for my mother, one of us would've had to quit, and we couldn't afford that. He needed someone there for him '24/7.' There were no breaks.”
As J.J. grew older, he became more interested in hockey “to be like his mom and dad,” Heather giggled. When he turned six, the couple took him to a Bruins Fundamentals Camp so he could learn the basics – how to skate, stick-handle and pass the puck.
“He's on a special needs hockey team associated with the Pawtucket Pirates youth program, and he's playing in a house league at Driscoll Arena in Fall River,” Heather stated. “We wanted to mainstream him into a regular house league, but it was way too much for him, as practices started at 5 a.m. and lasted two hours.
“It was way too structured, but the special needs team has helped him so much,” she added. “They taught him about 'one-on-ones' and other things. There were some things he didn't want to do, but they had a way of getting him to do them anyway, and got him to feel comfortable with them.”
As for his education, J.J. – for the most part – now is a happy third-grader at Palmer River Elementary School in Rehoboth. He does take some special education classes, but also is mainstreamed in other subjects.
“I give credit to his family first; we've all been here for him, and we made sure we did everything we could to get what he needs,” Heather explained. “I also credit the wonderful staff of the South Coast Collaborative (in north Seekonk and at Palmer River). We feel they go beyond the IEP (or Individualized Education Program).
“I feel his teachers truly care about him; I can just tell,” she continued. “Whatever he's into, like hockey, they'll talk about it with him. Kevin Hurley (son of former beloved Seekonk educator Kevin Hurley Sr.) actually went to see J.J. play hockey in a special needs tournament in Marlboro, and J.J. loved it.”
Every morning before school, J.J. strolls to his computer to check how his beloved Boston Bruins had fared the night before.
“He can recite the Bruins' roster from No. 1 right on down,” Heather beamed. “He's really into numbers, and he knows his hockey. One time, we were having a birthday party here, and he likes to play announcer, like he's at the (T.D.) Garden. He recited the number and name of every Bruin, low to high.”
When asked if J.J. could be an “autistic savant” – or someone who has an area of expertise that stands apart from his limitations – Heather said, “I have no idea. I think he's very gifted in that category (hockey), but I don't know if I'd classify him as such.”
After being read the definition, she replied, “If you put it that way, then, OK, maybe he is. I know some men, and that's all they talk about, but I also don't think they can deliver the entire roster with numbers, names and positions. I've always been amazed by it. I'm a hockey fan, and I certainly can't do it. I'd have to write them down, and he's, like, 'Boom, boom, boom, boom!'
“He can also give you the stats of a lot of Providence and Boston players, and he's really good at dates. I'll ask him who the Bruins played on a certain night, and he'll tell me the opponent and the final score.”
On Sept. 24, officials with Community Autism Resources, Inc. of Swansea conducted a fundraiser called the “Hearts & Hands Walk for Autism” at Bristol Community College in Fall River, and J.J.'s fellow cubs joined him and his family.
“The Cub Scouts asked people to donate Mass. deposit soda and beer cans for the fundraiser, and J.J. raised $400 on his own, with another $100 coming from his pack,” Heather said. “I think C.A.R. received a total of $60,000 for assorted programs.”
Stated Strange: “He has blossomed some, and these boys have gone above and beyond to help him. They just don't see him as different, and don't treat him as such. Last year, J.J. would be more resistant to try things, as this was all new to him. He wasn't used to it, so if he was having a bad day, they knew it. They know when to back off.
“He's a very sociable little boy, but you also know what his limitations are,” she added. “As far as sitting and listening, he's often one of the first ones down … Before the walk, we had someone from a disabilities awareness group come in and talk to the boys. J.J. wasn't there that day, as Heather thought it may be too distracting for him.
“She explained a lot about autism and other disabilities, and the boys just got it. I also have a great circle of parents who are very supportive of J.J. and his family. They all get along so well.”
Heather revealed all of J.J.'s pack mates walked the two miles with him, and they received their disabilities awareness badge as a result.
“I like him; I think he's exciting,” said Dylan Greene, one of J.J.'s best pals in the pack and the boy who designed their colorful “J.J.'s Walkers” T-shirts. “He likes to play and just have fun. We talk a lot about hockey, and one time, he bought me a rally towel. He's just a regular kid. We like to play tag and just hang out.”
Insisted Heather: “Even though he has autism, he's so outgoing. He doesn't seem to have the social fears that kids without autism have. Lukas is very shy, and I think J.J. paves the way for his brother … It's nice we have these places we can go, where we're so accepted.
“Right now, he's got hockey and Scouts, but there was a time when I thought there was no place that would accept him,” she added. “If he had a meltdown, which kids with autism can have, they'd pull away from him. That hasn't been the case at all, and I'm so happy. I actually think he's inspired them. I know he's inspired me.”