Mom questions boy’s suspension

By Wayne E. Rivet
Staff Writer

Pam Melville says baseball is a “lifeline” for her autistic son.

“The sport connects him with other children, and is the only ‘normal’ environment he has a chance to be part of,” she said. “Now, he has lost that. He’s crushed. It’s not fair. It makes me so angry.”

The 9-year-old has been suspended for the remainder of the Cal Ripken minor league baseball season as the result of bat and helmet throwing incidents last week.

Melville agrees that “maybe now isn’t the right time for him to be swinging a bat, but there has to be a way that he can still be included as a member of the team — something that really means a lot to him,” she said. “We’re not ignorant people. We understand the importance of safety. We know what he did was wrong. We know he can be disruptive, without any really warning. But, I would have thought people would have shown a little more understanding and tolerance, and would have worked harder at finding a solution rather than just kicking my son off the team.”

Because Rec Director Tom Tash was unavailable due to a family illness, Bridgton Town Manager Mitch Berkowitz fielded a complaint made by a parent, investigated what transpired regarding the “outburst” by speaking with the boy’s coach and game umpire, and later reviewed the situation with baseball league officials.

Pam Melville was excluded from the correspondences.

“We knew this was a very sensitive situation,” Berkowitz said. “It is imperative to understand that our decision was not based on the child’s ‘underlying medical condition,’ but about safety. We can no longer guarantee the safety of the child, other children or spectators.”

When the boy struck out during a minor league baseball game, he threw the bat, out of frustration, over the backstop. Previously, the child had thrown a helmet inside the dugout. A parent filed a complaint, and threatened to remove his son from the program, citing safety concerns, if no action was taken, Berkowitz said.

Although the child has participated in other organized sports, such as soccer and basketball, Berkowitz said baseball carries a higher degree of danger to others if they were to be struck by a bat or hard ball.

“We are obligated to protect the well being of all present,” he said. “Although coaches and his father have tried to be close by to intercept a thrown bat, there is no guarantee they will be successful in the future, thus creating a high degree of liability. Because we know this has happened, we would be liable if we were to do nothing, and as a result, someone gets hurt because of our lack of a response.”

Officials considered “walking” the child when his turn to bat came up, but such a move would create an “unfair” advantage. They also pondered allowing the boy to just play in the field, and when it is his turn to bat, the team would simply take an “out.” Again, officials decided against that option.

Larry Carter of Casco, who has been Cal Ripken Baseball League president for the past 17 years and is currently Maine’s assistant commissioner, said this was the first suspension case, as the result of what has been referred to as out-of-control behavior, he has dealt with.

“The decision has nothing to do with autism. It was based strictly on safety. A bat can become a dangerous weapon. It is my understanding the boy simply didn’t ‘flip’ the bat but ‘threw’ it. That crosses the line. He does know the game very well, but he can’t always control himself,” he said. “I’ve been involved with baseball for a long time because I love kids and the sport. It was very difficult to make this decision, but you simply can’t ignore what could happen and put others at risk. I feel terrible about it (the decision).”

Ordinarily, a player is “warned” for a thrown bat. A second incident results in an “out,” but the player can remain in the game. In most cases, the bat is tossed “accidentally” a short distance to the side of home plate. In Melville’s son’s incident, the bat left the enclosed area of the park as the result of “frustration” — a common issue with autistic children — putting spectators at risk.

Carter has received no complaints from other town teams, just Bridgton parents. He contacted Maine Cal Ripken commissioner Barry Jordan of Sebago, who in turn, phoned league offices in New Jersey for guidance. “We wanted to be sure that we were doing the right thing,” Carter said. “All our discussions came back to the same point — it is a dangerous situation, and we need to fall on the side of safety for all.”

Carter learned that other states offer a “Buddy Ball,” which is for children with special needs. Maine, however, doesn’t offer such a program.

Ultimately, Carter said, the decision rested with Bridgton officials. He did suggest that Bridgton officials meet with Melville, but they declined. Last week, Melville was informed the boy was suspended for the remainder of the season.

“Shame on the Town of Bridgton and Little League for banning my autistic grandson for a bat throwing incident. At first, his parents were told that he was suspended for one game. His parents didn’t have a problem with that because it wasn’t right that he did that,” said Owen Melville of Norway. “You can just imagine the look on that child’s face when he was told that (he had been suspended). We are not saying what he did was right. The town and league didn’t even have the decency to discuss it with the parents, but made the decision without any input from them.”

Pam Melville is very upset, feeling the community should have reached out to find a solution so the boy could remain on the team rather than turn their backs on a special needs child.

“People have no idea how difficult it is caring for and raising a child with autism,” she said. “If people threaten to pull their kids from the program, what is that teaching them — bigotry? Instead, we should be talking to our kids about tolerance and including those who are either different or suffer from a condition that they have no control over. We are trying the best we can to make our child’s life as normal as possible.”

How the boy responds to situations varies. At times, he will simply fold his arms and be somewhat withdrawn. He works with specialists to develop “coping” mechanisms to avoid “lashing out” when he becomes upset. Other times, his anger boils over into a potentially dangerous reaction, such as throwing a bat.

S AD 61 has certain protocols to address various behaviors displayed by autistic children. While Lisa Caron, who is director of Special Services, declined to talk about those measures, she did say, “Our staff is professionally trained in de-escalation techniques.”

Melville says the boy has had youth sports coaches, who knew how to handle his behavior. She added that a previous baseball coach offered to take the child onto his team and work with him for the rest of the season.

The boy was “crushed” by the news of his suspension. “He’s embarrassed and now doesn’t want to do anything,” Melville said. “He is still learning what autism is, why he is different than other kids. We tell him it is not his fault. Baseball was his chance to be like everyone else. Now, he doesn’t have that.”

What is autism?

Autism is a developmental disorder that appears in the first three years of life, and affects the brain’s normal development of social and communication skills. Experts estimate that two to six children out of every 1,000 will have autism. Males are four times more likely to have autism than females.

A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found the rate of autism for children ages 3 to 10 years to be 3.4 per 1,000 children.

An autistic child often does not make friends easily, and prefers to spend time alone rather than with others. Behaviors commonly displayed by an autistic child include: “acting up” with intense tantrums; having a short attention span; is overactive or very passive; shows aggression to others or self; and shows a strong need for sameness.

Most individuals with autism respond well to highly structured, specialized programs.

Pam Melville doesn’t know whether or not her son will be able to return to the game he loves. She hopes the door of opportunity does swing back open and her child regains his lifeline.

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