THE WRITING ON (AND OFF) THE WALL HOCKEY OPENS UP A NEW WORLD FOR AUTISTIC GIRL.
Hockey somehow speaks to Isabella Masenga. It does it in ways her parents and twin sister -- or anyone else for that matter -- can't fully understand.
Saturday at Staples Center, as the Kings scrambled back to take their game against the Dallas Stars into overtime and then a shootout, hockey made a profound connection with the soon-to-be 10-year-old from Pasadena who lives with a form of autism that prevents her from verbal communication.
Watching from a second-level luxury suite, her eyes lit up, a smile was painted onto her face and she seemed to embrace every moment of the exchange.
"It's probably the best day of her life," said her mother, Suzanne.
"It's the happiest I've ever seen her," said her father, Tom.
Until recently, no one in the family knew that she even was aware that the sport existed.
In all fairness, there was no way Bellie, as they call her, could tell them.
More than a year ago, a speech therapist who had been working with her recommended trying out an assisted communication device -- basically, a portable word processor that looks like a computer keyboard with a display window to show words as they are typed.
"The problem is, she would never use it," said Suzanne of the AlphaSmart Neo laptop. "She kept pushing it away, or kicking it. It was just collecting dust."
Finally, after a trip to Disneyland, there was a breakthrough. Bellie typed in one word -- "Pooh" -- as in, Winnie the Pooh. Slowly, the machine became what Suzanne called "a life line" between the family and her daughter.
About a month ago, Suzanne faced the annual task of trying figure out what gifts to get her daughters for Christmas.
"Sophia (Bellie's twin sister) could tell me she wanted an iPod or an American Girl doll," Suzanne said. "But Bellie ... this is a girl who's never asked for anything. Was never able to."
Handing Bellie the word processor, Suzanne approached her about what she'd like for Christmas.
"Hockey game," Bellie typed.
Suzanne was puzzled. You want meto buy you a hockey game? Or do you want to go to a hockey game?
"Go," Bellie typed.
Do you know what a hockey game is?
"Yes," Bellie typed.
Suzanne was floored.
"It's a full awareness of her environment that we never knew about," Suzanne said. "You think they have only limited reception. But she had a love for something we never knew about."
Tom said there was no way he could have guessed his daughter's interest in hockey.
"The two sports I watch at home are rugby and football, maybe a little baseball," he said. "How'd she come up with hockey? And as it turned out, she was very specific about the Kings, not the Ducks."
Suzanne asked her daughter: "What is it about hockey you love so much?"
"Hockey is a fun sport to watch," Bellie typed.
So that's what the family would do. With some apprehension.
"My worst fear was that we'd get four tickets, sit in the stands, she'd begin kicking and fidgeting, finally have a meltdown and we'd all go home," Suzanne said. "That's just what happens when you have a special-needs child. You end up taking two cars to events. One parent has to take the child home early, the other parent stays with the other child."
To try to make the experience easier, Tom, a real-estate lawyer, arranged through a business partner to get a suite so he could take what ended up being a group of 12, including two of Bellie's caretakers, to Saturday afternoon's game.
Still, Suzanne wasn't sure how this would all play out. Those with autism can react unpredictably to anything around them. They can injure themselves, hitting the sides of their head if they're in distress over a situation they can't control.
A couple of days earlier, Bellie's social interactive specialist, Linda, drove her to Long Beach to visit the aquarium. But when they got to the entrance, Bellie seized up, threw her arms and legs around, and refused to go in. Later that night, Suzanne asked her why she did that.
"Too many people," Bellie typed.
Suzanne prepared Bellie for the Kings' game by taping the tickets to a mirror in her room, and creating a countdown calendar to mark the days off as the date arrived.
Friday night, Suzanne asked Bellie: "What would be the best thing to happen tomorrow?"
"The Kings to win," Bellie typed.
"Take a puck home with a stick," Bellie typed.
Suzanne took a deep breath.
"I'm not so sure about taking home a puck and stick," she admitted. "That's a little too dangerous."
As members of the Kings' staff heard about Bellie's arrival, account executive Mike Briano arranged a VIP welcome for the Masenga group with staff members Patrick Koors and Jonathan Lowe. Bailey, the Kings mascot, paid a visit to the suite -- and Bellie knew who he was. The group also went downstairs after the first period and saw the Zamboni machines at work.
During a late second-period power play, Rob Blake took a long shot on Stars goalie Marty Turco, Anze Kopitar changed its direction, and the Kings took a 3-2 lead -- leading to the usual array of red-flashing lights, train horns, blaring music and fans erupting.
Bellie was right in concert with everything happening around her.
She jumped up and down on the leather couch, high-fived her mom and banged the metal lid of the nearby trash can.
"She's in her glory right now," Suzanne said, tears welling up in her eyes.
To maybe everyone's surprise except hers, Bellie made it through the entire game. And she got her wish: The Kings won, in a shootout.
She high-fived everyone again, even as the cleanup crew worked around them, trying to get Staples Center ready for the crowd coming in a few hours to see the Clippers game.
Just before the hockey game ended, Suzanne got the word processor out and asked Bellie what she was feeling at that moment.
"Good time mama at game," Bellie typed.
5 photos, 2 boxes
(1 -- color) Isabella Masenga enjoys the Kings' win Saturday at Staples Center. The 10-year- old from Pasadena has a form of autism that prevents verbal communication.
(2) Isabella Masenga, second from right, attends Saturday's Kings game at Staples Center with, from left, twin sister Sophia, mother Suzanne, and father Tom.
Photo courtesy of Suzanne Masenga
(3) GOOSE GOSSAGE
(4) JESSICA SIMPSON
(5) KELLY TILGHMAN
(1) SUNDAY PUNCH
- Tom Hoffarth
(2) The Pop Quiz
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|Publication:||Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)|
|Date:||Jan 13, 2008|
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