I’m not an athlete – never have been, and I sense it’s never going to be a word that describes me. It’s just not my strength, and I’ve come to terms with that. As a kid, I was pathetic whenever we had to learn some new game in gym class, and was almost always the last one picked to be on someone’s team. Every once in a while, a friend would take pity on me and choose me 2nd to last or something of that sort, but I realized early on sports were not my deal.
That said, having struggled with weight issues my entire life, I’ve learned that exercise needs to be a regular part of my life. My passion for “Top the Tator” needs to be balanced with a few miles of trotting through the neighborhoods of Eagan. Yes, running is my sport of choice – it’s efficient, can be done anywhere, and allows me to ponder many of life’s questions as I listen to bad 80’s music and turn an interesting shade of red. That and it’s an awesome tool for dealing with the stress that autism occasionally heaps on my plate. While I’m not good at it, running is good for me.
However, even now as I run in our neighborhood or at the gym, I feel like a bit of an outsider, or like someone who’s pretending. As I encounter those who are really good at what they do, or who clearly have ambition to kick some butt, I am envious. I only wish I had a teaspoon or so of their natural abilities. But my talents lie elsewhere (at 44 I can still do the splits – but only after a margarita or two), and I’ve made peace with that.
A few years ago, we discovered that when Elliott’s anxiety levels get elevated, exercise is a wonderful tool for him as well. When Elliott’s world feels a bit chaotic, he tries to control more and more things in his environment, and it’s not easy for him to work through. Often, these things
sneak up on us – such as his desire to control who and when the garage door opens, how many times the microwave beeper goes off or who is the first person to trigger an automatic door at a store. While we’ve conquered a great number of these challenges, we’re always on the lookout for what new perseverations are coming next. Sometimes, when things are extra stressful, he just explodes like a cannon. That’s what happened last Friday when I sensed his edginess, and asked him to go running with me.
So, after several minutes of screaming, yelling and crying, he came down the stairs with tears running down his cheeks and said “why does autism make me feel this way”? Wow – that one threw me for a loop. I wanted to cry because when I see him struggle I would do anything to take away his pain. But, I’ve learned over the years that as painful as it feels there is no amount of love that will take his autism away. Instead, I’ve tried to turn his passion for control into a positive – so I stood tall and, held his shoulders, and told him “don’t let your autism be the boss of you – only you can decide who the boss of you is”. Then we went outside to run.
As I watched him catch his stride and get farther and farther ahead of me, I smiled with pride and a pinch of envy. His stress melted away instantly, and everything just started to click for him. He is already a terrific runner, the kind of runner I’ll never be no matter how hard I try. He’s competitive, disciplined and can go the distance.
While I trudged along behind him, sweating and struggling to keep him in my sights, it made me think about the various struggles we all face. Even though he doesn’t recognize it yet, Elliott’s athletic abilities will be a tremendous help to him as he learns how to use those gifts to overcome his challenges with anxiety and control on his own. It won’t be easy, but considering all he’s accomplished in his young life so far, I believe with all my heart he can tame that beast.
When we got back home after our run, I met him on the red couch, and gave him a high-five. I told him I was proud of him, and asked him if he wanted to run a 10K with me this fall (Henry wants to do it as well). I shared with him that running is not something I’m good at, but that I like having goals and training to do things that are hard for me to help me work on my health. He told me he would train with me, and that he would wait for me at the finish line. Nothing would make me happier.
That day, we chose teams, and picked each other first. We’ll need to help one another with things that we are not naturally good at, and we both need to work on our patience, but I think we’ll make a pretty good team. We have a long way to go – but we’ll be there for each other no matter what . . .