Natural Athlete

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 . . .


Summer on the Red Couch

Things have been quiet here on the red couch – and in many ways that’s a good thing.  The red couch serves as the place where important things go down in our house – both good & bad, but let’s get real, in the past, there have been more difficult conversations than positive enlightening moments to work through from that sacred spot that Elliott christened so very long ago.

I’ve had many ideas floating around in my head for the past few weeks, and have had simply no time to jot them down.  Here’s what’s weird – that’s a good thing!

Elliott’s therapy has been slowly ramping down for the past several months, and therefore our time together has been on the increase.  Then, with school out for both Henry & Elliott, and Ada having a light therapy schedule these last couple of months, we’ve been having together time to the max.

In years past, that would not have necessarily have been a good thing.  While that may not sound very motherly of me, I have no shame admitting that my crew can be quite a handful. During earlier years, this kind of togetherness would have meant a big increase in Prozac, and lots of tears (from me, not the children).  There just wasn’t enough margarita mix in the world for that to be a successful summer adventure.  I think you get the picture – and it wasn’t always pretty.

Here’s the good news – we’ve been having loads of fun!  Elliott, while still experiencing his challenging days, for the most part is a pretty fun guy to hang out with.  He’s got some habits that may be a bit out of the ordinary, but hey, there’s nothing wrong with sauntering down the path less traveled, right?    Ada is busy – and some days her stubbornness shines through more than others, but I’ve come to sort of appreciate her “tough broad” ways. Henry is mostly easy-going – when he is not pitting the other two against one another (such a middle child) – and doing a ton of exploring of various tools, (his new passion) this summer.  All in all, no one is going of the deep end, and we’re doing tons of activities just like any other family – and that feels pretty awesome!

Sure, I need to find humor in some of the bizarre things that pop up, just because that’s what helps me cope.  For instance, during one of our first visits to our local water park, Elliott took it upon himself to yell – more than once – for everyone to get out of the water (thank goodness he didn’t have a whistle).  He had seen the lifeguards run their safety drill, and decided that kind of power would be awesome to harness.  Needless to say, they were less than amused with his attempt at water park domination.  He also had a few difficulties with the lifeguards choosing which color of inner tube he got for the lazy river – but after a brief chat (yes, involving a threat) things cleaned right up.

My favorite is that he is more than frequently checking in with me.  While lots of parents of kids with autism need to worry about kids running away, or just not paying attention and getting lost (which has happened with Ada  who wandered away from us at the state fair last year involving the police – yikes!), we have the opposite difficulty with Elliott.  He double and triple checks where I’m going to be, and then, even as he is standing way up on top of a tall water slide half way across the park, I hear his voice yelling “Hi Mom!  I’m waiting nicely in line and using my manners.”  or “Mom, you’re getting a little too far away from the orange slide” – our designated meeting spot. Yes, he keeps me in line.

Needless to say, the red couch has been mostly vacant this summer because we’ve been out and about, and taking advantage of all our community has to offer!  Ok – I realize this may not make sense to a lot of people, but for those with a close connection to the autism community, that sentence speaks volumes.  I don’t mean it in a whiney way – it’s just that in years past I would have been elated to have even one hour of one day that might be considered “typical”.  Let’s get real – I likely have no idea what the heck typical family life is like – I’m only imagining what it might be like from the outside looking in (and yes,  I get that every family has their issues).  Things for us are just different, and generally take an extra long time to work through.  That’s ok, because even on our most challenging days we have hope (and occasionally a strong margarita) along with the belief that things will get better.

Still, having time to just hang out doing regular summer stuff that kids do is sort of momentous for us, and I am working hard to appreciate each moment because it’s pretty darn amazing considering where we’ve been.  Tomorrow may bring another unfortunate litter box like incident, but for today, I’ll enjoy a lovely visit to the water park, and smile to myself when my favorite 10 year-old greets me from high-atop his favorite slide and lets me know he’s remembering his manners . . .