Going the Distance
“Racing teaches us to challenge ourselves. It teaches us to push beyond where we thought we could go. It helps us to find out what we are made of. This is what we do. This is what it’s all about.” (PattiSue Plumer)
I just got back from a two mile run with Yael. I can’t even believe that I just typed those words onto my screen. The fact that she played basketball this year was enough of a surprise, but now my daughter has joined the track team. I’ve said it before, this is the kid that always hated PE and certainly never ran voluntarily. The kid with the stiff gait, who struggles with motor planning and low muscle tone is now going to be running long distance for The Cottage Cougars.
As we ran around our neighborhood, I found myself thinking about the parallels between distance running & life with autism. When you are standing at the starting line, the road ahead can seem so long. When you think about the terrain you must cover to reach that end goal, it is inevitable that some doubt and uncertainty comes to mind. Will I be able to do it? Will I make it through? What if I falter? Or worse, what if I can’t finish? And so it is with an autism diagnosis. You stand at the starting gate of life on the spectrum and you wonder if you’ll be able to make it. The weight of the world seems to be bearing down on your shoulders and the course you thought you’d be running, has suddenly changed! But the starting gun goes off and you simply begin, one step at a time.
Distance running is all about endurance. You need to pace yourself and take it slow or you’ll burn out halfway through. Life on the spectrum demands the same. It is a long journey filled with unfamiliar terrain. You need to start off slowly, taking in the diagnosis and making a plan. What are the most pressing needs that your child has? Where should you begin? What therapies should you seek out? How much does it all cost? And how will you pay for it? Slow and steady, slow and steady, that is the only pace. You remind yourself to breathe. Then put one foot in front of the other until you start to find your stride.
As Yael and I took our second lap around the neighborhood, she began to run out of steam. So, we set short term goals, knowing that each one that we met brought us just a little closer to the finish line. Make it to the top of the hill, the stop sign on the corner & the mailbox up ahead. When you have a child with autism, you learn to celebrate those same small benchmarks, the little milestones that others often let go by completely unnoticed. The first time Yael was able to drink from a real cup at age 3, and when she learned to use a straw just a few weeks earlier. The first time that I asked her how her day was, and rather than echo my question back to me, she answered me with that broken gibberish that only I could understand. The first time that we were able to sing “Happy Birthday” to her without it causing her to have a total meltdown. She was 5 years old and I sang with tears streaming down my face. The first time that she overcame her paralyzing fear of animals and touched our neighbor’s cat & pet another neighbor’s dog, in the 3rd grade. Those were the benchmarks that let us know we were moving ahead, even if the finish line was nowhere in sight. Hell, I don’t think that finish line even exists. But we strive to get closer and closer to each goal. Then we stop, take a breath, stretch, rest & set out upon the next course… toward the next goal.
Running alongside my daughter was truly the highlight of my weekend. I would not have dared to dream of such a moment when we stood at the starting gate of this journey ten years ago. But lap by lap, my kid keeps on going. Sometimes her stride is strong and at other times it is timid & uncertain. But she refuses to stand still and simply give up. I admire her endurance, her perseverance and her courage. The finish line is always moving when you live life on the spectrum. Just when you think you’re about to cross it, the course changes and you have to jump over new hurdles and push yourself to keep going the distance. You can not measure your child’s success by looking at the strides of others. They may run laps around your kid, but as long as your kid is moving, they are progressing and that is what makes them winners.
So next weekend, Yael and I will lace up our running shoes again and go a few miles around the neighborhood. And just as I have since the day we got her diagnosis, I will encourage my daughter to dig down deep, push a little harder and go just a little further. Because I know, with every fiber of my being, that she has it in her to go the distance.
“Believe that you can run farther or faster. Believe that you’re young enough, old enough, strong enough, and so on to accomplish everything you want to do. Don’t let worn-out beliefs stop you from moving beyond yourself.” (John Bingham)