Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Running Club

Sunday afternoon we did something rather out of the ordinary for our little family.

We laced up our sneakers, threw on something other than jeans, and headed to the track at Saint Joseph's College.

Yes, we went running.

How did this happen? I have to thank this incredible organization for offering what they call "Running on the Spectrum:" an eight-week running club for kids with autism, their siblings, and their parents. Essentially, everyone meets and warms up, then takes off running for as long as they want on the track. Every time kids do a lap, they get a popsicle stick. At the end, the coaches track everyone's laps (and progress each week), lead everyone in doing stretches, and the kiddos get a small prize.

Upon our arrival, Ethan was immediately whisked into the air by a girl in her tweens who was very eager to make friends. Her mother stood nearby, continually cautioning her to "make sure it's okay with him" and "leave him some space." One boy sat off near a tree with headphones over his ears. Another paced next to his parents anxiously on the nearby pavement, rubbing his sneakers in a patch of sand. Three kids were rolling down the hill in back of us. A boy a little younger than Anna was talking loudly about how excited he was.

I watched the kids rolling down the hill and even though we had signed up for the event due to Ethan, I wished my brother Andy were there. He's 30 years old and never passes up an opportunity to roll down a hill.

We stood waiting for awhile for a few stragglers. I could see the tension in some of the parents' eyes, that look that said This Thing Needs to Start Soon or He's Not Going to Make It. One of the leaders decided to start a game of Duck, Duck, Goose. And while some of the kids were teenagers, and half ran in the wrong direction, and the other half needed five people to tell them they'd been tagged and what to do, somehow, it worked. Everyone laughed. None of the details mattered. This was a safe place.

And that was just the point. Every one of these families technically could have gone to a local track in their own town that sunny, crisp afternoon, or jogged off together in their neighborhood, except, well, probably they couldn't have. Not without complications. Not without the stares or maybe dirty looks. Not without possibly worrying about their child's safety, if he happened to dart off and away, or into the street. Not without a fear of judgment at a meltdown.

On the track, the kids went crazy. Our kids, I mean. Anna did two miles and barely stopped once. Ethan limped along but wanted to keep running. I think he went seven times around, half-running, half-walking. Along the way we saw kids skipping and galloping, jogging and dragging along at a turtle's pace. We saw parents cajoling their kids onto the track; kids sit and decide they were DONE; a girl sandwiched between two parents, one holding each arm, catching the breeze like a broad kite.

We heard laughter. Lots of laughter.

As we finished our laps I couldn't help but think of the irony. Maybe irony isn't the right word. I couldn't help but think that so often people associate autism with running, as in "Watch out -- he's a runner. Keep your eyes on him or he'll be out of your sight down the hallway in a minute." I remembered my brother, always running. He ran out of the nursery in the church one Sunday, up to the very front of the sanctuary, around and back again, with scores of astonished eyes on him. He got the best of a chain lock on the kitchen door another time and darted across our apartment complex in his underwear. In a panic, we rushed after him, praying for no cars.

So many times running and autism are negatively linked -- yet here we were, turning the usual assumptions upside down. Here we were, turning the kids loose in a place where they could run with abandon; run until they could run no more. And they were drinking in every moment.

Every time we attend an autism-specific event I am reminded how minimally our own family, and Ethan, are impacted by autism, in the grand scheme of things. And I am always reminded of my brother. I wonder what it would have been like for him to participate in such events when he was younger...what it would have been like for me, as a sibling. I wonder how much it would have meant to see that we were not alone, that we were in a place where it was okay to just be who we were, all of us. I can't be sad anymore, thinking about what was missing back then. Instead I am incredibly grateful that the next generation is living it differently. They are writing a better story. I am glad to be a small part of it.


Anonymous said...

Love this story of your family and the others in your running group. I think this is a wonderful idea. I hope that this group continues and spreads to other communities. Jamie @fromAutismwithlove

SuzGriffin04 said...

This was awesome Deb. So glad you and your family got to be a part of this!!! Sounds like a great organized "safe" place. :) You are so great at describing scenes, I could see it in my mind! I'll go running with you and your family anytime. ;)

Anonymous said...

Great story...thanks for sharing!

Deenie said...

Sounds great! Do you have to sign up for the whole 8 weeks? My family doesn't live in CT, but we come to that area quite frequently. I would love to do this even if it's just a couple of times.

Deb said...

Thanks! This thing is such a cool idea...they should really have an open run and keep it going all the time (weather permitting). I think right now you have to actually register and it only goes for the eight weeks...it may start up again in the spring; not sure.