Athleticism is something that J has always struggled with. His brain and body just don’t communicate very well. It started with walking–J was a late walker, taking his first steps around 14 months. At first we thought that it was because J was just a conservative kid–a non risk taker. But then we saw other difficulties in his physical development. We learned he couldn’t jump with two feet off the ground when other toddlers his age found no problem with that. Learning to ride a bike was painful–oh so painful. I would plant J on a bike with training wheels and spend hours a week, pushing his thighs down, reaching over to pull the pedal back up again, taking turns on each leg. It took him a full summer to learn how to pedal on a bike with training wheels. It wasn’t until he was in grade two that he learned how to ride his bike without training wheels altogether.
For a few summers, we tried non-competitive baseball through Fargo Parks. Since the league was non-competitive, the teams were pretty accommodating and understanding. Steve was his coach every year he played, patiently trying to get J’s eyes, arms, and legs to all sync up to successfully swing and hit at a ball. Even the few times J did get a hit, he was never fast enough to make it to first base.
This Thursday J finally had his first track meet–his first competitive experience ever. He was scheduled to have a meet last Monday, but it snowed that morning and the meet was cancelled. That made us all (the coaches and me) really nervous, but I was careful not to talk up the meet too much over the weekend, because looking at the forecast I knew cancellation was a good bet. It’s a tricky balance with J–letting him know what’s going on and not letting him know what’s going on. Either can throw him off into an anxiety attack. Lucky for us, not talking about the meet too much paid off.
Thursday came along and the weather cooperated. Since track meets are just really prolonged organized chaos, I just told J that we were running track at NDSU after school (which technically, we were because that’s where the meet was). I didn’t want to give him a real set picture of what the meet would look like–we didn’t know the line up for events or how long they would take. The coach and I just told him that he would be running his 4 laps around the track when it was his turn, just as we had practiced a few times earlier (most of his practices are in neighborhoods or parks). We reminded him of the “clap of the gun” (we practiced by clapping of our hands in front of our house at a start line marked by a crease in the sidewalk). We did everything we could to prepare him and leave things open at the same time.
Steve, J, W, and I all arrived at the track in our car while the team took a bus over (we didn’t want to risk stressing him out with the chaos on a VERY packed school bus). Steve and W waited in the stands while the coach, J, the long distance team, and I stood in the middle of the field waiting for our event. Poor J. Everyone was dressed in sweats and had t-shirts under their jerseys. I made the mistake of looking outside just before we left, and, seeing the sun for the first time in a week, assumed it was going to be nice. It wasn’t. It was windy and cold. J whimpered a few times that he was cold, but he stuck it out like a trooper.
After about an hour and a half of waiting (I was so proud of him, he was so patient through the whole waiting game–waiting makes him really nervous) it was J’s turn to race the 1600. Originally, the coach was thinking there would be two heats (J would run the second heat, since he is much slower than the rest of the kids on the team) but they ended up lining ALL of the 7th grade boys on the track. This meant the lineup we practiced (everyone with their own lane) changed to a “waterfall” start. Luckily, J was able to navigate the last minute change–something we hadn’t practiced. All the boys were ready for the “clap of the gun.”
Both me and one of the coaches on the sidelines gave a big sigh. The gun didn’t go off.
What would J think? It’s not supposed to happen like this.
The kids set at the starting line again. “Ready, set”
The gun didn’t go off again.
By this time me and the coach are beside ourselves thinking “C’mon! This poor kid needs the gun to go off!”
Finally the third start worked. And J was off!
J fell behind quickly on the first lap, and the second lap was even farther behind. By the third lap he was getting lapped, and our high school coach (who was also running the meet) yelled to the high school boys, “Go on out there and help J!” and this little group of high school boys met J on the track and helped him get through the last two laps.
I stood at the side of the track just bawling. The boys J ran with in XC practice went out to support him without hesitation. J’s middle school track teammates followed him around too, cheering him on.
I say this all the time. Sometimes I absolutely hate autism. I hate the stress, discouragement, and loneliness that comes with it. And then there are days like Thursday, when you see the best of humanity come out, like the soft side of high school boys and the support from J’s peers.
Best of all, it’s days like Thursday that I can see J win some of the many battles he fights daily–his anxiety, his struggle with motor planning. And that is a really amazing thing to see and cheer on.