autism,  mental health,  middle school,  track

Knowing how much to push

Poor J has been feeling pretty crummy all week. All he wanted to do at the meet was sit by himself–he didn’t even want to really hang out with his other long distance teammates. But he stuck through it and did the best he could.

All week, J’s been really sick.

I don’t know what it’s like for other kids with autism, but when J gets sick, it never knocks him out. When most of us just want to veg out and watch movies and sleep all day and check out when we get a sore throat, runny nose, and a cough that just won’t stop, J will still wake up at 6 am, still wander around the house looking for things to do, still want to be entertained, all while still feeling miserable. It’s really, really strange. Not even illness can seem to knock down autism and all of its obsessions, habits, and idiosyncrasies. In fact, in some ways it enhances them.

At least that’s what I thought until this week.

Tuesday I got a call from the school (Eek! Can I tell you how my heart stops when I see a call from school mid-way through the day?). J was not feeling well–in fact, all he wanted to do was lie down and come home. I was really hesitant to bring him home. He’s had this cold for a week now, and it hadn’t seem to bother him for the last seven days. Why did he now think he needed to come home?

Reluctantly, I had Steve pick up J and bring him home. I knew I was going to get absolutely nothing done when he came home. Because that’s how it always works when J is at home sick. He wanders around the house, looking for things to do, wanting to be entertained. Except, for the first time ever in his life, he came home sick, and acted sick and slept from noon until the next morning, waking up a few times for about 15 min to get a snack or dinner. And that was it.

Wednesday was the exact same. I kept him home from school and he slept the entire day again. I have never seen this child–this child with autism and ADHD still for such a long period of time.

Thursday I decided to send him back–he had missed two days of school and I didn’t want him getting too much out of his routine. Autism + no routine = big trouble.

So J made it through school Thursday and we decided to try track practice. It was a four mile run, and, based on the way J was coughing and breathing through his nose, I thought we’d run 1/2 the distance and call it good. But when we reached the mile mark to turn around and run the mile back, J started to go into full fledged panic attack. He felt physically terrible and wanted to quit. But because we’ve been training for almost two years now that “you don’t stop–you finish the run” he refused to stop–in fact, he had a bigger meltdown when I suggested we turn back. So for the next 3 miles, J was in this feverish, frantic panic attack, torn between finishing and quitting. I kept trying to remind him that we can do hard things, even when we feel sick and terrible. But at the same time, I was really worried I had pushed too far.

All of J’s life I’ve been pushing him. J would be happy as a clam to stay in his autism world and never interact or learn new things if I didn’t push him. And I look back at where he was as a toddler and where he is now, and I know he’s where he’s at because I’ve pushed and pushed and pushed him. Pushed him to break a routine and deal with the aftermath. Pushed him to meet everything that gives him anxiety and see it through. Pushed him to learn and try new things. And every time, just when I think he’ll break, he gets it. Time and time again.

But this time, he was breaking and I felt like I made a mistake. That I’d focused on teaching him to “just push through” so much that he was now having a panic attack about whether he should push through or give up when he was clearly close to the breaking point and probably stop and turn back. That’s something I’ve never seen from him. And for the first time ever I thought “I’ve pushed him too far and it’s backfired.”

J finished the 4 miles and it was really, really rough–crying and coughing the whole way. He was the last one of the whole team to finish his workout because he was really feeling awful. For the rest of the night I tried to process the whole workout emotional breakdown. Then I realized something in this whole autism journey that I hadn’t even considered. At some point he’s going to have to recognize what his personal drive and personal breaking point is. His whole life, we–parents and teachers–have been doing it for him. It’s just as important as all of the other emotional skills we’ve been teaching him–the ones to manage disappointment, change, anxiety. Knowing that fine line between giving it your all and knowing when to quit or say no. In fact, that’s something I’m still figuring out myself and I’m not great at. It’s more sophisticated and complicated than the basic “autism social/emotional” skills we’ve been teaching him. All this time we’ve been trying to instill a sense of “personal drive.” Now that he’s getting it, he’s going to have to figure out where his limits are too.

Saturday’s track meet came and J was still pretty sick. But he still wanted to run. This was the meet he was going to try the 800m for the first time, and his coach and I debated whether he should try the 800 considering how he was feeling. But J wanted to run both races. And he did.

J told me he wanted to get a 7:20 mile time this time. He ended up with 8:15. It’s been his slowest time in a very long time, but he wasn’t too upset about it. I think he just felt good that he did it, even when he was sick.

I was so proud of J for making it through that meet. I’m so grateful for the wonderful kids that help him and cheer him on. One of them, C, is so incredible with him. He’s the fastest kid on the team and is such an incredibly talented runner. And he always takes J under his wing and helps him out. He makes sure J is marshaled up and lined up. He puts up with all of J’s annoying, repetitive questions and lets him know when he’s gone too far. J is always lining up with kids from different schools that don’t know him or know that J has autism, and C always helps J navigate that first awkward interaction with the new kids so well.

One of my favourite moments from the meet on Saturday came from C. He came up to J to congratulate him on his first 800m and ask him how he did. J got a 3:58 (which isn’t great even for J), and C smiled and said, “Hey, that’s your first race and a PR!–now you’ve got a place to start from and a time to beat for next time!”

I guess that’s how we get to know how far we can go. We try something and we see if we can improve. Sometimes we make it and sometimes we don’t. And then we can gauge how far we can push for the next time.

And that’s a great, tangible, way for a kid with autism to start figuring out his own pacing and drive. Little steps. Looking at what you’ve done, looking to where you want to be and figuring out what you do to get there. That’s where you start to figure out how much you can push.


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