autism,  cross-country,  exercise

Running with bean bags

051716 007
This is classic J running form: left hand wrist loose but at his chest where it should be and the right arm dangling at his side.

It amazes me sometimes the things that J can do and the things he can’t do. It amazes me that these strengths and deficits permeate into every aspect of his life–socially, mentally, emotionally, and yes physically. Today’s post is about some of the physical deficits J struggles with.

Throughout J’s life, J has had physical struggles at fundamental developmental levels and stages. He was a great crawler and subsequent furniture cruiser, but he didn’t have enough guts to let go of the furniture and take steps on his own until he was 14 months old (most kids start walking at 12 months). He was a great breast feeder, bottle feeder, sippy cup drinker, but struggled–really struggled to drink from a straw. J finally learned how to drink from a straw when he was about 3 years old.

And then there was the “riding the bike struggle.” J loved his trike and could ride up and down the courtyard sidewalks behind our apartment with no problems at all. But then came the two wheeler with training wheels, and that my friends, well at one point I never thought J would be able to ride a bike. Ever.


J freewheelin’

It turns out that you use different muscles on a trike than you do a bike. It also turns out that J had no idea how to use his bike muscles. I would spend at least an hour a day, bent over J and his Spiderman bike, trying to balance the handle bars for him while at the same time push one thigh down to the ground and then pull that same leg back up again to its starting position. And then I would switch “guiding” the other leg in the same way. Pushing down on his thighs, pulling up his feet, pushing down his thighs, pulling up his feet again. Day after day. All while he cried and threw a fit because he didn’t want anything to do with his bike. He wanted his trike. His trike was something he could do. The bike? The bike was almost physically impossible for him to do.


It took months to learn how to ride the bike with training wheels. It wasn’t until the beginning of grade two until we could take those training wheels off.

And here we are, about to head into grade 8, at 13 years old, and I’m realizing more and more that J has another severe physical challenge in one of the most basic human tasks ever–running. Since J started running last summer, I knew he had a dead weight right arm–I call it the wet noodle arm because it literally jiggles and flails along J’s right side the entire time he runs while his left arm flops up close to his chest–where it should be–as he runs. He also runs with a shuffle step stride.

051716 008
Even here in this picture you can see that his left hand is up and his right arm is dangling by his side

We’ve had the “Run Forrest Run!” catcall before running down University Avenue, because yes, J looks like a disabled person when he runs because physical disabilities do manifest themselves when he runs. J’s OT has explained to me that some people cut off “unnecessary processing” to the non-dominant side of the body, that’s why (left-handed) J’s left arm stays where it should and his right arm hangs limp against his side.

During one of the XC team’s summer runs a few weeks ago, the coach asked me about J’s right arm. He was impressed at how much J’s pace had improved since last fall and suggested that if we could strengthen his right arm, he could increase his speed considerably, because his arm swing helps determine his stride. He let us borrow some small 3 lb hand weights to do arm curls to strengthen his arms. I also went to Scheels and bought him bean bags to hold in each hand while he runs so he is 1) aware of where his hands are and 2) forced to use his muscles to keep his arms up near his chest.

The bean bags have already done amazing things in the few weeks we’ve used them. Very rarely do I have to remind J while he runs to “keep both arms up!” because J has to hold bean bags in both of his hands. Because of the bean bags, I’ve been able to see that his left hand has problems too–his left wrist flops around all over the place even though he manages to keep it up. Now I remind him to not only to keep the bean bags up but to hold them tight in each hand, so both his wrists can gain some strength.

There are lots of crappy things about autism and one of the biggest things for me is that I feel like there are always a million different things to be working on with J in every category of his development. The bags are working great, but at the same time, they’ve slowed him down a little because his muscles have to work harder to keep his arms up. It’s always that one step forward one step dance J always seems to be doing.

But here’s the part that keeps me going: Over the past year J has learned that mental piece of endurance. By the end of track season J was running 5 and even at one point ran a 6 mile run while staying fairly close to the pack. That’s with his shuffle step stride and his wet noodle right arm.

Imagine how much faster and farther he will go once he builds that physical strength he needs.

Please follow and like us:


  • Crys

    That is awesome! Not the run forest run part, that made me so angry, but the rest of it I loved. I’m going to get Ezra some weights and bean bags and see if that helps! Go Joshua, go Sarah!

  • Carol Forster

    Sarah, you never cease to amaze me! Just hearing about this makes me so proud of him and there’s one more step in the right direction. I’m excited to see what else we can work on this year to gain more strides. Thank you again for sharing all of this, I just learn so much each time.

  • Angie

    Love this! And that mental piece of endurance is so key. The going may be slow, but if he gets that part down, he will get to where he needs to be.