When friends or family ask me who’s going to be J’s running partner for the next meet, my answer is, “I don’t know.”
I don’t have an answer for them because I try not to drive the coaches too crazy with too many J centred-questions, and thankfully they take my “helicopter mom” persona in stride (I really try hard to keep out of their hair). Each workout and each meet they have been pushing J toward a little more independence and my gut feeling is they really don’t want to set up a runner for him every meet. They had a runner for J in the beginning, but they’ve expressed to me that they’re really hopeful that J will be able to do all of this someday on his own. Without a running partner, without me. I try to take that in stride, because even though J’s independence has been my goal since his autism diagnosis, it’s been really hard to make happen. For J’s entire life he has had some kind of support—a para, one on one, me, or Steve alongside him in every activity he has ever done, mostly because of his risk of meltdowns, the need for redirection, or just plain safety issues (he is always so distracted). He has never really had independence and since he’s never been really on his own I don’t know what that looks like. I want that independence, but at the same time that independence terrifies me.
I’m that crazy autism mom who follows my kid around everywhere the moment we get off the bus because I’m afraid he’ll get lost in the hundreds of kids and dozens of other buses parked at the meet. I’m afraid that he won’t remember where the team is camped and that he’ll end up in some other team’s tent from some small town North Dakota place I’ve never heard of, because they have yellow and purple uniforms that look a whole lot like our yellow and blue ones. I’m afraid he’ll lose his way back from the port a potties, I’m afraid he’ll drink out of someone else’s Gatorade (because all of the team’s backpacks look the same, and J gets so overwhelmed with that he doesn’t have the patience to look at each bag’s name tag to make sure it’s his). That’s just pre-race stuff.
And then there’s the race itself. I’m worried that J will have a meltdown and scare other kids. I’m worried he’ll get confused at the switchbacks, I’m worried he’ll get lost in the woods if he’s too far behind. I’m worried he’ll have a terrible experience and never want to try again. I worry that he won’t finish the race (because last week he didn’t).
But at the same time I have to remind myself that even though I know J, they are the coaches and they know what they’re doing. This is their team, and J is a member of that team. I’ve been running with J daily for a year, but they have more than eighty years of coaching combined. I don’t know how many autism kids they’ve seen, but they I’m sure they’ve seen all sorts of kids. So when the coaches push a little more toward independence, I have to put a little of my control freak aside and let them take J under their wings. I have to trust that they are giving him those experiences that will give him the self-confidence to be a runner on his own.
This Thurdsay at the Lindenwood race, the coaches pushed J one more step closer to independence by gently encouraging me to stay back while J walked the course with the team. I got to pace nervously near team camp while J was off with his teammates and coach. I tried to ignore my thoughts of, “what if he starts stimming and stops paying attention and turns left instead of right with his team and he gets lost in the woods?” “what if he has a meltdown because of some trigger I haven’t anticipated?”
But J came back 25 min later with his teammates, no problems at all.
30-45 minutes before the race, the middle schoolers were sent off to warm up—on their own—and I had another chance for inner anxiety monologue and worries. “It’s just middle schoolers out there responsible for themselves and no coach. J doesn’t run as fast as most of them. Will they wait up for him? Will they lose him?”
But soon all of the boys, including J, were settled at the starting line.
The plan for when the gun went off was for J to run the race by himself. If he needed support, a coach would join in and run alongside as needed (like last week’s meet). Despite my best efforts to prepare him for this race by running 20 minutes’ worth of random loops and turns in the park last weekend, I tried not to get my hopes up for a successful completed race. There are a million different factors out of my control, and J is just going to have to navigate that on his own.
J started the race solo, and ended up completing the whole race on his own. There were a few coaches (and myself) running to different points on the course to cheer him on and to tell him how many minutes more he’d be running. I was really emotional when J ran down that chute. Right before we got on the buses, the coaches brought J to the front of the group and told everyone how proud they were that J completed his first race on their own. I tried really hard not to tear up in front of the high school Varsity and JV boys and middle school boys. It was even harder to hold it together when everyone picked J to lead the Spartan break before they boarded the buses.
These dabbles in independence are not for the faint of heart. It is quite the emotional and nerve racking experience to see you kid go out there and do hard things, not knowing if it’s going to end up terribly or wonderfully. I’m glad I have people out there who are helping me transition through this. Who are willing to take some of these reins of responsibility to lead and guide my kid, and let him struggle through it too. I love that through this program, middle school J gets to see high schoolers work hard an push through their hard things. I love that he has those examples too.
I have a feeling that the next meet will feel much like this one again. I’m sure the coaches will keep pushing for more baby steps of independence. Running “blindly” for 20 minutes or so, not sure of the finish line is still J’s Achilles heel. We tried practicing again this Saturday, me on my bike, J running alongside while I yelled out, “turn right here, now go around that tree, then run straight, then turn left, then loop back…” J managed it without crying or complaining, but I know it was really hard for him. “How many minutes?” started at around the 10 minute mark again, and he barely made it to the end without stopping without my 5 and 3 minute left cues.
The next race will be another “new experience.” J won’t know the course.
He might not make it—but then again he might.
We’ll just have to see. We’ll have to let him fail or succeed gloriously and let him have those opportunities again and again. Trust that whatever happens is another drop in his independence bucket.
Geez. Who’d have thought that I would have such sappy, emotional, “Friday Night Lights” experience with sports.