autism,  cross-country,  learning strategies,  special education,  strategies

Using the Autism Toolbox to Make XC a Little Easier

J got to run his first 5K Varsity distance this week! About half of his team ran another meet in Minnesota this week while his half got to go to Casselton and run that meet instead, which meant he had an opportunity to run the 5K distance. He did pretty awesome for his first time!

J is the boy in the black and gold Brooks. Arms drooped around his neighbours’ backs. Pieces of masking tape bound around his fingers. The droopy arms and masking tape scream to me “autism,” although they probably don’t to you. I think that’s one of the funny things about autism. I’m always super aware of all the quirky or socially “different” parts of J that I don’t think a lot of people think twice about.

J has gotten really good over the last couple of season of “looking like a XC runner.” J goes to practice all by himself now. J takes the bus to meets on his own. J participates in meet warm-ups with his peers on his own.

But there are a lot of parts of “looking like a XC runner” that still need some work. And a lot of those parts are very autism specific. I hadn’t really thought too much about those parts over the last few years–we’ve been working so hard just to get J to run mileage at practice and races without too many meltdowns. But now, since J has gained a lot of confidence and become a lot more independent in his practice and racing mileage, I’ve had more time to think about the other areas that need work to help J not only become more independent, but reach his full potential as a runner.

The Basics of Behaviour: J has gotten pretty good at behaving himself at practice and at meets. For the most part, he can stay on task and say appropriate things and respect his coaches and friends (that was one of my main concerns when J started going to practice without me), but he still struggles in those basic social skills and intuition that come so natural for the rest of us. J loves to strike up conversations with anyone within earshot, and at meets that often means with other teams. His language is quirky and repetitive, and luckily the kids on other teams are pretty great and understanding. But J gets so caught up in “socializing” that he sometimes forgets or misses lining up for his own race. We also have had some problems with concession stands. Unlike the free water they give out to runners coming in at the finish line, the Gatorade at the concession stand isn’t free. During the West Fargo meet I found him post-race with a Gatorade I know he didn’t pay for (1: He didn’t bring any money and 2: If he did, there’s no way you could keep money in those shorts). Luckily, the XC community is so understanding and kind with J, so the moms running concession weren’t too concerned when I came 5 minutes later with 2 bucks explaining the situation. There were no bad intentions on J’s part–to be fair, at every Fargo Marathon 10K he runs they give out free Powerade or water on on the course–he just can’t figure out the social protocol at meets without my last-second interventions.

Last week I was talking with one of J’s coaches about some of these struggles and asked if he would help J’s special education teacher come up with a social story for J’s meets so he could help navigate the social expectations better. His coach was amazing! He was more than happy to collaborate with J’s special education teacher and they came up with this awesome social story.


They even collaborated one for the Willmar meet this week! J’s got a ton of anxiety over that one because of the exit numbers 55 and 67 on the way there so hopefully it will help prepare him for it.


Seriously. Even though J is 15–almost 16, I still forget how awesome and powerful a social story can be for him.

Getting Dressed in a Uniform: Good grief! This one has been a nightmare forever. Since J used to ride with me and Steve to XC meets, we would have J change into his uniform at home before driving him out to a meet. But now J rides with his team and getting dressed in a bathroom stall on his own is always a disaster. When he comes out and I have to send him back in at least two, sometimes three more times until he gets it right (I always meet J up at the school before a meet to make sure he gets his homework to me before he leaves school and the transition to the bus goes okay). Finally, this Tuesday, it occurred to me that I might just have to make a step-by-step visual chart on how to put a uniform, similar to J’s pec board charts from when he was a toddler. J’s at the age that he’ll probably only need the chart a few times before he gets it right and never has to use it again, but right now putting on compression shorts over-top of his underwear (I know most people probably don’t wear underwear with compression shorts, but taking off your underwear in a bathroom goes against J’s social appropriate brain), putting uniform shorts on top of the compression shorts, and then putting warm up shorts on top of uniform shorts can be really confusing to him. Then there’s the uniform singlet under your shirt, under your sweatshirt–you get the idea. Let’s just say when J has to get “re-dressed” a few times before the bus, it really stresses him out because it makes him late and he’s afraid he’ll miss the bus.

PEC BOARDS: (for those of you who aren’t familiar with what a PEC board is, here’s an example 🙂 this one is all about going to the bathroom)

Photo Credit:–november-2009


I think it’s time to make a picture board on how to put on a Spartan uniform.

Red Energy/Green Energy: J has a really hard time knowing when to run fast or at a comfortable pace during races. This summer I thought a lot about J’s 5 point scale we use for his energy and emotional levels and gauging the appropriate response and how that might apply to racing. Since RED on that scale is for super intense emotions (often fight or flight related)  I assigned RED for running really fast/sprinting. Since GREEN is your calm, comfortable energy level, I assigned it his normal pace. Then we’d play a version of red light green light (red energy green energy) during some of his summer runs (he’d run, I’d bike beside him and call the colour) and he absolutely loved it. LOVED IT. So if you’re out on the course and you hear me say “run red ” from the sidelines you’ll know what that means 🙂

Red is intense energy, Green is your happy place. Since running requires different levels of energy, I thought this might get J to understand his running energy better. Red energy is intense and fast and that fight or flight feeling. Green is your good pace. He caught on really quickly. Photo credit:


Sometimes (because J adapts really well to most situations) I forget to use my autism toolbox to make his life a little easier. I’m just glad he tries the best he can to figure it out on his own when I forget to use that toolbox. He’s doing pretty darn good at at it too. He ran his first 5K race (Varsity distance) this Tuesday.

J trying to keep up with his teammate.
J coming in at the finish.

Not to shabby. Maybe by the time he’s a senior, we’ll get this whole “looking like an XC runner” down to perfection 😉


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