Thursday, April 23, 2009

Run For the Arts

Yesterday was Run For the Arts day at our younger son's school. It was his first. His sibs started running their little hearts out around the block raising funds for arts in the schools back when I was, oh, thirty-three, and there I was, ready to cheer on our boy from the sidelines, eleven years later.

Typically a kindergartner can run around the school block about four times; the older sibs did six their first, and kept up that rate through grade school. Swift, skinny kids. Our youngest is not skinny; he's sturdy but quite swift when he wants to be, and as tall as our daughter was at nine.

But he's unpredictable, this one. He could've whipped around the block at ninety mph with a smile on his face, or he could have taken out twelve second graders and headed for the hills. Impossible to tell beforehand.

Complicating factors are 1) all five kindergarten classes run at the same time, which means about 100 kids, 2) you've got about that many parents cheering on and volunteering at the sidelines, bringing the total up to 200, 3) running with a pack guarantees physical contact, noise, and confusion, 4) there is much hype beforehand, raising anxiety to a fever pitch.

He took off like a shot, faster than his nine classmates, and was lost in the crowd. I fretted at the corner, silently praying that he would make it around at least once and hopefully be happy when he arrived to have his card marked at the first lap. Smiling, sweaty kids passed by, but not ours. Then I could see him in the distance (there is a reason his wardrobe consists of orange and red) and he was sort of jogging, his face a blank. By the time he made it to the corner he was looking around like a panicked animal, and an explosion was building.

I stepped in, just as he announced, "I give up," and one of the grandparents on the sidelines laughed and repeated the comment (unconsciously flirting with disaster); he was able to focus on my face and get out of the path of sprinting kindergartners whizzing by. He spent the rest of the run (fifteen minutes-ish) arguing with me about what a failure he was, while I tried to reassure him that he wasn't a loser because he didn't beat everyone else to the finish line or continue around the block.

His class did remarkably well. A couple of his nine classmates ran solidly, red-faced by the end and happy. A few walked around with teachers or para educators, holding hands and talking. One or two found adults to run with alongside. Maybe if I'd run with him, our son would have run more? I was just happy he made it around the block so he can get his T-shirt like the other kids.

On the sidelines, I tried to reassure him, but walked that fine line between enabling and understanding; yes, crowds are difficult for him, but we don't want him to automatically avoid them for life, yes, noise and touch are challenging, but shouldn't always get in the way of something he wants, and yes, making it around the block without exploding is a triumph for him--but that's not something I want to exactly spell out, because it seems to make exploding a more acceptable option.

The teeter-totter of shifting expectations is always present; don't expect too much, don't expect too little--every person with autism is different.

As far as I'm concerned, my kid did good.

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