Life with autism often resembles a race. Early interventions feel like a race against time. Every success is dictated by how quickly we reach our goals, while speed and accuracy determine who crosses the finish line and when. The one race I didn’t count on was the one with Jonathan at the starting line. The literal race with autism– on your mark, get set, GO!
Running and autism seem to go hand and hand— or foot and foot, to be more precise. Once that race begins, there is no telling where it will lead. Each race has its own finish line and the track changes every time. All you can do is watch autism take off in the blink of an eye, then do your best to catch up.
The first time it happened, I was completely caught off guard. One minute Jonathan was right next to me and a second later, took off like a runaway train. It first started when we were out shopping. Something would catch his eye, like a toy or candy, and off he ran. I countered this by always using the shopping carts that had the built-in seats complete with a shoulder and seat belt. Granted, it limited my shopping to Target and Wal-Mart at the time, but it was an effective strategy and I could complete my shopping without a hitch.
The race took a decidedly more difficult turn the first time Jonathan escaped from our home in Omaha. Luckily, there was a playground at the elementary school up the street and we quickly found him safely playing on the slide. Jeff countered this by installing slide bolts at the tops of all the exterior doors that only we could reach, or so we thought.
The race turned ugly when I was 5 months pregnant with Casandra. One afternoon, shortly after lunch, Samantha and Jonathan were in their playroom, both engrossed in separate activities. I headed upstairs to put laundry away and just as I finished, my Mom Radar went off.
I headed downstairs towards the playroom and that’s when I saw it— the relay race had begun! Next to the opened back door was the chair to Sammi’s play desk. The bolt had been opened and the race was back on.
I found Samantha first, in the front yard playing with her dinosaurs. Relief at seeing her turned to panic when I didn’t see Jonathan. I ran inside and grabbed the phone, called Jeff, who probably caught 5 or 6 words given my state of panic. My neighbors noticed my distress and rushed over to help. One stayed with Samantha as I began pursuit on foot. I didn’t get very far before Jeff came speeding up in his car. Additionally, my neighbor offered to go look for Jonathan in his car so the two of them could cover more ground. I remained on foot.
And then I saw it— the hurdle in the form of two big road construction vehicles complete with hot tar and a road paver. Jonathan loved giant construction vehicles, but I also knew it was something that would be very dangerous for him to be around. For a pregnant woman, I reached them in record time, but Jonathan was nowhere to be seen. A brief feeling of relief knowing he was safe from that danger was quickly fleeting, as now I had no idea where he had gone. He was a no-show on the school’s playground and some of the teachers even looked in the parking lot to see if he had climbed into any cars. Now I felt like I was running in circles and had no idea which way to turn, so I just started to run. Looking left and right, yelling his name, feeling the distance widen. A race where everyone else had a long since crossed the finish line and I wasn’t even close.
And then it happened, the checkered flag signaling the end: Jeff and my neighbor both came racing up in their vehicles with headlights flashing. Jonathan was in the front seat of my neighbor’s car. He was safe, but it was a miracle that he was because he had wandered all the way to one of the busiest streets by our home. He was found standing in the middle of the road. Thankfully, my neighbor showed up in time.
What I didn’t know at the time was that this event would be the catalyst for another race against time— when I went into labor at 25 weeks. By the grace of God and 8 weeks of bed rest, I crossed the finish line at 39 weeks giving birth to Casandra.
In the years that followed there were still races to come, but they became less frequent. As I better understood how to race with autism, the less I had to run. Eventually, we both conceded to respect the pace and not just the race because life with autism is a marathon, not a sprint.
And as any marathon runner will tell you, pacing yourself is how you cross the finish line, every time.