While other kids climb ropes and ladders at the park, Garrett picks up a palm frond and flicks it back and forth in his twitchy fingers. While other kids bond and make up imaginary games, my 12-year old son lowers his head and paces the length of the playground.
“What are you doing?” I ask him.
“I don't know,” he says. “I have to move.”
So we take Garrett, who is autistic, on hikes up and down hilly trails. Each Tuesday evening his mom and I, and his two sisters, run with him at the track. Intense exercise is critical for our son, because when he doesn’t get it, his self-stimulating behavior, such as hand flapping, increases. Also, he is slower to process and respond to the things he hears, and his speech becomes incoherent.
We adopted our son, then four, along with his half-sister, Gillian, six at the time, through the foster-care system. Our biological daughter, Alessandra, was born four months later.
“Garrett is an adorable little boy with a page-boy haircut,” read the information folder that the county provided my wife and me as we considered making him a part of our family. The packet described Garrett, who had been diagnosed at three years old, as “a fair-skinned boy who is believed to be of Caucasian and Latino ethnicity, with straight fine hair and deep brown eyes.”
Those big brown eyes. People notice them right away, as well as his long, almost effeminate eyelashes. Then they notice Garrett’s atypical behavior. When he’s nervous or finds his environment too stimulating, he will bow his head, focus his gaze upon some piece of paper or trash that he’s picked up, and flap his hands like a crazed drummer.
Then there’s the jibber-jabber—his incoherent random chattering to no one in particular. At times, it’s as if he’s speaking his own language, and the more we question him, the more remote and jumbled his words become. So we gently remind him that talking is something we do with other people, and at times he gets it, communicating with crystal clarity.
Garrett finds it confusing and unnerving when something pulls him out of his routine. But we treat him like any other kid, and encourage him to try different things. We insist on taking him places that he’s never been before.
Of course, this means more work for Mom and Dad, given that it can be difficult for us to keep Garrett on task or to ease his fears. He has difficulty focusing and concentrating. So, to keep him on task, we must constantly repeat instructions and model appropriate behavior, which can be quite trying.
We knew about this going in. The adoption report gave us the heads up about our son’s behavior in a nutshell. “Garrett has abnormal social and communication skills, and a variety of atypical behaviors that are characteristic of autistic spectrum disorder,” the report said. The California county where we live warned us about his “absolute requirement for sameness in his routines and environment.”
It makes my wife, Lydia, and I wonder if Garrett’s birth mother’s history of drug and alcohol abuse may have contributed to his condition. A drug screen performed at his birth did come back positive for amphetamines. Of course, we’ve been told the cause of autism remains a mystery, but the question lingers in our minds.
Initially, we pondered long and hard about how challenging it would be to ease Garrett’s transition into our family. But if you were to meet him, you would immediately know why we fell in love with him, and brought him home on Father’s Day seven years ago. Contrary to the image of an isolated, autistic child, Garrett has the ability to interact with adults and children alike. He demonstrates a quiet intelligence, which belies his developmental delays. He likes to laugh. He enjoys video games and reading. He goes in for trains and Spider-Man in a big way. And, now, he likes to run. For little did Garrett know at the time that he was being adopted into a family of runners.
Lydia and I are avid trail runners. We also enjoy the occasional road race or ultramarathon for the challenge and fitness benefits. Running is a lifetime activity that we want to share with our children. In fact, my wife first met Garrett when he was a student in one of her adapted physical education classes. During the years he’s been our son, my wife and I have continued to keep him active. For the fifth straight year, he has run the local Fourth of July 5K with me. When he was 6 and 7, we mostly walked. This year he ran the majority of the course, walking only through water stations. His time: 34 minutes.
His is a running style almost akin to skipping. As he moves, his head bobs from side to side. His cheeks flush and the tip of his tongue stays glued to the outer edge of his upper lip. His hands draw close to his chest, and his skinny legs beat to no particular rhythm.
Although it is an awkward style, for the brief duration of his run, Garrett seems to leave the world of autism behind. The fuel-injected hand flapping becomes tiny arms pumping back and forth, his gaze is directed outward and ahead, instead of down. The big brown eyes get even bigger, as if taking everything in.
At the finish line, Garrett Garrett Gardner finishing a race. reenters his mysterious reality. It’s a world that I imagine to be something like a dream, with disassociated riffs here, and a tenuous connection there. That’s where his mother and I come in. We’re like the Dream Police, using physical activity and other techniques and tools to help him make connections to this world, and keep him focused on daily routines.
Researchers have long speculated that autistic children need physical activity to help them focus or concentrate on tasks at hand, as well as to help them manage the frustration with sensory difficulties. This certainly seems to be the case with Garrett. He is noticeably calmer and more focused after a run.
When Garrett first became a Gardner, he had difficulty following basic directions for physical tasks. Coloring with a crayon was difficult, as was writing the letters of his name. But he’s made a great deal of progress. Now, he showers by himself and brushes his teeth. He still has trouble cutting pancakes or stringing a belt through the loops of his pants, but dresses himself with only a little help in clothes selection from Mom and Dad. It pleases us to no end that Garrett is near grade level with his reading.
His report card confirms his progress. “Garrett has made amazing improvements this year and has demonstrated exceptional growth in all subject areas,” his teacher wrote recently. “His reading comprehension has improved. His printing has become much more legible. Socially, Garrett has made many friends in the class and has become quite a star.”
At the recent Father’s Day softball game at his school, my son shined in his ability to take direction in throwing and catching a baseball. During the game he made a throw in the outfield and hit the ball off the tee twice. He scored two ‘home runs’ he says.
After his latest finish at a local kids’ one-mile, crosscountry run, Garrett displayed his medal at “show and tell.” He ran the course that day as only he can: He mixed in some skipping. He mixed in some walking. And he added to that a whole lot of smiling. Even though this time he ran “only” a mile, I’m quite sure that some day he will run a half marathon.
Certainly running hasn’t been the sole factor in my son’s recent social, physical and academic progress. He’s had excellent therapists and teachers. My wife and I continue to set high standards for Garrett inside and outside the classroom. Prescribed medications help as well. But there is no doubt in my mind that running plays a key therapeutic role. Running has made Garrett physically stronger, while calming him so he can focus. He will always be autistic, but more and more it is his ability that is defining him, as opposed to his disability.
Because of his flapping hands, my wife and I often joke that our son could be a drummer when he grows up. Drummer? Runner? Runner? Drummer? Hey, maybe he’ll do it all.
by Renne Gardner Renne Gardner is a long-time runner and writer.
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