Everyone says when you have your first child, everything changes. Your life goes from only worrying about yourself to taking care of another human being. Most of us think about what our child will be like, what their first word will be, and how they will be as an adult. I lived in this typical world until I heard the words “Your daughter has autism.”
Autism was a new word for me. My daughter was only 2 years old when my husband and I heard this news. What does that mean? Can we cure it? How can we “fix it?” I felt lost, alone, and helpless. The doctor said, “With good therapy she can overcome some obstacles but it is uncertain what her functioning level will be.”
As I walked out of the office, I felt like the road my life had been on was turned onto a different path—a scary path of unfamiliarity. I did not know how to process this information or where to even begin. There is so much to do at the beginning of an autism diagnosis. A lot of appointments have to be made, and there was limited time to do all that would need to be done. My daughter Ava was nonverbal and aggressive. I needed a lot of help and felt very overwhelmed most days with the therapies added to living a day-to-day life. I was also working full time as a first grade teacher. Life as I knew it had changed, and there was nothing I could do about it but walk down my new path. I felt angry and cheated. The world and people around me seemed to change. I didn’t want to be around people and their “typical” kids.
There is one day I will never forget. That day was my first run with Ava. My husband worked weekends because Ava’s medical bills became too much. When he worked, I would try all the tactics the therapist suggested for interacting with Ava at home. It was often difficult to take her places because she became so anxious in overstimulating environments, so most times I would have to leave before finishing what I’d hoped to do.
One day I was in the house desperately trying to play or find some way to interact with Ava when I realized, I needed to find MY connection with her. I read all these autism books with stories of other parents who found their connection with their child. Here I am trying to copy what their experience was when I really needed to find my own connection with her. I put on my running shoes and threw her stroller in the back of the car. At this time, she was 3 years old. I drove to my favorite running trail and put her in the stroller with a book she enjoyed looking through. I started my run. Now, the stroller was just a normal stroller, not a jogging stroller, so it was like pushing a tank.
When we started the run, I noticed her looking around and pointing at ducks, birds, the lake, cars going by, and she was smiling and happy! I couldn’t believe it! I realized I had had a breakthrough with her. As we continued to run, my heart filled with such joy. We ran 3 miles in the stroller that day and she was singing to herself and laughing. She was also giving me eye contact. I felt like I finally was able to communicate with her. When we got back to the car, she hopped right in unusually settled. She is normally very anxious but at that moment she seemed calm. We both seemed calm.
I was so happy! I told myself that I would do this every day with her. This could be “our thing.” It was relaxing to her and she responded positively to me. Even though we did not communicate through language, we communicated through our run and the beautiful nature around us. Sometimes, she would reach up to me during the run and want me to hold her hand. I became really good at steering the stroller with one hand, because I was not going to miss the opportunity to touch her little hands reaching for me. She did not want to be touched very often, but our running-together time brought her the feeling of wanting to be held and to be close to me.
I eventually got a jogging stroller. Then I had to get a double because I had my second daughter who joined us for our daily run when she was just a baby. Our daily run was the best part of my day. Over time, Ava was saying words about what she saw, waving to people, noticing dogs, and best of all she and her sister were interacting as they rode side by side. Usually, Ava wants to be left alone, but our run forced her to notice her sister and to interact with her.
I will tell you that I ran with Ava in the double stroller until she was about 9 years old. The therapy she received from those runs with me was incredible. She was calm, she developed language, and she looked forward to “our time” together. Running brought our family out of this darkness we had felt. Often my husband would join us, too. It was our family activity–something we could all do together where Ava felt comfortable. It has always been difficult to find family activities we can all do together. Running brought us closer as a family.
When the girls grew too big for it, I retired the stroller, but the memories it gave me, I will never forget. It made us the strong, united, happy family we are today. I continue to run and compete in races. Now, my youngest daughter joins me. That running time made an impact on her love for the sport. Every year, our family and friends participate in an autism run. We have a team called Ava’s Army. This past April was Ava’s first time; she participated in the walk portion. She walked 3 miles! That is a huge milestone for her. We cheered the whole way.
Ava has taken me down a path that has made me a better person. She has taught me to enjoy life and not to stress out about nonsense. I will never forget our daily run around the lake and our many adventures. Before all of our runs, I would hold up my hand in the sign for ” I love you” to Ava. She eventually learned to say “I love you.” Running gave me the gift of her demonstrating love. Ava and I shared many years together running our trail. ME time turned into WE time.
I strongly encourage mothers of both typical and special needs children to develop a running time with their young children. It will develop a sweet bonding time that you will cherish. Running saved me. It allowed me to see Ava in a way that the therapists and doctors could not see. I was able to see the light in her eyes and hear the sound of her voice in a way I had longed to hear for some time. Ava surfaced from darkness and ran into the light.