When life gets too much, I run.
This is not a novel concept – I am sure most people are aware of fight or flight, and its less-succinct cousin, fight-flight-freeze-fawn.
When my heart starts rattling in its cage and those danger! danger! hormones flood my brain, getting as far away as possible from where I am is the only thing that makes any sense. Not that I am even thinking about what makes sense; thoughts are left behind like cartoon dust. Meep meep.
In autism support settings, running is often referred to as wandering, absconding, eloping, fleeing or piss-bolting and scaring the absolute shit out of everyone. That last one was coined by me the first time my daughter made a dash for it in a busy car park. I wonder if other people think of this as bad behaviour, something to be scolded out of children. The fear I feel when my daughter legs it is because I know she is not in control of herself in this moment. She is not looking for cars or bikes or people or broken glass. It is only luck and timing and the universe that keeps her safe.
For young autistic people, that kind of flight-style running can have real consequences – I remember the first time I heard the statistic that autistic children are 160 times more likely to drown than non-autistic children, while listening to Autism Swim founder Erika Gleeson talking to Jessie Aiton for her podcast Life on the Spectrum. One hundred and sixty times more likely to drown. That is horrifying. It is has made me reluctant to ever have a pool, and has led to a hypervigilance around bodies of water that is often read as helicopter parenting. Maybe it is helicopter parenting. Maybe I am the lifesaving rescue helicopter we wave to as it patrols our local beach on weekends.
Running regulates, so while there is danger (as any woman who runs alone can tell you), there is security too. Running as an outlet can be life-changing – or, perhaps more accurately, life-soothing. I know because it has soothed my life. Running is rhythm. Running is breath. Running is flattening out the scrunched-up piece of A4 paper that is my mood and finally being able to read what is written there, in my messy scrawl. Most of the time it reads: OVERWHELMED. But hey, at least I know now. And I can show my creased piece of paper to others, so many of whom are under the impression that I am: DIFFICULT ANGRY MEAN PETULANT STUBBORN LAZY. Running regulates a nervous system that tends to get stuck on nervous. It tires the body to ease the mind; it puts me in nature, in community, in my body. Running heals.
The impulse to run can kick in without any actual running taking place. I can leave the conversation, leave the room, leave the group chat, leave the friendship. Leaving is one of my very best skills. I left a long-term relationship via email, if we want to talk about running. There was not much he could say to that. A lifetime of masking, and not knowing why my brain works the way it does, left me without a sense of self. I needed to be alone to figure out where my edges were.
Moving back to my childhood home was not a movie-montage moment. It was itchy and uncomfortable like op-shop wool. I had not figured out yet how to be still. And so I ran. Every morning with my dad – the same route, the same hill. The stitch in my side marked progress, up and up, until it no longer came at all. I started to see that what I felt was OVERWHELMED. It took many more years to understand that really meant BURNT OUT STRUGGLING AUTISTIC.
I don’t know that I like running. I like chocolate and naps and reading the kind of book that makes my heart swell. I hate sweat and discomfort. The effort of it all. I like having run. I like when the effort is over, and the ease has set in. I wish that ease for everyone, especially now, especially today.
Okay, I’ve got to run.
Extract from Love & Autism by Kay Kerr, Published by Macmillan Australia, RRP $36.99.