Running and Asperger’s

I’ve been heading towards this post for quite a while. It’s not been a easy one to write. Hopefully, having done so will clear the internal decks a little bit, and perhaps invite some response from readers.

Long story short. I’ve got Asperger’s Syndrome.

What’s that, you ask? Well, bear with me, because it’s not a simple topic, either to explain or to understand. I’ll try to unpack it a little, explain what my life with Asperger’s is like, and then talk about what Asperger’s has to do with running.

Asperger’s is a neuro-biological communication disorder that affects key aspects of social awareness and interaction, language, usage and sensory integration. (That’s quite a mouthful, isn’t it?) It’s probably easier for you to understand if I explain what it feels like.

I find the basic elements of social interaction difficult. I’ve always had trouble developing or maintaining friendships. I don’t reciprocate social or emotional signals easily or well. I can drone on about a favourite topic, without noticing that people are literally walking away. I know an awful lot about very specific and narrow areas of interest. (I can tell you more than you ever want to know about 1st century Christian exegesis, for example, or the the minute details of the history of a certain make of British bicycle saddle.) I’m incredibly sensitive to sound, light, and other stimuli. Movies are very difficult for me. (I’ve only seen six in the past twenty years.) Watching a movie in a theater feels to me like being wrapped in barbed wire and having someone punch me in the head repeatedly. I find wearing clothes to be uncomfortable at best and painful at worst.

For me, living with Asperger’s is like always being in a small room with thick glass walls. I can see the world outside and the people in it, but I have a lot of trouble connecting to them. Over the years, I’ve learned coping mechanisms and skills. When I’m in social situations, I work very hard at paying attention other people’s faces, reactions, and what they’re saying. Until a few years ago, I couldn’t eat in a restaurant, because the sounds and movement around me made me virtually catatonic. Now, it’s difficult, but I can do it. I very seldom listen to music, don’t watch TV, and don’t listen to the radio, but I can listen very carefully to music in short doses. I have a wonderful marriage. I have friends.

And I run.

When I run, that little glass room gets bigger. Much, much bigger. I usually run early in the morning, when the world is quiet. Or I run on my treadmill, without music, without a TV or DVD player, just with the sound of my own breathing and my footstrikes to keep me company. I run most happily when it’s hot, so that I can wear as little as possible. I run barefoot, so I can feel as much of the world as possible. Running, especially running long distances at a slow pace, seems to calm my nervous system and allow me to integrate my surroundings. I’m almost always calmer, more relaxed, and more peaceful after a run. I’m more charitable to other people, more patient, and more kind than when I don’t run.

Part of running is racing. Most races involve a lot of other people. (The Vancouver Sun Run 10K, which I’m doing next month, has 50,000 participants.) The big races are part sports event, part entertainment, so they have bands, cheering spectators, and loud start guns or horns. All of those are difficult for me, and a little bit scary. But those big races are also celebrations and parties, and opportunities for me to practice my social skills. And the more running friends I have, the more often I see them at races, and the more I learn about interaction and friendship. Besides, there are always low-participant races like the Kingston 6 Hour I’ll do in June (which last year had only 53 participants) to keep things balanced.

Asperger’s is a condition, not a disease. I know it’s not going to go away, or even change significantly. So I do what I can to recognize that it’s a gift of sorts, and to use it to live well.

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20 comments

  1. Nice post, having experienced 29 years of similar struggles and not knowing why I have recently been diagnosed with Aspergers, which is great as I have finally found an explanation, but a theme I am seeing is that a lot of Aspergers run, I have been running for years, it is very special to me as it is the one time I feel myself and able to express myself through motion in a way others understand, maybe because little words are needed, you can see my effort, see my enjoyment and when the going is tough you see it all, mainly… you see me. Running is great and I recommend it to everyone, not just for what I have said above but because it helped me deal with anxiety and agoraphobia too, it made me more calm, less stressed and anxious, it made me more positive and mentally tough, it made me an all round better person or happier person. #Dedic8 is my blog… http://dedic8.org.uk/about-me/

  2. Thank you Alan for articulating this so beautifully. Like you, I feel that “When I run, that little glass room gets bigger. Much, much bigger.” I’m starting a research strand to explore running+ Asperger’s + thinking + a way of looking at the world. My question or rather questions are not formulated, and I’m not certain yet what I’m looking for, but your post has made me feel hopeful. “I know it’s not going to go away, or even change significantly. So I do what I can to recognize that it’s a gift of sorts, and to use it to live well.” Thank you Alan.

  3. I think the neuro-physiological effects that any degree of autism has can be detrimental to anyone who wants to do sports, especially running – not to mention distance running! Maintaining physical composure, avoiding injury, and simply getting your body to do what you tell it to many times over can be a one-ton weight on your shoulders. Mentally, I’m the same runner in this post. I got into distance running in 2013 and I’m (in my own eyes) struggling greatly with it. As a person in the spectrum, I view training to do anything physical like this as a rehabilitation phase. The results will just not come, until the brain, nerves, and muscles are trained enough to fire in the right order. And, that leaves out stuff like potential low-T subjects, as I suspect I am. And this all makes correct nutrition and rest exponentially paramount. My opinion on running in with autism is that you need to run with your mind, heart, and body 100% of the time. Without any one of those, it’s gonna be a long and potentially painful day out there. At any rate, I’m 31 now and hope to become a top ten trail runner in the Western PA region by the time I’m 40. It’s a rather lofty goal, but I have lots more time to beat myself into submission. 🙂

  4. Like one of the other readers I just stumbled across this post after googling “aspergers and the need to run” and I can’t tell you how much it touched me. My son is 10, has Aspergers, and has just discovered running. The change in the attitude, and ability to cope has been dramatic. He too prefers to run barefoot. Living in Alaska, that causes me some worry now that it’s starting to get colder outside (luckily we have a treadmil that I steer him towards when the temperature drops). I just wanted to say thank you for being able to put my son’s needs into words. I also appreciate the fact that you note the need to further develop social skills. Since social interactions and skils are not comfortable and require a lot of hard and consistant work, my son tries to avoid working on them…so, from a mother of a strugling Aspie – Thank you!

    1. Thank you for those kind words, Charity. The goodness goes both ways – it means a lot to me when I read comments like yours. I’m glad your son has found a way of dealing positively with Asperger’s. It’s not all bad, you know. As he grows older, he’ll not only find more ways to cope, but he (and you too) will find strengths in him being an aspie. Best wishes to both of you!

  5. Thank You, I’ve been looking for insight on Aspies and the need to run. My daughter has aspergers and has been running since she was 2 years old(shoeles). When I asked her how she felt when running she described very similar feelings. Now at 5 running is her daily routine. So much so that even her school has recognized the need and has given her three sensory breaks to run laps in the gym.

    1. I’m very, very glad to hear that, Theresa! It’s wonderful that your daughter (and you) have found this at such an early age. It’ll help a lot, I’m sure, as she grows older. And thanks for the phrase “sensory breaks.” I’m going to think of my runs as that from now on! 🙂

  6. Thank you for your post, Alan. For someone like me who knows no one personally with Asperger’s and isn’t aware of what it actually means or what it’s like, this was a valuable post. I do have questions though. Does being in the solitude of nature help at all? Birds singing, creeks trickling, etc… how do those sounds affect you? And does social networking help or hinder social skills for those with Asperger’s? Thank you again!

    1. It’s the presence of sound, Ali, not the type of sound, that affects me. So bird calls, the sounds of nature, etc., aren’t much different than the sound of cars going by or the sound of conversation in a restaurant. Social networking is a big help to me. After all, it’s quiet here in front of my computer, and I still get to communicte and share with a wide circle of people.

  7. Hello…I googled “running and Asperger’s” and came to this article. My son is 11 and has Asperger’s. I am signing him up for Cross Country, because he has really enjoyed running at a couple of different fun runs at school. I am hoping that the running will help to focus him a bit more and make him calmer. It was interesting to see that running has that affect on you. I also see Cross Country as a way for my son to belong to a group, without the highly competitive performance requirements of other school age sports. Thank you for your comments and for sharing!

    1. I’m glad that my post was of some help to you! If you look at some of my more recent posts, you’ll see that, this year, I’ve been happily running or organized races. My asperger’s means that i have some difficulty with the crowds, noise, and sensory overloads provided by these things, but the fact that they involve running means that i can participate, and exercise some social skills. I hope your son’s experience with his school cross-country team will be similar. If you can, let me know how it all works out – I’m really interested in knowing.

  8. Alan:

    Wow. Thanks so much for giving personal insight into Asperger’s Syndrome. I was ABSOLUTELY enthralled when you were describing what it’s like from your perspective.

    I had a huge amount of respect for you already and that has just increased a hundredfold. I consider myself one of the lucky few to know you, my friend.

    T

  9. I’ve never responded to a blog before and this is the first time I’ve looked at yours, Alan, but Wow, I must comment on this Asperger’s note! I’ve never paid much attention to the dictates of the medical world (having been raised with, and still attuned to, the principles of Christian Science. But when I read your description of what Asperger’s is and your experiences in that regard, Man-oh-man! could I relate!
    Maybe I needn’t be so hard on myself about my difficulties in the social world of work (how lame I am at interacting with people in my new job, and the consequential feelings of being disliked and ostracized). And it’s good to know I’m not the only one who is too powerfully influenced by movies. Nor am I alone in preferring to listen to the sound of the tires on the road and the humming of the engine rather than the car radio.
    I don’t know if I can say I actually have Asperger’s, but I can certainly understand people that do. Thank you for your post, Alan.

    1. Thanks for the response, Susan. No, I don’t think we’re dissimilar. Being aware of being somewhere on a spectrum of ability/disability always helps in understanding and coping. And I don’t think acknowledging something like Asperger’s necessarily contradicts the principles of Christian Science.

  10. My teen son has Asperger’s. It is probably not as difficult as yours but for a young boy it makes social life quite a challenge.
    I want to thank you for your post. I myself believe that my son and you and all Asperger’s people (or others with challenges) are perfect just the way they are. It is us who don’t know and don’t understand who need to learn a thing or two and adjust. Sharing your story is just the kind of lesson we need.
    Thanks.

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