This is a story of my son Jacob and the challenges he lives with every day. It is a story of his junior year in high school and a cross-country race he ran. This was a race that I can still see and feel when I close my eyes, and my memories take me back to that warm October day.
You see, Jake (as we also call him) was born with Asperger’s syndrome, also known as high-functioning autism. He didn’t get officially diagnosed until he was in college but we know for years he was “different.” Jake always had to work and try harder than his peers. He was fortunate that despite his disability he was very verbal and intelligent. His challenge was, and probably will always be, are social issues. While Jake still struggles every day as an adult, the cross-country race he ran years ago taught him to keep running through life’s adversities.
Jake was always full of energy growing up. A benefit of this energy was he could run a long time and not easily tire. Cross-country was a perfect fit for him since he was kind of clumsy for other sports, a symptom of his syndrome. It only involved running, that’s it. Jake’s Dad and I were glad the sport gave him positive feedback and kept him physically in shape. Jake also ran pretty well and finished in the top five when he raced. He became a better runner as the cross-country season went on.
The last race of the cross-country season was the regional meet. This race determined who would qualify for the state race. Jake was ranked in the top 10 in our area, but only the top four runners were sent to the state meet. Jake had to race against another runner named Andy. At the beginning of the season, Andy beat Jake, so Jake was friendly competition. Jake eventually caught up with Andy during the season and actually beat him in the last meet before regionals. Andy’s attitude towards Jake then changed. Andy now saw Jake as competition and started jeering Jake during the race while running. We had to remind Jake not to listen to Andy and concentrate on the finish line. This task is hard enough for a neurotypical person, but it’s almost impossible for someone with Asperger’s.
Jake knew going into the regional race that he had to place as one of the top four runners to qualify for states, so the pressure was on. Keeping quiet, staying focused and maintaining control of his emotions was something Jake had to do if he wanted to win this race and he knew it.
Jake had lost emotional control at the last race prior to the regionals and started yelling at the finish line because Andy had told him he was disqualified for going off course (which he wasn’t) and Jake fully believed him. Believing everything is one of Jake’s problems. He can’t distinguish a lot of times what is true, and he takes most everything at face value. Jake got upset, and Andy ended up beating him in that race even though Jake was in the lead. We prayed Jake could hold it together and not let Andy get in his head for the regional race. We didn’t want a repeat of what happened with Andy, especially in this final big race. I was sure that Andy was going to do all he could to get to Jake because it had worked previously.
Jake’s Dad and I gave Jake all the pep talks we could prior to the start of the regional race. It was now up to him. The day had arrived. The bang of the gun went off, and the race had begun. The runners disappeared into the woods in a large huddled pack, following a challenging course. It was all up to him now. The waiting game was difficult for us. Not knowing where Jake was in the group of runners was even harder. My eyes were fixed on the wooded area where the runners would appear in a matter of time.
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Suddenly, after what seemed like hours, the first runner appeared alone from the brush. He had a good distance before the second, and the third runners emerged. These three boys were going to the state meet, no question. They were the first three lead runners. Who was the fourth and final runner to qualify? The anticipation was painful. I was praying it was Jake. Then suddenly out of the woods came Jake, he was the fourth runner! I could hardly believe it. I was so excited, but then immediately I knew it would not be an easy run for him to the finish line. Jake had five runners directly behind him like a pack of wolves on his heels, one of them, of course, being Andy. Jake had to hold all five of them off to win. The question was, could he do it? We would soon find out.
“Push it, Jake!” I yelled as I ran beside him. Jake was concentrated, and I could see the determination on his sweaty face. As the runners turned the corner and raced to the finish, ironically it was Jake and Andy, neck and neck and just inches apart. After what seemed like an eternity, they finally reached the finish line, and Jake gave it all he had. He beat Andy by inches and with every ounce of energy he had left. He was the fourth runner and won! He did it! Jake qualified to go to the state competition! We were so proud of him. I ran and hugged his wet body with tears running down my face. He leaned over and held his knees, catching his breath. The victory was his, and he earned every bit of it.
Today Jake is 34 years old and still has his daily struggles. One thing I can say about Jake is that he never quits. He has plenty of disappointments in life, but he persists and is determined to prevail in whatever he does. Jake gets sad and feels down sometimes because he’s smart enough to know he will always have to work much harder at things that come so easy for others. It’s at those moments I remind him of that race, Andy, and mostly the finish line. He now knows his goals will always be more of a challenge to reach, but never impossible.
This article was featured in Issue 76 – Raising A Child with Autism