|This picture shows Ben running in circles around a pond at my aunt's house. This was yet another wide open space where he enjoyed running endlessly.|
Stimming is a word often discussed in the autism community.
A stim or a self-stimulating behavior often has a negative connotation.
There are many articles that discuss how to reduce or eliminate stimming behaviors. While I understand that harmful behaviors such as head banging should be reduced and even eliminated, I believe that often a stim can be calming and regulating for a person.
We all have our stims, whether it is nail biting, pencil tapping, or hair twirling. For Ben, one of his stims is running. Running in circles. Running in straight lines. Running to be free.
Ben has always loved to run.
He does not run away, as some autistic children do. I am so grateful that he is not the child who runs into oncoming traffic or who may, at a moment’s notice, run out the door and into the neighborhood. My heart goes out to those families who must constantly be on their guard lest their precious child slips away from them and into harm's way.
No, Ben runs when he sees an opportunity, just as an artist feels compelled to fill a blank canvas.
Open spaces call out to Ben.
Areas that form a continuous loop call out to him also.
Playgrounds with rounded fences.
The sensory gym where he receives his occupational therapy.
A house with a front and back yard that connect.
While on our family vacation, we recently visited our friends for a cookout.
Their house rests on a beautiful plot of land with slightly rolling hills in the backyard where we often spot wildlife such as deer and raccoons. Rocky stone steps connect the side of the house to the long driveway of their front yard, with trails that loop in two directions where the paths meet.
As soon as we arrive, he wants to run right away.
I make him say hello, and soon as introductions are over, off he runs.
When Ben runs, his body flows.
He is a fast runner and can outpace children twice his age. Our friends have a nine year old granddaughter, and, at first, she tries to race with him, but after a few loops, she gives up, panting.
“Ben, you are too fast!” she exclaims with amazed admiration as she wanders off to find a quieter occupation.
But Ben runs on.
I watch him change his route slightly, sometimes through the “secret areas,” trying the different connecting paths. But he always loops back again.
As he runs, he carries on a steady stream of commentary, like a sports announcer narrating his own events. This evening he’s pretending to be in a race with both his stuffed animal friends and his friends from school. As he races by me, I hear his deep, booming voice, hardly out of breath. “Stitch is the winner! Ben is second! Nikki is third! Good race! Let’s go again!”
My Mom joins me outside and takes a turn watching Ben run, giving me time to get a drink and visit friends, but Ben runs on.
Later my Dad comes and takes his turn, playfully jumping out of the bushes to surprise Ben as he turns the corner.
Ben laughs gleefully but still runs on.
On one of his “energy breaks” (refueling with a Capri sun), I ask him, “Ben, why do you love to run?”
“Because…” he pauses…”I like it all the times. “
“Why do you like it?” I press, knowing the answer is there.
“Because…it makes me feel better!”
And there it is.
I often try to imagine what it must be like to experience the world the way Ben experiences it every day.
Ben lives life with joyful abandon, but there are hard moments too.
Moments when he must stand still when he wants so desperately to go.
Moments when the world ebbs around him and he is stuck, like in lines or in big crowds, at stop lights or while waiting for his turn.
Running lets him be free.
Running lets him move on his terms.
It must feel a bit like flying.
In the book, “The Reason I Jump,” thirteen year old author Naoki Higashida, an autistic child from Japan, describes his views on autism in a question and answer format. He cannot speak, so he communicates by pointing to letters on a grid to spell out words, which a helper transcribes into sentences, paragraphs, and eventually into the book he has written.
When asked why he jumps, Naoki says, “When I’m jumping, it’s as if my feelings are going upward to the sky…When I’m jumping, I can feel my body parts really well, too- my bounding legs and my clapping hands- and that makes me feel so, so good.”
Naoki further explains that autistic people react physically to feelings of happiness or sadness.
This makes me remember times when Ben is filled with such excitement that he bursts into an exuberant song and can’t help but whiz around in a triumphant spurt of energy. At the other extreme, when he is filled with sadness or anger, his little body flails about wildly and often uncontrollably until he finds his calm again.
This evening, as I watch Ben whiz by me on yet another lap around the house, he turns around and runs directly back to me.
He looks me squarely in the eye.
His eyes pierce through me, as they always do in those rare moments when they lock onto mine.
He reaches out and takes my hand into his.
His other hand gently glides between my arm and his, feeling the link of our connected arms. Our hands. Our fingers.
“Now we are hooked together,” he simply says and he pulls me into the run.
I do not hesitate.
I run with him.