The Freedom to RunLisa Quinones-Fontanez
I scanned the crowd of excited kids and anxious adults. There were too many to count. Too many to be out so early on a bitter cold Sunday morning. The wind whipped as we waited for the race to begin. Not only was it Norrin’s first New York Road Runners Kids Race, it was his first race with ‘typical’ kids.
There was music blaring. Kids laughing and chatting. Parents gossiping, running in place trying to keep warm. There were cops and volunteers with their bull horns, whistles and walkie talkies. And all I kept thinking was, could my son do this? What if Norrin ran away? What if he got lost in this crowd? I cursed myself for not thinking of bringing his ID necklace.
The kids were divided by age groups. Norrin was with the seven to nine year-olds and among them, he stood out. It is only among Norrin’s typical peers that autism is painfully obvious. The other kids are waiting with their friends, while my husband, Joseph, and I stand on either side Norrin – each of us holding a hand. Praising him for his “good waiting” and explaining the instructions of the race.
I turned to Joseph, “Maybe Norrin should run with the five to six-year-olds?”
“No. He can run with the kids his age. Norrin can run with the best of them.”
These are the moments when I admire Joseph the most. While I worry and am scared to let go, Joseph is always so fearless, so willing to let Norrin try new things.
Four years ago when Norrin was first diagnosed with autism, I remember telling a woman who lives in my neighborhood. (I call her the Mayor of Parkchester because the woman can’t walk down the block without greeting someone hello with a hug or kiss.) We took the same morning train into work and she’d seen me in the neighborhood with Joseph and Norrin. When I told her about Norrin’s autism diagnosis, she squeezed my hand and said all the things most people say after hearing someone’s kid just got diagnosed with autism. But then she said something no one else has ever said, “Don’t disable him.”
At the time, I had no clue what she meant. Norrin couldn’t speak, point his finger, jump or clap his hands. My son had just been diagnosed with autism – a disability. His future was – and sometimes still is – so uncertain. How could I possibly disable Norrin more than he already was?
I am the first person to advocate for Norrin, to fight for his right to a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE), to raise autism awareness. But I realized that there are moments when I am doubtful of what Norrin can and can’t do. Without meaning to, there are times when I do disable Norrin, when I hold him back without even giving Norrin the chance to at least try.
I have to let go. I have to let him try. I have to give Norrin the freedom to run. I cannot be the one to disable him.
Sometimes I need days like last Sunday to remind me of the best special needs parenting advice I ever got.
Last Sunday, after waiting more than an hour in the frigid cold, Norrin ran his first race among his peers.
Norrin followed the instructions, waited behind the line, until the count of three before running. He ran fast and straight through, without stopping once. And when he got to the finish line, he stopped and waited. Smiling the whole time.
Norrin finished in last place but Joseph and I clapped and cheered and carried on as if he came in first.
Because for us – he did.
Read more of Lisa’s writing at AutismWonderland.