When Sebastian was little, I called him my flight risk. As soon as he learned to walk, he began to run. Like many autistic children, he would run away for inexplicable reasons heading to unknown destinations. With little safety awareness or enough verbal skills to keep him out of trouble, I feared the day I’d lose him for good.
Once, when Sebastian was in kindergarten in NY, he dashed out of the school cafeteria. His teachers rushed to the exit adjacent to the lunchroom and searched the perimeter. The school was located near a busy highway. Although he had been found by the time his teacher called me, all I could imagine was a speeding car flinging my tiny boy’s body to the side of of the road.
It took several years, a couple of police incidents, and many conversations to teach Sebastian not to run.
I never imagined that years later I would be standing on the sidelines cheering this boy on at the track field or that running would become such an important part of his education.
Participating in cross country and track this first year of high school has taught Sebastian the importance of exercise, hard work, and healthy eating habits. I know there were times he would have preferred to go home or to the pizzeria instead of fighting his nerves at the start line. I know there were times he participated just because he wanted to make his parents proud. That might have concerned me if not for the fact that Sebastian’s love of running has been a part of him longer than his desire to appease me.
I’ll admit, I’m thrilled Sebastian chose this sport. He’s learning to set personal goals and how to be a part of an inclusive team. It’s giving him time with peers who are teaching him, whether they know it or not, teen social skills. Scary as that sounds, I’ve observed enough to know how good this group of kids are.
I’ve seen them with my son, offering and accepting high fives and fist bumps.
I know they make sure Sebastian doesn’t linger in the locker room too long after practice so he makes the bus on time.
I know they say hello to him in the hallways between classes.
They come over to me at meets and say things like, “Sebastian PR’d today and he’s going to get better.”
At a recent meet, I watched a few of Sebastian’s teammates cheering him on mid-race. One of the senior girls walked by me afterwards and I mentioned how much Sebastian loves their encouragement. She said, “I love Sebastian. He always tries his best.”
I love these kids.
At the beginning of the year I worried about how these teenagers would treat Sebastian and what they would think of him. I wanted his teammates to authentically embrace and accept him. I wanted them to be kind and I wanted Sebastian to build friendships that satisfied his definition of what a friend should be. I know he still has work to do, but I believe he’s going to get there.
Last week after he crossed the finish line of his final 800m race and learned he’d beat his personal record by 8 seconds, he had an expression on his face I had never seen before. “Mom, I really surprised myself.”
I told him, “I knew you could do it.”
I hope he never forgets the pride he had in himself at that moment. More than that, I hope running continues to help him find a greater faith in his ability to learn and grow on and off the field.
I’d like to take a moment to thank Coaches Blake, Chegwidden, and Jackson for creating an environment where all are welcome. To Sebastian’s teammates who embrace diversity better than I could have dreamed and to their parents who have modeled how to be the very best kind of human being.