Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Autistic Runner - Techniques to Help Him Slow Down

Working with an autistic runner is difficult, but not impossible. Building a trusting relationship and an attachment helps the child to stop running. I will demonstrate how to work with the runner through an actual example with a boy I call Aaron.

Aaron was four years old when I first met him. He was nonverbal and a runner. He was participating in a program for autistic children and I was a volunteer. It is hard to describe why I connected with Aaron, but it was a connection of a lifetime. It is over twenty years later and I still have contact with his family.

I was warned he was a runner, but I thought I could manage this. I did not know what I was in for. I knew that I needed to gain an attachment with him. To help gain this attachment, I would show him lots of attention and would at his request tickle him. He loved the tickling. Sometimes, I noticed he was very anxious and he would climb on the ledge of a window. I would hold his hand and say something like this, "Aaron, I am holding your hand because I am nervous you will fall and hurt yourself. You do not have to get down until you are comfortable." He immediately would get down. A lesson I learned was to not demand his compliance, but instead to talk to him about his fear with the hope he would respond, which is exactly what he did. Having developed the beginnings of an attachment we explored what it would be like outside the room we played in.

Now I saw what it meant to be an autistic 'runner.' He would run fast for a four year old, but I managed to keep up with him. My fear of losing him gave me extra energy to run fast. He would run to a video arcade. He loved the blinking lights with all sorts of noises. Each week this running to the arcade became a ritual for us. I was getting great exercise, but thought maybe we could do this differently. This is where my creativity came into play.

I would stand in front of him as he was running and catch him and thus made his running into a game we could play together. He would soon learn that this game was fun and also he was learning how to interact with me. The attachment was solidified. After sometime, he actually stopped running and began to walk with me. At times I would stop and he would continue to walk. I would call, "Aaron, I am back here." He would stop and run back to me. I would continue to do this so he would become more conscious of me. Over the years, we took many long walks (over an hour) together.

Runners can be difficult to work with, but not impossible. Developing the attachment is critical, but once the trust is solidified and the child realizes you are a permanent fixture you have accomplished an important first step. You need to believe that through the relationship with you that he will want to walk with you. By making it fun, the child will want to join in. I believe that Aaron not only wanted to have fun, but he also wanted to stop running, but did not have a reason and the knowledge to do so. Together we made it happen.

Karen Savlov is a psychoanalyst and Marriage and Family Therapist with a private practice in West Los Angeles, California. My specialty is Autism Spectrum Disorders, anger, dissociation, depression, anxiety and relationships. For new and creative ways to think about autism read and follow my blog at I can also be followed on Twitter at Autism Thoughts.

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