The Victory of Last Place
Post-race and post-season (and the one time I'm not upset that everyone gets a medal)
In every race, someone's the victor and someone comes in last place. But as MomSpeaker Lisa Lightner recounts, for her son with autism, those two experiences are happily not mutually exclusive.
Like many parents, while my kids are young I am trying to introduce them to a variety of extracurricular activities. It can be tough when your child has additional physical and mental challenges. K’s motor planning is pretty poor and his processing is slow. That pretty much means any sport or activity that involves a ball or a puck is out. Any activity requiring him to talk is also out. We looked at the Special Olympics offerings and he was too young for most of them and others were pretty far away.
Last year we had both kids sign up for Healthy Kids Running Series. I just happened to see a yard sign advertising this at our local Boomers and took a look online. HKRS is a series of five running races for kids pre-K through 8th grade. The running distances increase as the kids get older.
When we did it last spring, HKRS was more than accommodating in allowing us to run with K. We take turns, me and my husband. One of us goes with my younger son and one of us runs with K. When I got the email this spring I signed them up again and my younger son talked about it earnestly for weeks before it began.
The first week’s race, we decided that I would stay with B. and my husband would run the quarter-mile with K. The finish line is the same for all the races, which go from youngest to oldest. So I can watch my younger son finish his 50-yard run, then stay at the same finish line and wait for my husband and K. The groups this year were larger than last year, and after the youngest group started, they started K’s race. Like most races, you have a few runners who are leading the pack, then you have the pack and then the stragglers. K is almost always last — the only time he doesn’t come in last is when a kid has an asthma attack (for real). But we don’t care and he doesn’t care. You can tell by his face that he enjoys running. He loves the big gross motor movement, loves being outside, loves being with his dad.
Medically, educationally . . . our kids are often more expensive, and some don’t see the value that they have to offer society — only what they take as far as services. Particularly if you have a child who is low-functioning, they are often dismissed and marginalized. People with intellectual disabilities continue to be some of the most marginalized people on the planet.
Still, sometimes you find value in unexpected places. I know when K is finishing last, sometimes a full 30-plus seconds behind the pack, others are impatient. Mind you, they’ve never said so. But I know it’s hard to keep young kids engaged and patient waiting at a starting line when you’re waiting for just one kid to finish. I’m very appreciative of their patience. Many parents and spectators cheer him on as he is finishing, which I love.
Anyway, I was waiting near the finish line with other parents. The pack had already finished and the stragglers were coming in. Another mom seemed a bit anxious; it was her son’s first race and she said, “I hope he does OK. He has autism.” I told her that my son also has autism and that we did the series last year and it went well.
Then she said, “Well, I think he’ll be really upset if he comes in last . . . I just don’t want him to come in last.” I assured her that probably wouldn’t happen.
As expected, my son came in last. And he didn’t care, happy as ever. Her son got to come in second last and averted a tantrum or meltdown. Sure, there is a time to teach kids with autism about winning and losing and what matters and what doesn’t and how to win and lose gracefully. She can still do that. She can point to my son and show how happy he still is, despite coming in last. In the meantime, the family’s evening at these races is not dampened by his having a tantrum. It works for everyone.
Just goes to show there really is a job out there for everyone. Someone gets to be first. And instead of thinking “Well, someone has to be last,” how about “And someone gets to come in last!” Change your thinking and you can change the world.
Lisa Lightner is a Chester County, PA mom of two. This post was adapted from the blog A Day in Our Shoes, which she co-authors. It provides support, resources and advocacy services for parents of children with special needs.