“Braden sure loves his new shoes,” a colleague gleefully exclaimed as she passed me in the hallway last week at school.
No time to chat, on my way to work with a student, I said, “Ha. He sure does!” And then I thought, “I wonder what that means.”
I had my answer shortly after when another co-worker said, “Love Braden’s blue new shoes.”
“How do you know he has new shoes? We just got them on Sunday.”
“He was at the gym last night with Sal, and he was quite pleased with his new shoes. He kept saying ‘Braden’s got blue new shoes.; All of us in there would crack up when he’d stop to look at himself in the mirror, put his foot up, and repeat, ‘Braden’s got blue new shoes.’”
You might be wondering if I’m going to write a whole blog post about Braden’s new shoes. As exciting and full of “sole” as that would be, the focus of this post is about power and strength. To be more specific, the powerful effects of exercise and the strength of a community.
So yes, Braden exercises at the gym. After three full weeks of some hardcore workouts, we can officially call him a Gym Rat.
And here is how this all began.
As you may recall in my most recent postings, life has been quite stressful since this past May. Braden shows more aggression
and overall unhappiness. Through discussions with our doctor, we are working on decreasing some of his medications to avoid unwanted side effects. This process isn’t easy, and we’ve had several setbacks, including bouts of anger, breaking toilet covers, and tearing apart all his pants and several blankets. We renamed him The Hulk due to his incredible strength.
Several years ago, we noticed that starting at about 4 pm. Braden dipped into a “funk” when his behavior changed dramatically. At 3:30, he was happily eating a snack and watching the iPad. By 4:00, he was pacing and stimming. His stims were both physical (hand flapping) and verbal (repeating a phrase over and over). By dinner, he’d be angry and remained that way until bed.
We named 4:00 “The Witching Hour” and began to dread coming home from work for that reason.
One day after school in December, we decided to go on a walk as a family. Braden, frustrated, was stimming and unhappy. We put a pair of AirPods in his ears and played some music. He calmed down. The walk was suddenly enjoyable for all of us. That piqued our interest, so the next night, Mike took him on a bike ride. The next day, I took him for a run around the lake. And each night, he was happier.
Braden commutes to his vocational training program and spends about two hours or more in the car per day. At work, he does a lot of office work and is sitting for a large portion of his time there.
It became apparent to us that Braden was missing activity. He was always an active child; running, climbing, jumping, you name it, he was doing it. All of that activity supports the proprioceptive sense. T(This is a fantastic video explaining this sense. If any of you have kids or students who can’t stay in their chair, fall down often, etc. watch this video).
Mike and I exercise four times or more per week. We do it to stay healthy, but we both really exercise for our minds. It is a necessary part of our lives.
And yet, somehow, we hadn’t clued into the fact that it was utterly lacking from Braden’s life. After that week of exercising with Braden, we knew we had to ensure he exercised each day. Still, neither of us were particularly excited about joining him.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again… We’re tired. When we get home after working a full day, we immediately enter into Mom and Dad mode and are full-time parents to Braden…and sometimes…it’s not easy and can be quite exhausting.
So, Mike came up with a plan; why not ask if there was anyone in our community that would be interested in working out with Braden. Interestingly, it took Mike several weeks to send the email. I think he felt guilty for asking for help. I think we also seriously doubted that anyone would want to do this.
“Hi all, We are looking to hire someone to exercise with our 20-year-old autistic son Braden. Perfect for someone who enjoys fitness, is comfortable with seeing incremental gains happen over the longer term, and interested in the intellectual challenge that goes along with figuring out a young adult with social needs. This is a paid position and takes place once or twice a week for one hour starting about 4:30 pm. Training is provided. About Braden… Braden has profound autism and a very limited ability to communicate. He enjoys movement and activity. He is able to copy one-step movements and enjoys mirroring the activity of others. He is not able to follow multi-step directions or understand the rules associated with games. If you, or someone you know, might be interested, let us know! Thanks so much,
Michael and Lori”
Not more than two minutes passed before Mike received his first positive response to the email.
And then another response came…
And then another…
In the end, eight people showed an interest in helping. That, my friends, is what we call community.
Thus, the need for new shoes.
So, Braden got his new shoes and three (sometimes four), new workout partners. Sal takes him on Tuesdays, Lucas plans Wednesdays, and MJ does Thursdays. And our buddy Laddie takes Braden on Sunday’s for a late afternoon bike ride.
And… it’s working!
Braden comes home after each workout, hungry and tired. He eats a big dinner, plays MarioKart, and heads straight to bed. Once in bed, he falls fast asleep and stays asleep, usually, until morning.
Yes, we’ve had some nights of no sleep, but on a much less regular basis than before.
He is also happier and, on these days that he works out, we avoid the witching hour.
Braden’s workout buddies seem to enjoy their time with him while ensuring he has a hard workout. Sal has Braden on the rowing machine or pushing big heavy boxes around. Lucas had him climb 51 flights of stairs while wearing a weighted vest. All are impressed he’s so strong and seemingly, in excellent shape.
And, everyone in the workout room at our school is enjoying their time with Braden. They love watching him work out and learn alongside his coaches.
For Mike and me, it has truly helped us understand how badly we needed some time to ourselves; some respite. For three days (sometimes four days) each week, we get one whole hour to do whatever we want. One whole hour! I’ve watched Netflix, read books, had a manicure. Mike discovered the series Narcos that he’s now binging. Who knew how liberating one hour could be?!
There are many lessons we have learned recently.
- Braden is always teaching us new things. We need to creatively figure out what he is trying to tell us.
- Exercise is vital for everyone’s body and mind.
- We shouldn’t be fearful of reaching out for support from our community.
- Self-care is essential.
- And the most critical lesson learned…
New shoes and one young man with autism can bring a community together.