Originally published in Michigan Runner Magazine, July/August 2015.
We met in 1983, Northville, an hour (pre-Interstate 696) by car, a lifetime for my preteen self, removed from the only home I'd ever known, in Oak Park, Michigan.
Institutionalized at age 12 in a psychiatric unit for what proved a neurological disorder, I likely would have lost my marbles if not for the rare intuitive compassion of one staff person among the many providing 24/7 supervision under lock and key.
Our rendezvous were brief and sporadic but how I cherished our time away from the noisy, chaotic, unfamiliar masses, a catastrophic environment for any person on the autistic spectrum. Simple and silent, one foot in front of the other, my newfound friend provided pure bliss no matter the burning in my lungs those very first outings. Eventually released, Asperger syndrome still undetected, my running passion accompanied me and has never left my side.
Though it was nearly 20 years before I knew such a syndrome existed and even more before I was diagnosed, running became my "better half" and "in" to improved understanding and functioning in a social world requiring skills left out of my innate makeup.
After cross country and track in high school, my running flourished during my collegiate years and beyond as I became a familiar-if-quirky face within the running and racing community. Though it would have been easier and more comfortable to keep my running private and solitary, my passion for it and desire to connect with family, friends and people from all walks of life continues to fuel my efforts no matter how often I fall.
Like running endurance, my tolerance for social interaction has improved, though we all know despite our dedicated training, some days our legs are dead, wind is null and speed seems a thing of the past.
My early years at the races could best be defined as parallel play. I ran hard and was grateful and challenged enough just to be in the presence of others, sometimes going as far as to exchange a friendly nod or spoken greeting.
Exhaustion and fear of the unintentional snafu always follows, but slowly and surely I have been blessed with the kindness and friendship of many willing to overlook my blunders and accept my limitations even if perplexed and, much to my fear, hurt or offended, which is never my intention.
Case in point: I will forever remember the lovely, loving presence and gestures of Dolores Hensley, super volunteer and fixture of our running community, lost in body but not spirit nearly four years ago. Big smiles and kisses were her standard for every runner to cross the line, though much to my dismay, inconsistent sensory issues and meager social capacity all too often produced an involuntary reaction that was ornery and stiff, no matter my desire. But Dolores never desisted; she accepted my explanations, willingly and graciously including me in her welcoming, loving gestures.
While I am grateful for all my good fortune, I must wonder how different my journey might have been had information been available when I was just a young girl. It is for this reason I have written my first book, Six-Word Lessons on Female Asperger Syndrome.
Concise and to the point, I endeavor to teach anyone willing to learn what it means to be born on the autistic spectrum, little-known differences between males and females, coping strategies and more.
Knowledge is a powerful gift, and it is my intention to raise as much awareness as possible to help those on the spectrum gain essential resources and avoid some of the pitfalls of my past.
Tracey Cohen, a lifelong competitive runner, freelance writer, and Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome at the age of thirty-nine. Sharing her own struggles and discoveries, she aims to empower others to learn, accept and find peace in an ever complicated neurotypical world. She is the author or Six-Word Lessons on Female Asperger Syndrome and Six-Word Lessons on the Sport of Running.