Dad bonds with autistic son over weekly runs

As we fill our water bottles and lace up our running shoes, Garrett asks, “So, where are we going to eat?” It’s a question I hear before each run.

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“Whose turn is it to pick?” I respond.

Garrett pauses, and I know that he’s wishing it was his turn. Because when I choose a postrun eating place, it tends to be on the healthy side.

Eating is always on Garrett’s mind. If there were no food involved, it would be difficult to get him out the door for our regular run. But we’ve been getting out the door on a regular basis—and eating a lot—since he was 15.

Garrett is now a 22-year-old young man. He is my son and he is autistic. Garrett says that he hates running, but enjoys the time spent with his dad. I have a feeling, however, that he enjoys the pizzas, tacos, chicken and burgers a little more.

“Do you have your coupons?” I ask.

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Newspaper recycling at our church is an opportunity for Garrett to collect restaurant and fast food coupons and do his part to make a financial contribution to the purchase of the meal. He’s always especially excited to try a new burger or taco, marveling at the creativity of a taco with a tangy tortilla chip shell or a burger with guacamole or bacon.

In addition to running with dad, Garrett volunteers at a senior nursing center, helping to wheel residents to activities and meals, serving up ice cream and helping out where needed. He graduated from the local high school, and though he can read at grade level, math is still a mystery to him. He also has trouble following directions, exhibits classic self-stimulation or “stemming” behavior, is sensitive to loud noises and doesn’t tune in to social cues very well.

If you met Garrett for the first time, however, you probably wouldn’t know that he was autistic. But spend a couple of hours with him and you may see him fold a piece of paper into a thin strip and stare at it intently as he flaps it like a fan.

Spend a couple of hours with him and you might hear every last detail—and more—about the latest Nintendo video game release, or he’ll rattle off movie quotes from a dozen super hero flicks that most people can only vaguely remember.

We spend a couple of hours running together several days each week, at the track, on the trails and on the roads. When Garrett was 15 we trained together to run the Los Angeles Marathon. We’ve run dozens of half-marathons and shorter races together since.

Although he’s still resistant to the label of runner, it’s what I call him. Whenever I do, he tells me, “Dad, just because you like running doesn’t mean that I do.”

“I am not a runner,” he insists.

He doesn’t always look like a typical runner. When Garrett runs, his head bobs from side to side more than most.

And I think Garrett talks more than most runners. Garrett will talk your ears off about movies and video games and food. Sometimes he’ll even talk about problems at the nursing center like the annoying resident who breaks the rules by smoking in areas where he shouldn’t or the time he got locked in the walk-in freezer.   

But spend some time running with Garrett and he’ll do a lot of typical runner things too: Greet other runners, pick up a lost dime, laugh at dumb jokes, tell dumb jokes, complain about the distance or the hill, wonder about the world, try to fix the world’s problems, enjoy the outdoors and, when hungry, gobble down anything in sight…just like every runner I know.

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After their weekend runs, Renne and his son Garrett can be found enjoying breakfast or lunch at a southern California eatery with the best coupon deals. Renne turns 60 this year and is planning to run a 100K trail race to mark the occasion. Garrett says that he won't be running, but he’ll happily cheer dad on.

This article first appeared on Runner's World.