Autism and Triathlons, Burning Matches, and Balancing Life

Just my thoughts, as always.

Ok, so I am fine to admit that I am somewhat obsessed with triathlons. Watching them online and on demand, reading autobiographies, training manuals, researching into how best to strip off a wetsuit in T1 (transition one), whether socks should ever be worn, the best aerodynamics on the bike, what open water goggles give the best vision…I could go on. The detail of it all, the delight of it all. Of course, come race day it dawns on me that all this reading, researching, and watching is not actually synonymous with training hard, which is why I’m a pretty useless triathlete – but that’s another story.

What I am interested in – in relation to autism – is the concept of burning matches. Proper triathletes (i.e. not me) refer to their best races as being the perfect balance of burning just the right number of matches, in order to get their optimum performance. The analogy is simple – each match is a ‘spike’ in effort (usually in triathlon cases this would be physical). So, getting out of the saddle up a steep incline might burn a match (as opposed to slipping down into a high gear and spinning up the hill at a slower pace); the athlete starts with a specific number of matches – if matches are left unburnt by the finish line, it means that there is spare energy – and, therefore, the race has not been raced hard enough. But woe to the athlete who burns all their matches and finds themselves in need of one for the final push – the dreaded ‘DNF’ (did not finish) is something no one wants in the final results listing!

So, what has this got to do with being autistic I hear you ask? Well, perhaps the day in the life of an autistic person could also be seen in relation to this analogy. Morning comes – and a quick check of the matchbox shows that there are some matches today (some days there may be none at all, and those are the days that the autistic child can’t make it to school or the autistic adult can’t make it out of bed, let alone out to face the world). If matches are in abundance then the autistic person might be able to face numerous challenges, and not feel ‘burnt out’ (you see what I did there?). Conversely, matches might be scarce – in which case there needs to be some hard choices in terms of where to expend that energy.

The problem comes when others don’t know when you’re running low on matches. When demands (which may not even seem like demands to the PNT) are levelled at you that require a match to be burned, but it’s not yet even mid-morning. When you know you have much of the day left and are rapidly running out of matches. What do you do then? Some people go into deficit match mode – effectively burning matches that don’t exist – in other words that energy (and in this case it’s usually emotional and mental energy rather than physical) has to be taken away from some other source – which can lead to shut down, fight or flight, melt down, withdrawal – all those things that many autistic people will tell you are best avoided if at all possible. Trying to burn matches that don’t exist for the autistic person is far more worrying for the autistic person than for that triathlete. While a DNF might be pretty hard to take for the triathlete, a DNF for the autistic person is a very real, potentially very damaging blow – and it has a knock on effect. The chances are high that come next morning, those matches will be pretty low in stock.

Maybe people reading this will think ‘well, it’s the same for everyone’ – and I would whole heartedly agree that the principle is the same for everyone – but that for most autistic people, most of the time, there are fewer matches in the box on a day to day basis compared to the PNT.