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.

21 thoughts on “Autism and Triathlons, Burning Matches, and Balancing Life”

  1. As well as us starting with few matches I reckon we burn through them faster too. All that brain processing that we do consciously that the PNT do subconsciously (e.g. what did he mean by that? Don’t forget to look at her eyeballs occasionally. What am I supposed to say now? Was that a joke or for real?) Not to mention the extra sensory processing.

    Yes any of us autistics who are managing to navigate the world certainly should give ourselves a pat on the back.


  2. Couldn’t agree more. Last week someone I don’t know left a message saying that they might drop round on either Tuesday or Wednesday. The drop in would definitely cost me a match, and so I carefully saved one just in case. They didn’t turn up and I was left annoyed that I could have spent that match on something fun instead. I did not run the race I could have that day.

    As always, thank you for getting it so right.

    1. Thanks Rhi – I know if we ever had a ‘Blog off’ you’d win hands down but it’s lovely to hear your positive comments as always, thank you so much!

  3. It’s a great metaphor, it makes sense. I’ve been mulling this over, hence the late comment on this post.
    When we were children, we often had a game of re-kindling spent matches, and as long as there was some wood left to burn, we would be successful at least for a few seconds. And I think that’s what I often do metaphorically as well. When I have a hard day, when I arrive at work with most of my matches already burnt, and something else happens that threatens to send me over the edge and all I want to do is have a cry in the bathroom, but I am the one in charge, I have to deal with this right now, put on my public face and be professional – so what do I do? I re-kindle one of my spent matches, choke off the impending meltdown and carry on. There will probably be a price to pay later, but for the critical moment, this works. Or, to put it in terms of spoons, even if the spoon compartment is empty, I can often dig out an extra spoon which is hiding at the very back of the drawer. Does this make sense as well?

  4. Apologies for the very late comment but I am interested in this idea (and like a previous commenter, prefer it to the idea of spoons). I am not sure how it fits the match analogy but my experience has been that I can derive matches from certain activities. It reminds me of chemistry at school where flames generate different colours based on the element used. Perhaps some matches are burning a different colour flame and can therefore generate energy and make the demands of sensory limitations more tolerable?

  5. I’m obsessed with the passage of time, of all things. It’s too complicated to even try to explain. Maybe it’s because I had no control over my life as a child, and that’s the only thing I could control. How long will the annoying party I was forced to go to last?

    And I can’t light a match to this day. Lousy motor skills. Thank God for electronic matches.

  6. Really enjoyed reading this, Luke. Also really liked Shona’s point about burning through the matches more quickly too. All really good analogies. Thanks for sharing this with us.

  7. I’ve read this blog a couple of times over the months and for some reason chose to read it again this morning, but this time burst into tears.

    It’s such a wonderful analogy, simply put.

    My son runs out of matches fairly often and can’t make it into school at times. Yet no matter what I say or how I put it, school just don’t seem to get it!
    I’m told “What you tell us is not what we see in your son at school”, “Everybody has stresses and difficulties to address, we just have to learn to manage” and “Your son has to be in school” it would seem regardless, no matter the significant impact on his mental and emotional wellbeing at times!

    Needless to say, I act in the best interest of my son, not schools statistics and I am best placed to make the call as to whether a recover day or more is needed to gather more matches. By doing so though, there’s always the worry of potential sanctions.

    Some days though (today being one of them), it all gets too much. The fight you have to keep on fighting drains you, that brick wall you keep hitting your head against remains as firm and hard as it always was. Will society, schools the workforce ever GET IT!

      1. I think matches is a great analogy because they tend to be uniform in size (apart from the extra long ones) and the burning time represents the passing of time and the portion of the match used and what is left. There’s none of that with spoons. Sizes vary, shapes, etc and do tea spoons differ from table spoons in value? I’d say ‘match theory’ is the Autistic one and the ‘spoon theory’ which I believe is not belonging to the Autistic community but another disabled community that I can’t seem to recall right now because I’ve almost burn my last match. (See what I did there) Thanks for this, Luke. Making ambiguous concepts relatable x

  8. Also the burning of the match is the use of energy as well as time passing. When things burn the wood is the fuel and the fire lives off that fuel. Only when you take the air or heat away will the burning stop. I guess that could be the changing of the environment and meeting needs of the individual.

  9. Thanks for this analogy Luke, there is so much in it. From the striking of the match to its burning down, brilliant. Picturing the energy used in an autistic sense, for me is spot on. I used to run half marathons and do cross country too, so can totally picture this.
    I think I’ll use it myself when trying to explain things to others.

  10. In defence of the spoon theory, it was because the author was in a restaurant and spoons were the closest thing to hand. Presumably if she had been in a bar (pre-smoking ban!) it could very well have been matches. I like both analogies, but I also think we need to account for the fact that spoons/matches can be put back in the box. The longest job I held down, was one where I could sneak off to the prayer room for a nap when it all got too much (I’m not religious in any sense. It was just quiet and nobody commented if you were asleep), which enabled me to be able to get through the rest of the day. Essentially, I was putting some matches back into the box. I can’t really think of a suitable analogy – refilling a cigarette lighter with fluid?! – so suggestions are welcome.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *