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.

8 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.

    Shona

  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. Great blog and metaphor!
    I think for autistic children there are many ‘hidden’ things in school which cost matches without adults realising it. So by lunchtime, when all the matches have burned, the child has a meltdown or shutdown. Not knowing which demands cause the matches to strike is a precarious place to be, and the child can be at risk of punishment, exclusion or mental health problems. Drawing on the point in your book, it’s not just the event or trigger itself, its the anxiety from the build up and the thinking about it long afterwards.

    So, to conserve the matches there needs to be partnership working with parents, drawing on their expertise about their child, to work out what the triggers are. The sensory ones aren’t always obvious but parents will know, when the context is discussed together. They’ll also be able to give insight into the effectiveness of interventions in place and whether they’re right for the individual child. The child may not understand if it’s not helping and even if they do they may not communicate this, costing them more precious matches.

    I also think it would be helpful to have autistic advisors working in schools who, having an autistic ToM, would be more likely to spot potential demands and understand the child’s point of view. I don’t think it’s possible for PNTs to have an autistic ToM although it can be appreciated by intellect, and the closer PNTs work with autistic individuals the greater the likelihood of seeing through the autism lens and understanding the ‘subtleties’ which are often missed.

    Thanks for this really useful metaphor. I prefer it to spoon theory because it’s about energy and once the match has burned it can’t be used again. I’m going to use it in schools in consultations and autism training, but also link with training on communicative function of behaviour i.e. autistic children have less matches to start with and the demands of school means the matches are more likely to be struck. So in plan, do & review we need to keep asking the question – What can be done to conserve the matches?

    Jacqui

  4. 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?

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