Autism and how a simple rainy day pushes the limits of endurance.

Liz Becker


It was a day to remember – the annual home game at Virginia Tech. It was a close battle on the field, and an even bigger battle in the stands as my severe to moderate autistic son pushed the envelope of his own endurance. I watched as he fought against the sensory stimulation induced by the feel of rain and I watched helplessly as the stimulation tripped his overload switch. For many autistic people too much sensory stimulation can overload their ability to process – things such as loud noises, strong smells, bright lights and certain textures - are just too much to bear. Sometimes, a parent can intervene and help them fight (by providing headphones, sunglasses, and gloves) and on occasion, when all else fails, we simply need to remove them from the stimulus altogether.

On game day this year I watched as Matt fought an epic personal battle against the onslaught of environmental stimulation of epic proportions. His personal endurance was forced right up to the edge of the cliff and only his determination to endure kept him from going over that edge. It was a day which again reminded me just how much autism affects his everyday life and even simple pleasures.

Matt is 27 years old and has loved Virginia Tech for at least 20 of those years. He decorates his rooms in maroon and orange, wears a VT t-shirt, VT sandals and a VT hat almost daily, and even has a VT couch (orange and maroon with the VT emblem) in his game room. My husband and I take him to one home game every year and Matt’s excitement about the upcoming event permeates our home for months prior. For the big event this year he requested the tickets for the battle against Marshall in late September. Matt has over 30 different t-shirts with Virginia Tech or Hokies emblem on them but for the epic battle this year he had to purchase another one – to wear only on game day. For over a month he marked an X through each day on his calendar leading up to his big day and made sure to remind me just how many more days we had to wait. A week before the scheduled day the forecast predicted rain for game day – it was my “heads-up” warning to be prepared.

Game day arrived along with ominous grey clouds overhead. We were not deterred from our mission though and proceeded to dress in the home-team colors, grab our rain gear and headed out the door - a few misting drops started to fall. It looked like the weather prediction may be correct - a chance of intermittent storms all day. I focused on the "intermittent" part.

We parked in our usual spot – a good distance from the stadium but one in which the walk took us past all the revered sights across campus. This was our routine each year – and we couldn’t deviate from the routine - not without good cause. A few sprinkles of rain were not considered "good cause." As expected, Matt began snapping picture after picture as soon as his feet hit the pavement. He loved taking pictures of his favorite buildings and pathways which marked the beauty of the Virginia Tech campus - his visual record of his favorite place in the whole world. The mist morphed to drizzle and we walked on.

Matt’s wore a VT jacket with a hood as protection against the rain that fell, but his hood stayed down – his beloved VT hat protected his head. I had made sure that morning that he was covered head to ankle (his toes were exposed due to his insistence on wearing his VT sandals) and was fairly confident he was well covered and protected against the elements, but just in case we brought along our rain gear (plastic capes). Unfortunately, Matt hates wearing the rain capes - he hates the feel of plastic on his skin - and umbrellas are not allowed in the stadium. His jacket would have to do. At first, the light rain didn’t seem to bother him as he kept to his usual routine of snapping pictures while we walked across the campus, but as we neared the halfway point the rain started to come a bit faster and in response Matt put away his camera and quickened his pace.

Once inside the stadium we shook off the dampness of our coats and purposefully took our time getting to our seats, staying under the overhang as long as possible before returning to the open air and the elements. A small break in the clouds would have felt like heaven by then but instead as we walked up the stadium stairs toward our seats the sky grew darker and the rain continued to fall. We laid a sweatshirt over the wet cement bench and sat down. I glanced at Matt – he seemed oblivious to the rain and instead seemed focused on where he was and the game before him – his smiled had not been dimmed by the dampness I knew he felt. As I looked at my son I thought, "Good. You can do this Matt, I just know you can.”

The game began . . . and the rain fell harder.

I put on my rain gear, Tom put on his rain gear and Matt pulled his hood over his hat. I asked him to zip his jacket and he did so hurriedly – not because he was getting wet but because he wanted to keep his eyes on the field as he might miss something important – like what the Hokie Bird mascot was up to. Each quarter came and went and the rain continued. Minute after minute, hour after hour, it just kept raining. It fell hard at times and less at others but the rain never let up. The game was neck and neck and Matt’s focus seemed to be on the field, the players, the score and keeping track of where the Hokie Bird was at all times - that was during the first half. As for the weather, he appeared to be handling the rain fairly well.

It wasn’t until the half-time break when I noticed the cracks in his armor. When we were under the shelter and out of the rain Matt suddenly shook his hands violently in an “I can’t stand it!” motion. Tom and I instinctively handed him some paper towels, which he took gratefully, and immediately used them to cover and wipe his hands over and over – as if he couldn’t dry his hands fast enough. His spirits were still high, but not as high as they had been…. the feeling of being wet and damp was starting to crack his armor of determination - it was starting to get to him.

We stood under the shelter of the breezeway and ate our lunch- hotdogs that were too overcooked and way too over-priced. Matt had looked forward to it all morning but now he seemed distant. He ate his hotdog– but there was no enthusiasm in it – not like in previous years. These were stadium hot dogs and therefore a special Hokie treat for him – but he ate it like it was a chore. I knew he was uncomfortable, pushing his limits, and we delayed going back to our seats as long as we could. “You ready to go back Matt?” I asked. “Yes.” He replied – not excited, not happy, just resigned to go back to the uncomfortable exposure to the elements - something which must be endured in order to watch his favorite team play from the seats in his favorite stadium. So back we went . . . back for the second half and . . . an even harder rain.

We endured by focusing on the play by play on the field, by cheering, grunting at fumbles, and chanting the H-O-K-I-E at each touchdown. The opposing team was a force to be reckoned with and the atmosphere stayed tense and exciting - the perfect football game. Unfortunately, it was not the perfect weather. Although my son appeared to be fully engaged in the events on the field I knew that deep down he was really fighting against the feel of the rain and fighting the urge to leave. After hours and hours of continual rain I knew his limits were being pushed. The rain had by now seeped down onto his shirt, soaked his jeans, and was steadily dripping off his hood onto his face. His feet must have been ice cold and through it all he appeared outwardly to be fine. In reality he was overloading and fighting to remain calm. The game was almost over – he watched the clock…..could he make it? Then in an upset the score tied and the game went into overtime.

Matt had set a limit, had forced himself to stay until the clock ran out on the fourth quarter, and when the game went into overtime you could see he had not planned for that. He had taken all he could - almost five hours of it - and he just couldn’t take anymore. Enough was enough.

“I need to go now.” He said urgently to Tom. Tom looked at me in shock and whispered, “Matt said he needs to go!”

“OK, then we go.” I replied and started to grab my things.

“But we’re tied and in overtime!” Tom said bewildered.

“Yep, but if Matt said he needs to go now, then he must REALLY need to go.” I said looking into Tom’s eyes and giving him the “think about it” look. It clicked – I saw it on Tom’s face. He understood we were on the brink of an emergency situation – Matt’s body was going into overload – too much rain, too much wet, too much cold, his body just couldn’t do it any longer. We had to leave – right now! As we stood to leave the sky darkened even more and the real storm moved in. It poured buckets, drenching us in seconds. Rain- hard, cold streams of rain now assaulted my son and there was absolutely nothing I could do to stop it. Tom took off his rain cape in an attempt to protect Matt from the downpour, but Matt - on the edge of overload - could not accept it. For Matt, wearing rain gear would just add insult to injury and he politely refused. I took off my sweatshirt from underneath my rain cape and gave it to Matt to use as a makeshift umbrella, which he gladly took and put over his head. As we walked we heard the play by play of the game continue on – VT was in their second overtime.

It was a very, very long walk back to the car. Every step was purposeful and not quite fast enough. Up a hill, down a flight of stairs, round a bend and down another flight of stairs – the path back seemed never ending – and the rain came down even harder. By the time we got to the car we were thoroughly drenched. Matt had been quiet the whole way – never said a word, never took a picture and never smiled. It was all he could do to just keep moving. My son was withdrawing … shades of his earlier years of autism and a protective measure when things got to be too much was - this was one of those times. I recognized it immediately even though he had not resorted to this behavior in over 15 years. Once we were inside the vehicle Tom turned on the heat and the radio – the announcer was overjoyed, exclaiming VT had won in their third overtime! Matt smiled, “Yes!” he said softly. His favorite team had won and although he was physically miserable, he was happy. His withdrawal ended.

I tried to keep him engaged while we rode home; trying my best to keep his mind on something, anything other than the cold and wet that enveloped his body. An hour later we were home and got out of the car walking in the rain one last time as we headed for the door. Matt went straight in, changed his clothes and lay down on his couch, covering himself with a blanket. Minutes later he was asleep. He had done all he could do and it had worn him out, both physically and mentally. Mother Nature had thrown all the rain it could at him and he had endured.

This was a story of endurance, of a young man with autism who set his mind to taking whatever the weather handed out and pushing the limits of his own stamina. Every atom of his being must have been screaming at him to leave - this was his much loved yearly game, one that went into 3 over-times and was truly a fingernail-biting showdown between equally matched titans. For Matt to have to leave before the end meant he had hit the wall. He did what he could and left when enough was enough. But don’t focus on the fact that he had to go before it was over . . . . No, that would be missing the point entirely. Focus instead on the amount of time he stayed – the over four hours of unrelenting rain, and the amount of difficulty he must have endured. Over four hours of rain, rain and harder rain….. Four hours! He met it head on with determination and quiet resolve and inner strength.

The experience of that day highlights the reality of sensory processing difficulties and shows just how far my son has come over the years, because you see, Matt never outgrew tactile sensitivity – he’s battled it all his life. It’s knowing this that begs the question, “How was he able to make it that long under those conditions?” Matt has learned over the years to push himself in all things, to endure and not let the uncomfortable stimuli take control his body or his life. It’s not something I taught him….it’s something he has always had within him. Pushing the envelope – that’s who he is, that's how he endures, and that’s how he manages to still have a life with simple pleasures regardless of the obstacles autism throws his way.

I know my son is not alone. Many autistic people fight against the environment every day and no one sees, no one knows, because on the outside they appear calm. They have learned how to endure the assaults on their senses that occur daily – something we can’t even imagine -and most, like my son, do it with dignity and quiet grace.

Its experiences like these that always strike the heart of my very being. Matt has endured more in his short life on a daily basis than most people will ever have to deal with in their entire lives . . . and that makes him the bravest soul I will ever know.

Have a story to share? Email us at info@autismsupportnetwork.com


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