Grace, Under Pressure: A Girl with Asperger's and Her Marathon Mom

Grace, Under Pressure: A Girl with Asperger's and Her Marathon Mom

by Sophie Walker


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By the time her daughter Grace was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, Sophie Walker’s life had unraveled. Her career was in disarray. She couldn’t sleep. She felt hopeless and useless in her role as a mother. Sophie began to seek the things Grace needed — everything from advocacy for her educational rights and protection from bullying to help with homework and making friends. When Sophie realized she was neglecting her own health and well-being, she decided to train for the London Marathon to raise awareness of Asperger’s and to build the mental and physical resilience she needed to support her daughter. Through running, Sophie ultimately found the strength to battle for Grace’s education, happiness, and future, as well as the inner fortitude to overcome her own frustration and depression. In this book, she documents her and her daughter’s trials and triumphs, offering real-world inspiration for parents and athletes alike.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781608682256
Publisher: New World Library
Publication date: 09/10/2013
Pages: 248
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Sophie Walker has been a reporter for Reuters news agency since 1997 and has worked as a foreign correspondent traveling to Iraq and Afghanistan with Prime Ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. She lives in London.

Read an Excerpt

Grace, Under Pressure

A Girl with Asperger's and her Marathon Mom

By Sophie Walker

New World Library

Copyright © 2012 Sophie Walker
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60868-226-3



Imagine that you have a child whom you love very much. Now imagine that you go to collect this child after work every day. Now imagine that every day when you pick your child up her first words to you are: "Do I have to clean my teeth tonight?" Regardless of what you say to your child — yes, yes of course, yes, just like last night, yes, because otherwise you'll get sore teeth, yes, you know you do, yes, everyone else does, yes, we've been through this, yes, come on now, don't be silly — your affirmative response will prompt anything from twenty minutes to two hours of negotiating, arguing, shouting, tears, temper tantrums, or hysterical meltdowns. By the time your child has brushed her teeth, you are both exhausted and swear to each other that it won't be like this anymore. The teeth will get brushed, you won't shout, you'll both be friends. You hug and kiss, worn out.

The next day you go to pick up your child and the first thing she asks you is: "Do I have to clean my teeth tonight?"

This is what evenings with Grace are like, except that her question is: "Do I have to do my homework tonight?"

To be clear: Grace's teacher does not give her masses of homework. What she does give her amounts to about half an hour on four nights a week. I am glad the school gives her homework. I think it's necessary for her to learn, it's a good discipline, and much of it is enjoyable.

But the daily task of getting her to accept that she's got to do it is driving me mad. That sentence doesn't do justice to how it feels. It's not just mad like: arggh, this again. It's mad like proper, ancient, deep-in-the-brain lunacy. It's mad like the dark places where poets and criminals and people in scary films go. It's mad like Sylvia Plath's wild, bald moon and the Joker's rictus grin.

Sometimes I feel like running out of the house even as I'm thinking how much I missed her while I was at work.

Today, to calm myself as Grace raged, I counted up the number of days left on which I have to do this. It's two weeks till the end of term. There won't be any homework next week and most of this week's is done. So really I've probably only got one more night of this. I calculated that so far this school year we have had homework negotiations on 196 nights. No — take off Fridays — that's 156 nights, or 156 hours, if I average out the length of time we reason or row; 6.5 days. So nearly a week of madness.

Put in that context, I've had another fifty-one weeks that are better.

So what am I complaining about?

The conversation about homework is really nothing compared to the process of doing it. Or getting Grace to do it while I supervise, simultaneously wrangling two-year-old Betty and cooking the dinner and clearing up, which is usually how it goes.

This is no fun, but it's a lot less no fun for me than it is for Grace.

Grace hates homework with more than your average nine-year-old's passion. She hates it because she knows she'll either understand it with a glance and do it in under five minutes (this applies to story-writing, grammar or spelling exercises, and any kind of drawing) or she will not understand it (math, reading comprehension, any instructions that the teacher hasn't calmly explained several times before Grace brought the worksheets home) and so spend the next hour in a panicky fog of incomprehension.

Tonight it was mainly grammar exercises so we managed, but a set of previously unseen instructions did tip the balance briefly. Grace held her head and rocked back and forth while rolling her eyes, urging herself to understand what she was supposed to be doing. Sometimes when that happens I have to calm her down, or she will start to hit herself. Sometimes I ignore her. And sometimes I tell her off for being silly. Tonight I did all three, and then I shouted. Immediately her level of distress mounted and consequently it took us another ten minutes to calm down, and another five before we could start again.

Sometimes I find myself thinking that Grace will grow out of this. Sometimes I tell myself she'll learn not to do it. Most of the time, I don't know what to think, so I just try to deal with the situation at hand and move on.

One of the hardest things about being a good mother to Grace is knowing when the level of homework distress is related to her having Asperger's syndrome and when she's just being a moody preteen.

Grace was formally diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome only last year, after five years of waiting lists, inconclusive assessments, repeated questioning, and a lot of shoulder shrugging. By then, Grace's dad and I had years of rationalizing that we suddenly needed to re-examine and recalibrate: from how we reacted to the little idiosyncrasies to how we dealt with odder behavior, to coping with the bigger things we really worried about. Even now, we're only at the start of figuring out what's AS and what's not (and we don't always agree).

For a long time, we thought Grace's distance and "otherness" might be a reaction to us divorcing. We put down to eccentricity her fear of dogs and balloons and hand-dryers. (We've since learned that "Aspies" are extraordinarily sensitive to their surroundings — what we heard as loud noise was really painful to her.) Her inability to read people, or to show curiosity about them, or participate in conversations was, of course, classically autistic and seems so obvious now that I berate myself daily for not realizing it sooner and tell myself to be more sensitive in the future to her behavior.

So when Grace greets me at the school gates with a glare and the words, "I'll kill myself if you make me do piano practice," do I accept that she just has no filter for her sentiments and is anxious that she may not be able to play something new? Or do I tell her off for being rude to me and put it down to a nine-year-old's melodrama?

When she refuses to eat her dinner because I have forgotten about her dislike of hummus (bad middle-class mom!) and put it in the center of her plate, where it has touched other foods, do I scold her for overreacting and tell her to eat the rest? Or do I calm her down and get her a new plate?

One day, on our way home from school, Grace was railing about the unfairness of being told off by her teacher for lashing out at a classmate (and familiar foe) who was taunting her (again). In fury, Grace had pulled this girl's hair — and received a whack from her by way of compensation. They were both reprimanded and warned not to do it again. Grace was baffled by this and felt a huge injustice had been done to her.

As she sat in the car shouting that her life wasn't fair I tried to reason with Grace that she shouldn't have touched the girl who was teasing her — no matter how hurtful or annoying she was. Grace just shouted louder, fists clenched on her lap and the color rising in her face, "This was the WORST day of my LIFE."

At that, I saw red and shouted back, "For God's sake, Grace, how could you possibly think it's okay to go around pulling people's hair? What planet are you on?"

For a moment, she paused. Then her face crumpled — and she looked like a confused four-year-old again — and she bent her head and sobbed. Loudly. Then more loudly. Then wailed and yelled louder still. In the confined space of the car the amplification of Grace's rage and hurt was overwhelming and unbearable, like an audio bomb had gone off.

Navigating rush-hour traffic I barely saw, I felt panicked and sad. Grace really is on a different planet from the rest of us — it's how Aspies see themselves. A widely used and popular online forum for the autistic and Asperger's community is For a child, being on the wrong planet must be even more frightening and confusing. Had I made a terrible, insensitive blunder and compounded her feelings of separateness and worry? How then should I teach her to rein in the kind of behavior that looked to others to be self-centered and willful? Was it one or the other or both?

At home I fretted and frowned while Grace played piano (flawlessly) and I cooked.

Over the dinner table we faced each other in tentative silence. Then Grace said, "Hey, Mummy —" and pulled the silliest face she could imagine. I laughed, and she laughed, and baby Betty cheered and threw food in excitement.

It was a mistake to try to separate bits of my daughter into comprehensible compartments. She is the sum of her parts. She is Grace and she needs patience and understanding and love. Lots of love.

But how could I provide all of that given the state I was in? I was frightened for her, sleepless and worrying and frazzled. I was dizzy with tiredness and knotted with stress. I shouted — all the time. I was entirely incapable of resolving her fears and tantrums with patience and love.

Clearly I had to take myself in hand.

I started by going to the doctor. I told him about Grace and about my high-powered job, which was unraveling. I told him that I couldn't sleep, that I often woke in tears, that I felt hopeless and useless. The words came as a shock to me even as they came out of my mouth. I felt as though I was observing myself from a corner of the room. When did it come to this? How could I have let it get this bad?

I'm not used to failing.

When I was fifteen, my mother came into my bedroom one night to speak to me. I was sitting on the floor in front of the mirror in my closet, trying out a new hairdo. I had pictures of models from Elle magazine torn out and stuck to the walls; a collage of film stars and singers patched above my bed; torpedo-like lipsticks pinned up in formation (a jokey homage to flying ducks) over the sink in the corner, upon which bristled a range of potions.

My mother sat on my bed and addressed me in a tone somewhere between affectionate exasperation and despair. I remember so well the way she held herself tightly and the clipped way she spoke the words under the stress of not losing her temper. She told me that I had a choice to make. I could either sit in my room and listen to pop music and paint my face and fritter my life away. Or I could be a serious person. Study, learn, and take on the world. Be somebody. Make something of myself. But I'd have to start now. Because time was wasting.

That sense of time passing and the worry of leaving things undone or not done well enough has been with me ever since. The other thing my mother used to tell me — usually when I'd expressed an idle wish that something would hurry up — was: "Don't wish your life away." Lately I had found myself thinking of that again and would be immediately rooted to the spot by panic. I could almost feel a breeze lifting my clothes and rustling my hair: the air, the seconds, the minutes — the achievements I was grasping for — swooshing past me and leaving me behind.

All my life I have run to keep ahead, to keep moving, to dodge failure. But somehow here I was, failing. It had caught up with me just the same.

I was not a good mother. I was not a good employee. I could barely function.

The doctor suggested antidepressants and tutted when I shook my head. "If it was medicine for your heart, you'd take it," he told me. But it was for my heart, I wanted to cry. My heart was breaking. For Grace, for me, for the mess I was making. I didn't want pills to make me numb. I wanted to feel the fault lines fracturing my chest and the claggy self-pity that clung to me like reeking mud.

So then I went to see a therapist. I refused to take my business to anyone who I suspected would ask me to lie on a couch and assess my family relationships for the next ten years. I wanted someone who would fix me, fast. I found a man who specialized in cognitive behavioral therapy. He said he could help me retrain my brain and substitute my expectations of failure with hope of success.

At one point not far into the sessions, he said to me: "Oh boohoo, poor you. What are you going to do about it?"

I went back to the doctor and took the prescription for antidepressants.

And I forced myself to keep talking to the therapist.

Eventually, things started to improve. I went whole days without crying. I began to see how self-indulgently bleak I had become. I kept asking myself: "What are you going to do about it?"

One day I woke and realized I hadn't done any exercise for months. My baby daughter was nearly two. I had lost post-pregnancy pounds mainly through stress. My physical health was as neglected as my mental well-being. I was round-shouldered and hollow-eyed and the flesh on my belly white and loose. Before Betty's arrival I used to run — short distances, admittedly — but regularly and with relative ease. Clothes used to look good on me. I used to feel good in my skin.

I got out of bed and went to look for my running gear. After a while I found it: musty, creased, and a size too small. I put it on, gritting my teeth against the cling of the fabric to my wobbly thighs and the tight seam of elastic around my waist. I ran down the road and started to feel ill after two hundred yards. After five minutes, I wanted to cry and throw myself down in defeat.

I kept going though and finished a small circuit around the local park. The experience was absolutely wretched. Over the next few weeks I tried again, and again. It didn't get any easier. Frustration and nausea marked my efforts. How I had ever run three miles was beyond me. It seemed an impossible target: something that only other people did.

A bit like running marathons.


Why not run a marathon instead? I wondered. If I was going to set myself an impossible target, I should at least make it an impressive one. If I was going to go out and wobble and struggle and wheeze, then it would be more heroic to do it in the pursuit of completing twenty-six miles, rather than a circuit of two swings, a slide, and several dollops of dog shit.

When my therapist asked me in our final session what I was going to do next, I answered, "I'm going to run the London Marathon and I'm going to do it for the National Autistic Society." He watched me, expressionless, and for a moment I wavered. Was this really wise? Was I falling back into old habits of having to prove myself over and over? Of having to achieve or lie awake worrying about the consequences?

Possibly, but in the process I'd get a lot healthier, I reasoned. I would work off at least some of my anxiety and be calmer and stronger around Grace. I might even do those three miles.

At work, I strode over to a friend and announced that I'd decided to run the London Marathon. She looked at me, assessing my cheery smile and slight tremble. "Good luck," she said. "It took me five times before I got a place in the ballot."

A ballot? I had to hope to be selected? Again, I wavered. Running the marathon had become a Thing very quickly and the prospect of going back to not having something big and scary to do was even bigger and scarier.

I applied for the 2012 London Marathon twice — once through the ballot and again for a place on the National Autistic Society's team. Then I found a half-marathon that was taking place much sooner and applied for that too. I set up a fundraising page on the Internet asking my friends and family to support me in my endeavor to run for the charity that sought to explain and advise about autism and support those affected by it.

Suddenly I was invigorated. I set up a blog (about which I knew nothing technically) and a Twitter feed (ditto). I used too much pink font. But what I lacked in design skills I made up for in energy, invigorated by the belief that after years of desperately trying to do the right thing for Grace, I had finally found a measure of practical support. I sat up late into the night, typing and clicking and formatting, fueled by the feeling that this — this — would make a difference.

I studied the training plan for the Royal Parks half-marathon and tried to work out how I could build up my twice-weekly not-quite-three-mile run into a 13.1-mile circuit within four months. For a start, it would involve keeping going for more than forty-five minutes: a mysterious and wonderful thing if I could make it happen. I scheduled a training run for the next evening.

All the next day, I watched with delight the rising total on my fundraising page and looked forward to the buoyant pace I would undoubtedly set on my run after work. Alongside the pledges of hard cash, I received several affectionate and encouraging emails, some from the most unexpected sources. I was thrilled that my adventure had moved so many people already.

By the time I got home, a light drizzle had turned into boringly steady rain. Not enough to be a downpour, not enough to be ignorable. I sat and watched the rain drip from the trees and railings outside my house. It was a nice evening otherwise: the air smelled clean and the rush-hour traffic had subsided.

My husband came home gray-faced and tense after a rough day at work. I heard myself suggesting Chinese take-out and a bottle of wine to cheer him up. Result: he perked up immediately, while I was stricken with guilt and a feeling of irresponsibility. As I put down the phone on Man Chui's perky delivery girl (wait time: twenty minutes) the rain stopped abruptly and light emerged from behind the clouds.

I set my alarm for six o'clock the next morning. Being shamed into training for a fundraising race in which I had cajoled my friends and family to stake money was not a good feeling.

A few weeks later, I ran five miles in an hour. More experienced runners will groan or smile at this: it's not very far, or very fast. But it was further and faster than I'd done before and I was euphoric.


Excerpted from Grace, Under Pressure by Sophie Walker. Copyright © 2012 Sophie Walker. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


1 The Horror, The Horror,
2 Welcome to the World, Baby Grace,
3 The Meeting with the Man in the Suit,
4 I Can't Help It,
5 This Is Me, and I Am Not Rain Man,
6 Autism Is Everywhere,
7 Do Put Your Daughter on the Stage,
8 Restore, Revive,
9 Happy Families,
10 The Royal Parks,
11 The Surrealist Manifesto,
12 What Have I Got Myself Into?,
13 Back to School,
14 Grace Grows Up,
15 26.2 Miles,
Appendix: The Point of You,
Acknowledgments and Disclaimers,
Useful Resources,
Recommended Reading,
About the Author,

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