News - 15th January 2018

The only time you’ll see me smiling in a crowd – autism and parkrun

Smiling in the crowd

I’ve always felt out of place, struggled to fit in, and have never been one for competitive sports. At school I lacked the coordination for the usual team sports and would opt instead for the isolation of cross country runs as I felt safer running alone rather than being part of a crowd. My childhood didn’t feature any glittering sporting prizes in fact my only childhood sporting achievement was to be the undefeated Ilkeston and District Brownie Space Hopper Champion!


Once I left school, I left cross country behind too, along with any other running or any other regular exercise. Life moved on, and fast forward to 2008, as an unfit 39 year-old, I was blessed with a son, Matthew. Although motherhood was wonderful, it didn’t do anything to help my fitness. Something had to be done so, in September 2016, along with my very good friend Paula, we decided to sign up for a fun run to help us get fit and to raise money for a local autism charity. Matthew is on the autism spectrum and Paula is a special needs mum too so this cause was very close to our hearts.


We needed to get some practice running and decided to go along to Long Eaton parkrun not quite knowing what to expect. This was a big step for me as I’ve always struggled with anxiety, in particular, crowds can send me into a panic. In fact, that summer I had spent six weeks off work with stress and anxiety. When the day came and I was stood in the middle of the crowd at Long Eaton parkrun I immediately realised that I shouldn’t have worried. Perhaps it was the sense of being supported, perhaps it was the feeling of friendship and belonging, perhaps it was the notion that nobody was judging me on my ability. Whatever it was, I felt instantly accepted and for the first time in my life I found myself smiling in a crowd.


That period in my life was significant for another reason. The time off work in the summer of 2016 marked the start of a long diagnosis journey which culminated in my own autism diagnosis late in 2017. The diagnosis has come as a relief as it has helped me to make sense of the bouts of stress, anxiety and panic that I’ve lived with all my life. I feel equally fortunate to have found parkrun at the same time. It’s helped me overcome obstacles, and I’m not anxious at all when I’m around the parkrun community. Paula and I now alternate regularly between Long Eaton and Shipley Country parkruns. I’ve even found the confidence to do a bit of parkrun tourism and enter local 10k races knowing that I can now feel comfortable about letting the crowd build up around me.


When I look back over the past couple of years I feel I’ve been on an amazing and transforming journey. I have to thank my lovely friend Paula for giving me the courage to start the journey, the parkrun community for supporting me throughout, and my new special parkrun friends at Long Eaton and Shipley Country parkruns who are always on hand for encouraging hugs. So if you see me at the start or finish line at either Long Eaton or Shipley Country Park please come over and give me a hug too, it will make my day. You’ll be able to spot me easily enough, I’ll be the one smiling in the crowd.


Susan Severn


parkrun provides free-to- enter 5k events on Saturday mornings with a companion series of 2k events, junior parkrun, for 4-14 year olds on Sunday mornings. parkrun or junior parkrun is available at over 650 UK locations. You’re free to run, jog or walk, there’s no time pressure and everyone is equally welcomed and celebrated. Our mission is to make the world a healthier, happier planet and we’re keen to welcome people living with autism to our events. You can register here.


We have a closed Facebook group for parkrunners affected by autism and/or learning disabilities to share advice, tips and stories related to parkrun. If you’d like to join, please click here.

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