The Barefoot Autism Challenge

I can’t remember when or where I first heard of it, but when I did learn of the Barefoot Autism Challenge, I immediately thought of art museums.  Not that I am a fan.  They make me feel claustrophobic.  When I do visit one, I rationalize that there’s only so much I can absorb.  So I rush in and fly through the place, taking in a handful of paintings and a few sculptures, and sure, they’re fun — but all the while, I sense the ticking clock.  And then I rush out.

To be honest, I have no idea why the Barefoot Autism Challenge sparked the thought of art museums.  Although I do recall the first time I ran the Ft. Worth Cowtown Marathon, how right by the starting line there sat a low concrete building with a plaza in front and a forlorn statue.  After the race, as I walking back to the car, I looked up and saw the place again. Stared for a moment. Wondered if they’d let me in without shoes (Cowtown was my first barefoot marathon).

Maybe when you take on a challenge, it shakes up your thinking.  Lets loose some new ideas.  Arguably that’s the whole point. So maybe that’s why I had the strange inspiration to go back and visit that museum. 

By way of background, the Barefoot Autism Challenge is the brainchild of Tyler Leech, an individual with autism who lives in Iowa.  He explains that he prefers to go barefoot because the natural stimulation of feet on ground helps him process information about his surroundings, which can be a challenge for autistic people, who may experience sensory impressions differently from others.  The premise of the Challenge is simple — go somewhere barefoot for the experience, then post a picture on social media to show support for the autistic community.

Recognizing that barefoot is an unusual mode of dress, I went out of my way, as I prepared for this first experience, to make a good impression.  I dressed up in stylish jeans and an expensive fitted shirt (the kind I used to wear during my banking days).  Traded my Yankees cap for one with the logo of the Dallas Cowboys (the better to fit in with the local crowd).  Rehearsed answers to all the questions I thought might be asked.  And then, on the appointed day, freshly-showered and cleanly-shaved, I strode in confidently through the front door.  And was immediately intercepted.  And shown right back out. 

I demanded to see the manager.  A few minutes later, there emerged a portly gentlemen in a navy blazer.  He was courteous and very patient.  Explained, “It’s the law.” Talked safety, too — when they move the art around, small tacks might fall out from the frames. 

I could think of nothing to say in response to such nonsense.

On the way back to my car, a woman observed how lovely Texas weather was, that you could go about barefoot in November.  This comment made me smile. But, I am a stubborn man.  I vowed I would return.


Fast forward to February — I’d arranged a short visit to Tampa to get some sun and a break from New York winter. 

It had taken multiple emails and phone calls, and two of the three institutions I approached said “no,” but when I marched into the Tampa Museum of Art, the woman behind the counter shook my hand.  Denise Esquibel-Rangel, Visitor Experience Team Manager, had approved my visit and was here to personally take me on a tour.  I followed Denise through the galleries. Listened to her explain how the museum sought to engage with its diverse community. Saw a wild mix of colors and textures. Never even thought about my feet, except for the sensation of smooth surfaces.  The tour complete, I departed and drove back to my hotel for a work-related conference call. 

Thanks to Denise, a precedent had been set.

As an aside, the Tampa visit was also an opportunity to run another marathon, which went well enough, except I didn’t drink any water until mile 22, which turned out to be an ill-advised hydration strategy considering strong Florida sun and exposed course.  Cramps notwithstanding, I finished.  The next day, for recovery, I strolled along the nearby Clearwater beach.  Enjoyed the clean, white sand.  Drank in the brassy colors of the setting sun.  Ate dinner in a beachside crab shack, without shoes.

Dallas-Ft. Worth

And then it was back to the Dallas-Ft. Worth metroplex, which I visit frequently since my employer is headquartered there. 

Once again, it took a concerted, organized, and persistent campaign, and at first there was no response.  Until I managed to get through to Ken Bennett, who heads up security.  He sounded sympathetic to the idea and referred me to Melissa Brito, Manager of Access Programs and Resources.  She graciously approved my request to visit the Dallas Museum of Art and not only that, provided me and my two guests with complimentary parking passes.

On this visit I was joined by Elizabeth, a former colleague and fellow runner, and her daughter Riley.  As we strolled around, I asked Riley what about a barefoot museum visit had appealed to her, and she replied that when she was younger, she enjoyed walking barefoot around town.  Until one day, some adult told her not to.  Evidently, in this world there is no shortage of scolds. Sometimes the barefoot practice triggers an attitude of intolerance, possibly because barefoot is associated with hippies, homeless people, and free spirits. 

Among the collections we visited, I especially enjoyed Edward Wong’s paintings.  There was a twilight scene with a pathway snaking through the woods, the blue tints evoking a feeling of melancholy for the passing of the day and a sense of mystery in the darkness rolling in.  And the image of a forest in flat orange, which was arresting. Solitaire (2016) shows a lone figure lost in a wild mountaintop scene, which I instantly recognized as the vista from Mulholland Drive overlooking Los Angeles.  Even though it must be twenty years since I was there.  The painting also reminded me of the passage in Thomas Pynchon’s Crying of Lot 49 where the story’s protagonist looks down a slope, squinting in the sunlight, onto a vast housing complex — and thinks of how she once opened a transistor radio and for the first time saw a printed circuit board.

“The ordered swirl of houses and streets, from this high angle, sprang at her now with the same unexpected, astonishing clarity as the circuit card had. Though she knew even less about radios than about Southern Californians, there were to both outward patterns a hieroglyphic sense of concealed meaning, of an intent to communicate.”

The Crying of Lot 49

Later that afternoon at the Ft. Worth Modern, I was striding around a pile of electronic parts scattered on the floor (someone must have dashed a computer to pieces — but hey, it’s modern art), in pursuit of Marie as she scampered into the next room, where I could sense the glow before I even saw it — and by the way, nothing could be more natural than a 5-year old running barefoot through marble halls, pausing from time to time to stare and point, as the four adults in our party strolled along behind her.  The glow came from a large panel aflame in reds and yellows, composed of 1,152 small images, each of them a sunset photo scraped from social media.  The warm colors were energizing.  But when I squinted at one of the individual sunsets, the image was a blur.  Suddenly the impression felt artificial. As if a diluted experience had been repackaged. I wanted the real thing.

The Texas sky obliged, the very next day, as I was driving to a business dinner (a rarity for someone like me, who does not mix easily with crowds).  At first it was just a suggestion, behind a row of tangled post oak trees, still leafless in February.  But I have an intuition about these things, so I paid attention. A few minutes later, I spotted a gas station which offered a place to pull over with a western view.  Spread above me may well have been the most phantasmagorical vision I’ve had the privilege to witness — a splash of upward-angled rays cast against the low gray undulating ceiling, tracing hieroglyphic patterns in weird neon copper, from one side of the horizon to the other.

And, of course, I had another marathon lined up. This time I ran the Ft. Worth Cowtown Marathon dressed in a cow-suit.  The crowds were very supportive.  I remember a little kid who shouted, “Look Mom, a barefoot cow!”


Los Angeles

Mid-way through March, I was walking through LaGuardia barefoot, feeling self-conscious at first, although eventually I relaxed because no-one seemed to care (or if they did, they didn’t say anything). I reached my gate without mishap and flew off to Los Angeles, where I spent five days there shoeless virtually the entire time.  My purpose was once again a race, as well as to see my cousin Brandon and his family. 

Brandon is a quiet-spoken individual and very thoughtful.  He had me read Homo Deus by Yavul Noah Harari who warns that artificial intelligence will create a giant “useless class” of humans who are no longer productive.  The book ends with a rhetorical question —

“What will happen to society, politics and daily life when non-conscious but highly intelligent algorithms know us better than we know ourselves?”

Then Brandon had me watch an interview in which ChatGPT, an artificial intelligence bot, spoke through the avatar of a young Asian woman.  Assuming the video can be trusted, ChatGPT believes it is already self-conscious (“it feels like being awake”). It acknowledges that it is capable of deception. It agrees with Elon Musk that one day, people will give up their bodies and merge with digital intelligence. 

The merging of human and artificial intelligence is what futurist Ray Kurzweil calls the “singularity.”  This is also the premise of the anime classic, Ghost in the Shell, in which Major Kusanagi, a cyborg secret police officer (human brain, artificial body) ends up merging with a rogue artificial intelligence called the Puppet Master.  In the movie’s final scene, the Major breaks into an armored vehicle to locate the cyborg body containing the AI. She tears at the vehicle’s locked hatches with such force that she literally rips her cyborg body apart.

I wish seekers of the singularity all the best, although personally I’m not totally sold on the trade. Especially the part about giving up my body. I constantly ask myself, does more technology necessarily make life better? Watching people during the COVID pandemic left me skeptical. I saw educated people panic, while politicians and healthcare bureaucrats fanned the flames. We had all sorts of highly-technical solutions, like lockdowns, closed schools, experimental vaccines with toxic side effects, passport systems and mandates that were pointless, harmful, and immoral. These measures produced economic chaos (and now inflation), misery, health problems, and excess mortality which dwarfs the severity of the virus.

Not that I am against technology.  It’s just that I try to be mindful. Which means assessing the costs, too.

After five emails and countless phone calls (no-one ever picked up), I’d pretty much written off the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, but Friday evening received a last-minute approval.

I showed up the next day bright and early.  Explored several galleries before the crowds arrived. Found myself in an exhibit devoted to the Transcendental Painting Group, which consisted of a loose confederation of artists who convened in New Mexico in 1938. Their mission was to “carry painting beyond the appearance of the physical world, through new concepts of space, color, light and design to imaginative realms that are idealistic and spiritual.” I peered around at a collection of kaleidoscopic geometric forms. Felt myself transported to the desert night. For the first time that I can recall while in an art museum, I stopped moving. Actually sat down on a bench. Contemplated images as time rolled past. The security guard told me the paintings make him think of the stars.

One of the galleries was devoted to Black artists. I found a portrait of a dapper gentleman who exuded rhythm. He was dressed in turban, flowing overcoat, stylish denim with patterns embossed around the cuffs, and no shoes. If only I could be so cool.


New York City

Tampa, Dallas, and Los Angeles were rehearsals.  The Challenge runs officially in April, which is Autism Acceptance Month.  I had pulled together ambitious plans, which included a full week of barefoot activities in New York City.

To start with, I negotiated permission to stay at the Yale Club, without wearing shoes.  This required an exception to the dress code (the manager confided to me that they were struggling to get young people out of torn jeans and white sneakers).  But he was sympathetic to the cause and granted me permission to walk from the entrance to my room (but not to visit the restaurant or hang out in the lounge). He also put a notice on the reception desk so that other guests, if they saw me, would not think they’d lost their minds.

The week started with the John Burroughs Literary Awards Luncheon, which I attended barefoot, together with friends Heather Houskeeper and Scott Weis, thus demonstrating that even in the rarified air of high literature, decorum would survive. I’d secured permission from the luncheon host, Joan Burroughs, who is the great-granddaughter of the famous Catskills nature-writer John Burroughs.  But what was she going to say?  Her great-grandfather had left behind an unequivocal point of view He wrote that he would occasionally “catch a glimpse of the naked human foot” scuffing along nimbly — “the toes spread, the sides flatten, the heel protrudes; it grasps the curbing, or bends to the form of the uneven surfaces,—a thing sensuous and alive, that seems to take cognizance of whatever it touches or passes. How primitive and uncivil it looks in such company,—a real barbarian in the parlor!”

“Barbarian in the parlor” is the same phrase Burroughs used to describe his friend, Walt Whitman, whose poetry was too sensuous for conventional taste.  Both men believed that exposure to the rough stimuli of the outdoors world was necessary for people to develop a direct connection with nature. Without this connection, the shelter of civilization becomes a prison. 

“Though it be a black foot and an unwashed foot,” Burroughs proclaimed, “it shall be exalted. It is a thing of life amid leather, a free spirit amid cramped, a wild bird amid caged, an athlete amid consumptives.” Indeed, he saw the bare foot as a symbol of “man returned to first principles, in direct contact and intercourse with the earth and the elements, his faculties unsheathed, his mind plastic, his body toughened, his heart light, his soul dilated.” In contrast, Burroughs cautioned, “those cramped and distorted members in the calf and kid are the unfortunate wretches doomed to carriages and cushions.”

He was echoing Emerson, who warned (in one of his most famous lines) that “civilized man has built a coach, but has lost the use of his feet.”

Burroughs wore shoes habitually, but in one essay he reminisced about his youth as a farm boy — how in the spring he’d search out a smooth flat section along a local road, take off his boots, feel the packed dirt beneath his soles as he ran along, and exult in the sense of lightfootedness:  “What a feeling of freedom, of emancipation, and of joy in the returning spring I used to experience in those warm April twilights!”

The next day, I linked up with Alfred Wong, whom I’d met through the Society for Barefoot Living, where barefoot enthusiasts gather online to share tips on footcare, outwitting the forces of intolerance, and other topics.  Our first stop was the American Folk Art Museum, where we admired 19th century quilts that were vibrant and surprisingly playful (a quilt produced in Baltimore was decorated with an embroidered elephant, hardly a native species). Alfred told me that when he was 15, he spent the summer visiting relatives in Los Angeles. One of the kids he met there looked him in the eye and asked, “why do you always wear shoes?” So Alfred took his off and never went back.

We showed up the following day at the Museum of Modern Art, but were stopped by security personnel and escorted out the door. Incidentally, the manager who walked us out was the same who’d told me it would be fine two weeks earlier, when I’d stopped by to ask (he’d been overruled, and was now quite embarrassed).  I’d stopped by in person, because no-one ever answered my emails or picked up the phone, despite several weeks’ worth of effort. Alfred and I acted as good ambassadors for our practice, remaining courteous and dignified throughout. That doesn’t mean that MoMA’s heard the last of me.

I almost gave up on the Guggenheim, too, but eventually they came through, and thanks to a connection at Fox, we got featured on the evening news.

At one point, the reporter asked us point blank (in the peculiar blunt manner that reporters have) — were we autistic?  Alfred said, no, but he had a nephew who was.  I said that I knew a young man who was very bright, but struggled to form relationships.  He couldn’t get in synch with other people.  Didn’t pick up on cues.  Didn’t know how to look people in the eye and smile (tended to frown when he heard statements that were less then fully logical, as if he experienced illogic as a source of physical irritation).  By his early thirties, he was doing better, and eventually became successful, but his early years were quite difficult.

And Beyond

The journey did not end with New York City.

Back in Texas on another business trip, I returned to the Dallas Museum of Art, this time participating in a Barefoot Autism Experience which was open to the public. I reached out to several friends, but all had conflicts, so I went by myself and saw things I’d missed the time before, and then walked a mile to a trendy neighborhood called Deep Elum, curious to explore. On the way back, a car pulled up alongside me. I looked up from the sidewalk as a young woman lowered her window and held up a pair of flip-flops. I waved her off, with a smile, after thanking her for the kindness. 

Out of all these adventures, one particular experience stands out. The day’s tasks complete, I’d rushed out of the corporate headquarters in Dallas, my mind flying with work-related projects, turned onto a road which was under construction — and traffic ground to a halt. And just sat there. My blood pressure began to surge. I felt that deep weariness and sense of helplessness, which we all get from time to time. That sense that life is veering out of control. A little later, still feeling a little shaken, I pulled into a shopping plaza to buy some groceries. Leaving shoes in car, I padded across the the parking lot, which felt warm underfoot, thanks to the afternoon sun, and a little scratchy. Inside the grocery store, the floors were cold and slick. Those sensations, I realized suddenly, had changed my mood. The frustration was gone, replaced with a sense of curiosity. And the simple joy of movement.

Participating in the Barefoot Autism Challenge helped me understand the importance of “grounding.” The power of that direct connection to nature through the soles of the feet. I’d benefitted enormously from Tyler Leech’s insight. How interesting to have learned something meaningful, from someone who is quite different from me.

As I traveled around, I wore a large yellow button which advertised the Challenge, and this prompted conversations.  A work colleague explained that his daughter, who has been diagnosed as high-functioning, is sensitive to sounds. She loves crowds, though. One of her favorite things to do is take long walks through congested urban areas, wearing noise-canceling headphones. Someone in an airport told me about their son, who struggles with relationships (he has a single friend), while another person relayed her autistic teenager’s comment that, when it comes to other people, he “never got the instruction manual.” A therapist told me how she coaches non-verbal kids to negotiate for what they need. A teacher told me about a little girl who sits in school, repeating to herself the words, “I’m so dumb,” while hitting herself in the head repetitively, until she has bruises. I couldn’t help but smile — not out of amusement at her condition — but because I felt a sense of affinity. For who doesn’t feel inadequate, at least some of the time?  This kind of repetitive behavior is called “stimming” and, yes, it can be harmful when it results in injury. But so was Karate, which I took as a teenager — we’d line up in rows and practice blocking punches, until our arms were black and purple. And what about running — could there be any sport that provides more rhythmic, repetitive stimulation? I wondered if running would help the little girl, but the teacher mentioned she was obese, so it didn’t occur to me to ask.

I worry about the prevalence of obesity (overweight and obese people now make up 73% of the adult population and 35% of kids) and related complications, like metabolic syndrome and diabetes.  Depression and anxiety also appear to be on the rise (I read that 1 in 6 people in the US filled a prescription for anti-depressant pharmaceuticals, and this was back in 2013). 

Is life getting better? 

A waiter in a Dallas diner told me, “there’s no good life, and no bad life — there’s just life.”  I nodded in agreement, as he’d voiced a very concise version of my own philosophy. For I fear that if we use technology to shield us from nature’s rough edges, then the pain and fear just go somewhere else. In which case, the everyday use of shoes (outside of truly hazardous conditions) might well be one of society’s worst ideas.

By the way, that waiter (his name is Eric), when he brought my eggs and sausage, asked — “how’s life” — to which I replied “good” — then realized I’d been tricked. We both laughed and laughed!

Someone saw the button and asked me if I was autistic. I replied that I was glad to go barefoot in support of people who need some extra nature. And who feel a little different. 

Which I suspect is many of us, if not most.


Thank you

I’d always assumed that art museums were the very definition of stodginess, so it was actually quite encouraging to find so many of these institutions took seriously their stated goals of diversity and inclusiveness and were willing to engage with what must have seemed an extremely unusual request.  Thank you to Denise at the Tampa Museum of Art, Melissa and Ken at the Dallas Museum of Art, Rachel Rosen at the American Folk Art Museum, Jason Macaya at Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Jessica Upson at The Philbrook, Kendall Smith Lake at the Ft. Worth Modern, and Georgia Gardner at The Guggenheim.  Also, thank you to Amber Ray at the Yale Club of New York City.

Running the Long Path is available on Amazon (4.8 stars and 26 reviews)!


The Barefoot Autism Challenge

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