Outrunning Asperger’s: A Father’s Story of Love and Support
On July 29, 1993, my wife and I welcomed our third child. He weighed in at eight pounds, eight ounces, and sported a mound of black hair atop his head. We named him Brendan Richard.
As months passed, we noticed certain developmental and speech delays. Two months after Brendan’s second birthday, he was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome. Our developmental pediatrician recommended we place Brendan in a full-time special education preschool that incorporated the teaching method known as applied behavior analysis (ABA). We immediately enrolled him in such a school.
The summer Brendan turned four, he received a basketball hoop for his birthday. The art of shooting seemed to come naturally to him, and he and I spent hours in front of our suburban home taking shot after shot.
Brendan’s diet at this time was extremely limited. Toast, cinnamon twist donuts, chicken tenders, French fries, chicken noodle soup, along with various juice box flavors, comprised his food and drink choices.
Not surprisingly, Brendan had a difficult time transitioning from his pre-school academic regimen to the routine within his kindergarten classroom. Once he felt comfortable, however, he settled into his new routine.
As Brendan ascended through the elementary grades, he showed gradual improvement in completing the work associated with the appropriate grade level. We were pleased to see Brendan improving academically, as well as socially, during his elementary school years. However, Brendan’s weight was steadily increasing from grade to grade, giving us yet another issue to address.
The weight gain, while concerning, was nonetheless understandable. Brendan’s limited diet and fondness for fast food, bread, and sugary snacks was catching up to him. In an attempt to curtail the weight gain, we cut back on his intake of fast food and monitored the number of sugary snacks he consumed.
During his fifth grade year, Brendan tried out for and made the fifth-grade travel basketball team. Brendan was the seventh or eighth best player on the team. With him being described at this time as “chubby,” his lack of speed was holding him back somewhat. Despite our best efforts to keep Brendan physically active, however, he continued to gain weight.
In the fall of 2004, Brendan entered the sixth grade. He eventually settled into his middle school routine and performed very well in the process.
Brendan graduated from the eighth grade in June of 2007. He had performed extremely well in the classroom during his middle school years, and experienced success on the basketball court while participating in Catholic Youth Organization (CYO) basketball. His weight issue was a growing concern to Philly and me, however. We would attempt to introduce more healthy food options to Brendan, but he regularly balked at trying anything new.
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He informed me shortly after graduating from eighth grade that he planned on trying out for the freshman basketball team. While I believed he was talented enough to make the team, his weight and lack of foot speed concerned me. I suggested we begin a workout program that summer to increase his chances of successfully making the freshman team. At this time, Brendan was approximately 5’3” and weighed 170lbs.
We decided to conduct our workout at the high school track. To ease Brendan into our initial workout, I suggested we begin by walking a lap around the track and then jog a lap. He reluctantly agreed to the workout schedule. Brendan was comfortable walking the track, yet struggled mightily when asked to jog. In fact, Brendan was unable to jog a complete lap. He became agitated with me when I encouraged him to run, frequently storming off the track. No words of encouragement I offered helped. I eventually backed off and suggested we walk the laps. I attempted a couple of more workout sessions with Brendan that summer, but he responded negatively to these attempts. I suspended the workout sessions, resulting in him gaining even more weight.
Later that fall, Brendan tried out for the freshman basketball team. While Brendan held his own by hitting a few shots and making a few nice passes during the week-long tryout period, he was by far the slowest player on the court.
On the final day of tryouts, Brendan was told by the coach that while he was a fine shooter, he lacked foot speed, and would not be a member of the freshman basketball squad. He was devastated. A funny thing happened to Brendan immediately after receiving such disappointing news. Without saying a word to his mother or me, he stopped eating junk food, bread and eliminated soda from his diet. His diet now consisted of yogurt for breakfast, a banana and a bunch of grapes for lunch, and a healthy portion of chicken parmesan and pasta for dinner.
By May of 2008, Brendan had lost a total of 52 pounds and grown 3 inches. He now stood at 5’5” and weighed 118 pounds.
Brendan spent the summer between his freshman and sophomore year playing lots of basketball and even began jogging. That fall, he decided to try out for the high school cross country track team.
On the first day of tryouts, the varsity coach sent the 30 or so boys out for a three-mile run, attempting to establish a baseline time for each runner.
The cross country course took the boys in and out of a wooded area which surrounded the school. Once the boys come out of the woods for the final time, they had approximately 400 yards to the finish line. As the boys began exiting the woods, there were no surprises to the coaches regarding the first four runners sited. However, the fifth runner out of the woods was someone unfamiliar to them. It was Brendan.
When he finished, the coaches went up to Brendan and wondered if he had just transferred into the school. “No, I just lost a little weight” was Brendan’s reply.
After a few practices, Brendan was informed by the coach that he would be running for the varsity team.
As the season progressed, so did Brendan’s race times. Towards the end of the season, I was unable to attend Brendan’s final meet. The boy’s varsity race usually began 4:00 pm, so I waited until 5:00 pm before calling Philly to learn how Brendan ran. When 5:00 pm came, I made the call. “He finished first on his team,” Philly exclaimed. I was overjoyed.
Within a 14-month span, in a high school of 1,500 students, Brendan arguably went from being the worst distance runner in the school to the best!
This article was featured in Issue 79 – Managing Everyday Life