Healthy Living

Sixteen-year-old Student with Autism Wins Half-Marathon on First Try

Sixteen-year-old Student with Autism Wins Half-Marathon on First Try

Photo credit: WBAL TV 11

Competing in a half-marathon is a feat for everyone involved; there are immense pressures and completing all those miles is extremely grueling. Just to finish is impressive, but winning the race is astounding. What makes such a thing even more remarkable? Winning with autism. Logan Thomas is only sixteen years old, has autism, and can run those 13.1 miles with ease.

Baltimore Running Festival

Logan entered into the Baltimore Running Festival half marathon a couple of months ago without expecting too much. He knew he was fast, and that he was feeling good, but it was his first half-marathon. In fact, he had only started running at all a year beforehand.

However, despite it being his first time, he certainly ran like a pro. He even won the number one spot for his age group.

At St. Elizabeth High School, a school for those with special needs from age 6 to 21, his running coach and teacher Chip Rigel Morgan explained just how impressive this accomplishment is: "His age group goes up to 19, and here Logan is, he won. He's a 16 year old student with autism, and it's his first half marathon."

Another one of his teachers and coaches, Scott Tomlin, agreed. He mentioned that he and Morgan did not finish the race nearly as fast as Logan has. He also explained how difficult the conditions were: "It's a hard race. It's hilly and it was hot. He's a really happy guy in general. He always waves to people along the way, so I knew he would have fun."

Morgan continued explaining Logan's expertise: "He's got a lot of natural talent. He's really diligent. His family tells us that even when he's not running here, he'll go home and run to the gym, run on a treadmill. He's really inspiring because Logan's got a lot of discipline. He's never complaining. He's always wanting to go further, and always wanting to go faster."

Thomas agrees, and mentions how much he loves the sport. He's already planning how he can beat his time next year, and is looking for more races to take part in in the meantime.

Running with autism

Logan's results are amazing, but there are actually many people with autism who are excellent runners. In fact, it is regarded as one of the best sports for people with autism.

At a young age, many with autism become very active and like to run around. Many parents become concerned and try to temper this habit, but the best thing to do is actually find a safe outlet for it. Running can be a way to deal with frustration and anger, keep them healthy, and also potentially engage them in a team sport.

A good way to make sure this activity remains safe, as you don't want anyone to get distracted when running and get into an accident, is to go for a run with your child. If they're too fast for you, hire a special needs trainer.

Science behind running

Scientists have begun to look into why it may be that teenagers like Logan are so easily able to excel at the sport.

Achilles International and New York Medical College conducted one of the largest studies on the topic, and released their findings at the Academy of Pediatric Physical Therapy's Section on Pediatrics 2016 Annual Conference.

Their study was conducted by analyzing a running program that included almost one hundred children with autism over four months. They found that those who ran or walked for as little as twenty minutes twice a week demonstrated drastic improvements not only in running, but social awareness, cognition, and communication. Endurance and motivation were also strengthened.

Not only are these positive attributes increased, but negative tendencies such as self-injury and aggression, as well as certain repetitive behaviors, were diminished in those who ran or walked regularly.

Stuart Lustig, M.D. is the lead medical director for child and adolescent care at Cigna Behavioral Health in Glendale, California, and he explains that the findings of the study are positive, but cannot yet be considered conclusive. He states that the results of the study are "consistent with anecdotal evidence. It's certainly hopeful, but not definitive at this point. We need further studies."

Mikey Brannigan's story

The most famous runner who is known to have autism is Mikey Brannigan, from East Northport, New York.

Brannigan runs under a four-minute mile, and has won the T20 1500 meter race at the Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. He is aiming to be a part of the United States Olympic team in 2020 or 2024.

Mikey was diagnosed with autism when he was only 18 months old, and didn't speak until he was 5. He is an inspiration to those with autism, showing how much can be achieved regardless of any diagnosis.

He ran so much that at first his parents were worried, and tried to curb the activity to keep him safe. After a while, they decided organizing the running might be a better idea. The results were incredible; he stopped running away from them when he was able to run at other times. He even joined the varsity track team, a major event in his life.

Edie Brannigan voiced the massive change they saw in their son: "I watched it happen. During those two years, something shifted, something opened up, and his thinking became useful in the way of academics. I think that Mikey learned right away that when you win, there's an admiration. You are looked up to by other people. Up to that point, he'd never had that. He was mostly rejected and disciplined. He strives not just for the calming of the [stereotype], but to gain respect from his typical peers and be accepted by them ... It gave us hope, in a way ... with the success of the running, plus the media stuff, [that] catapulted him into coolness with all athletes."

Running as therapy

Exercise is often prescribed by doctors to many neurotypical patients, but rarely to those with autism spectrum disorder. However, some researchers are beginning to believe that exercise may be just as important. While cognitive and behavioral therapy can hypothetically improve certain actions, or teach people coping mechanisms, one of the best things you can do for your body is to exercise - and the great thing is, sports teams are often inclusive groups of people and great ways to make friends. This is especially the case when an athlete is spectacular, like Logan or Mikey.

Russell Lang, Ph.D. is the executive director of the Clinic for Autism Research, Evaluation and Support at Texas State University in San Marcos, and explained why it is that running might be so powerful for those with autism: "Running, in general, is a community sport and lifetime activity that de-emphasizes social communication and emphasizes repetitive behavior. That lends itself well to alignment with the characteristics of autism."

While there may be more scientific data required to prove running as an especially powerful sport for those with autism, Logan Thomas and Mikey Brannigan are proving that those with autism can certainly compete - and win.