Photo source: Belleville News-Democrat
Everyone has dreams to which they aspire. Sometimes life throws itself in the path and prevents someone from pursing their dream. Other times, by striving to fulfill, it’s possible to overcome difficulties which otherwise would have prevented progress.
This is the case for Conner Stewart, a student of Coulterville high school. He has autism, but does not let that get in the way of his dreams of being a cross-country runner. Quite the opposite, in fact.
A caring start
Conner Stewart was diagnosed with autism when he was two and a half years old, though he is currently seventeen years of age. His parents are Michael and Charlene Stewart, and they live on a family farm in Randolph County.
The doctors were not optimistic. Charlene Stewart said, “The doctors didn’t really give us a great prognosis.” But that did not hold them back from trying to give their son the best life possible.
Michael Stewart explains that they educated themselves on how to provide for their son. “It was hard for everyone when Conner was first diagnosed,” he said. “As a parent, you think what am I going to have to do different?”
Despite the difficulty, he still recommends seeking out the diagnosis. “The worst thing you can do is be in denial. If you think something may be wrong, get your child diagnosed and then do whatever you can.”
Charlene explained what they did to help their son, “...we started early intervention in home therapy. We started everything—physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy, music therapy, applied behavioral analysis. We did everything possible.”
Charlene wants to share this advice with other people. “If there was something we though would help, we did it,” she said. “If there is one thing I would tell a parent whose child is diagnosed, it’s therapy, therapy, therapy, and social integration.”
The importance of regular schooling
Also important to the parents was that their child not be separated from other children on account of his autism. To that end he is enrolled in regular classes at his high school, and has plans to attend Southwester Illinois College in the coming year.
He does take special reading classes to help him prepare for the more rigorous standards of college, but his family and school believe in the importance of schooling alongside neurotypical students.
Charlene explains, “I’m a grade school teacher and I know the importance of having an autistic child in the classroom and having typical children nurture them.” Exposure to other children can help children with autism learn to adapt to the rest of the world.
Various hobbies and running
In addition to running, Conner has several other hobbies. He is a member of the Randolph County 4H Club. He shows off farm animals such as goats and chickens at farm shows, an activity he finds physically beneficial. According to him, he has “...strong shoulders from picking up goats.”
He also is a member of the National Beta Club, which aims to help students learn leadership and improve their academic ability. It is not an organization focusing on children with autism, but such skills are especially helpful for those kids. He also enjoys cooking.
But running is Conner’s favorite activity, and perhaps the one which has benefited him the most.
He started running when he was in seventh grade and joined the Coulterville Junior High Track team. There he found success from the start. Conner said, “I was good at it and so I just kept doing it. I like to train and work out with my friends.”
Those friends are a large part of why Conner has found success with his running. Some of his teammates are Dakota Gregory, Tyler Place, and Kade Portz. They are impressed with his performance both on the track and in person, where he is well liked.
“He’s super energetic. He’s super fun and very spontaneous as well,” said Dakota about Conner. “He’s very honest, one of the most kind-hearted people I’ve ever met and would be my friend until forever.”
Conner likes them as well. “They treat me nice,” he said.
Success in running
In his sophomore year of high school, Conner was voted the most improved runner. As a freshman he was voted the most dedicated runner. He is on track to being voted most dedicated runner a second time in his senior year.
Conner took part in two invitationals early in September, the New Athens Invitational and the Marissa Invitational. In the first he placed 52nd out of 207 runners, and in the second he placed 36th out of 133 runners. Both events ended with a medal for Conner.
He can run a mile consistently under 20 minutes, but hopes to achieve a time of below 18:30 before the year is over. His most recent record was 19:02, which was set at the Class 1A event at the First to the Finish Invitational in Peoria, Illinois.
Conner may very well reach that goal. He practices a lot at his family farm. According to Conner, “I’ve been running like four hundred miles this summer because I’ve been running eight, ten miles each day.”
But the accomplishments from running do not come solely from improved times and higher than average rankings. Sometimes children with autism can have issues maintaining healthy exercise habits, but not Conner. “It helps me get stronger and faster,” Conner said.
The benefits do not stop there. “The running has helped my autism,” said Conner.
A wonderful coach
Many of us have memories of coaches from high school being terrifying creatures, seemingly fonder of pain than learning. Not Conner. One of the reasons Conner has found success in running is because of his high school coach, Matt Espenschied.
Charlene Stewart claims that Coach Espenschied is one of the reasons her son has done so well as a runner. She said, “Matt has been a real inspiration to Conner.” The coach has overseen Conner’s progress from a 25-minute mile as a freshman to the current 19:02 record.
But Matt does not claim the credit for himself. “That’s all him,” Matt said. “It’s nothing that I have done. He’s the one who has put in the time, done the work.”
The coach will miss having Conner around. Says Espenschied,” I get sad and teary-eyed when I think about the fact that Conner is graduating. I’m really going to miss him.”
A future in running
Conner is not going to be finished with running after high school.
His eventual goals are to go to Southwestern Illinois College or Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. He is interested in going into the field of agriculture, like his parents, or perhaps finding a career in cooking.
Either way he is going to continue to run. Even though he has not yet left high school, several college coaches have contacted coach Matt Espenschied to inquire after Conner. The coach feels good about Conner’s chances about running in college.
Even if Conner stays in the area and does not go to one of the colleges which hosts those coaches, Espenschied has already offered Conner a job as an assistant coach.
For some people, a hobby is something they do for entertainment or to make the time pass by. For Conner Stewart, his hobby of running is much more than entertainment. It has brought him friendships, opened doors to the future, and has even helped him both physically and with his autism.