Monday, August 7, 2017

Running and Autism

Colin Nichols attends Hanover-Horton Elementary in Hanover, Michigan. Colin loves participating in his school’s Mileage Club®, and he runs – a lot. Colin completed 30 miles during Mileage Club® when he was in 1st grade. He more than doubled his mileage and racked up a total of 70 miles in 2nd grade. At the end of the season, when the school announced that he logged 70 miles (almost twice as many miles as the runner-up for the year), his classmates cheered wildly.

And that’s a big deal.

Colin has autism, and school has not always been an easy place for him. Colin’s mom, Carrie, commented that his classmates “have seen Colin at his worst.” Which made it even more meaningful that they witnessed his disciplined efforts, and celebrated that success with him. Carrie Nichols reflected that Colin showed signs of athleticism from a very young age, but PE class in school was stressful for him. Colin is easily overwhelmed by the chaos and activity of PE class and organized sports. But running gives Colin the physical release he needs, and gives him pride in his abilities. Colin’s mom also noted academic benefits from Mileage Club® for her son. Both she and Colin’s teacher observed that Colin would come back into the classroom from Mileage Club® much calmer and ready to learn, having released on the track his extra energy and pent up frustrations from the day.
Alison Wade wrote in an article published by, “In running, social interaction is common, but it’s not required for success. Running does not require mastery of complex techniques, intricate rules, or the principles of teamwork—but it does offer the opportunity to be a part of a team.”
Russell Lang, Ph.D., the executive director of the Clinic for Autism Research, Evaluation and Support at Texas State University in San Marcos, said that “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.”
Tommy Des Brisay of Ontario also has autism, and began running when he turned 14. He now has dreams of making the 2020 Paralympic Team.
According to, “Within two years (of beginning road racing), he (Tommy) was near the front of the pack. The first time he won a race, he was confused about where everyone else was, so he went back up the course to run with each subsequent finisher and cheer for them as they crossed the line.”
Des Brisay, now 25, has personal bests of 15:17 for 5K, 1:10:34 for the half marathon, and 2:38:50 in the marathon. It’s not unusual for him to go blowing by his competition while reciting lines or singing songs from his favorite movies.
But when people marvel at what Tommy Des Brisay has been able to accomplish in spite of his autism, his mother prefers to ask, “What if it’s because of his autism that he’s this successful?”
“You can choose to look at autism as a disability or you can choose to look at it as a collection of abilities that can be celebrated,” she said. “There’s no doubt that for Tommy, part of his success as a runner has been his unfailing willingness or joy in training all the time. He’s the kind of guy that doesn’t see it as a tedium of any kind to go forward and do the same workout. There’s a comfort for him in that. So I think for Tommy, his autistic tendencies are an advantage in a lot of things. One of those is his running.”
Which leads us back to Hanover-Horton Elementary. When I asked Colin what his favorite thing about Mileage Club® was, he didn’t mention the many tokens he’s earned, the Mileage Club ®t-shirt he won, or the applause from his classmates. He simply answered, “Running.”


  1. Such a hopeful, inspiring piece. I am sure what is true for students and people with autism is also true for other students and people as well. This is something to celebrate ! Yay!

  2. Although this is a little late in coming, I want to say how inspired I am by Colin. I not only have a nephew with autism but have had children in 1st Grade I've taught in the past, with autism. My goal and what this article has helped me with, is to find different healthy ways to move. This is good for all children! Thank you - And keep up the good work Colin!!

    1. Thank you for your comment! And thank you for your work helping children find physical outlets to move and be healthy.

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