Elliot Bennett loves to run. He’ll probably never tell you so, but you can see it in his eyes. The smile on his face shares with the world what Elliot cannot express through words. Running is Elliot’s passion and his connection with the community around him.
Elliot lives with Autism. It’s often difficult for someone with Autism to express himself through words. For Elliot, growing up with Autism made participating in team sports nearly impossible. By the sixth grade, Elliot lacked an avenue to participate in structured athletics and had begun gaining weight. To help him stay active, Elliot’s mother, Gaylene Gondolfi Bennett, decided to let Elliot run on a treadmill a few times each week.
Building a training program for a child with Autism required special considerations. Elliot needed structure, a visual schedule and rewards to reinforce positive behavior. For instance, if Elliot successfully ran for a minute on the treadmill, he’d get a Pez candy or a Skittle.
It worked. One minute became two, and then three. Elliot seemed to enjoy running while rocking out to Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” on his iPod. After several weeks, Elliot was running 20 minutes at a time.
“Run far. To the Union. Back Home.”
Elliot was putting his newest goal into words. The fact that Elliot verbally expressed his intent was a strong indication that he was determined. He had decided he wanted to run to the Union and back. That meant that he would not only need to go farther; he’d need to run outside. Elliot’s goals were exceeding what Gaylene had imagined for her son.
To make his goal a reality, Elliot was paired with a companion runner. He continued to build his endurance and was successful in completing his Union run, which totaled about five miles round trip. Elliot didn’t stop there. He joined the high school track team – another significant achievement. Elliot was now participating in team athletics. If this was all that Elliot ever did as a runner, he had already surpassed what others believed was possible.
Today, Elliot continues to push toward bigger goals. He ran his first half-marathon in September 2009 with a finishing time of 1:37:23. In April 2010, He finished his first full marathon in 3:29:08. More recent accomplishments include a sponsorship opportunity with Asics and an invitation to participate in the 2010 NYC Marathon. A foot injury (while running shod) slowed him down and prevented Elliot from completing his New York Marathon. But it hasn’t stopped him. Elliot is slowly and safely transitioning to running barefoot, going a few miles each week in minimalist shoes and shorter distances with bare feet.
RACE at the Starting Line
Bolstered by her son’s success, Gaylene has partnered with a treatment agency to develop a pilot program for other autistic youth to incorporate running into their daily routine. That program, Running with Autism in the Community and Everywhere (RACE), is working with six autistic students, aged 8-22, to begin the process of running, much like Elliot did.
New RACE participants begin running on the treadmill. They often start out barefoot running, partly for the physical benefits and partly because they don’t want to put on shoes. Through the program, they learn the joy of running and reap the physical, emotional and psychological benefits that come from structure, accomplishment and social interaction.
Though RACE is still in its infancy, Gaylene has big goals. Not only does she want Elliot and others with Autism to enjoy running, she also wants to inspire insurance companies to include running therapy as a covered benefit. She is also working to help Elliot become a running coach. And her ultimate goal is to establish intra-city trails that would allow safe travel, on foot or bicycle, from town to town across America.
RACE is growing through referrals. Donated treadmills have created new opportunities for more autistic children to experience the thrill of running, just like Elliot did. As these new runners progress, they move outside and begin running trails and road races. You may even find yourself running alongside a RACE participant in your next marathon.
They may not tell you how much they love to run, but you’ll see it in their eyes.