More than 48,000 runners took part in the New York City Marathon Sunday morning, and all ran for their own reasons. For identical twins Alex and Jamie Schneider, who are 23 years old and participating in their first New York marathon, running is a way to connect with a world they can’t communicate with otherwise. The twins are severely autistic, and they don’t speak. But when the boys were younger, their parents noticed how much Alex and Jamie loved to run, and now the Schneider family finds more joy in running than in anything else. It’s their chance to bond.
Alex and Jamie, who have run more than 130 races, both run with guides to help them navigate the crowds on race day. Alex runs with his coach, Kevin McDermott, and is hoping to beat his personal best marathon time of 3:23, set in Boston this year. Jamie runs with his dad, Allan. “I’ll explain to people, there’s not a lot I can share with him, but when we’re running, it’s an unspoken language,” Allan Schneider told Good Morning America.
Aiden Lorenzo, 9, right, practices his golf swing with Annmarie Ayers, an occupational therapy grad student from Touro College and volunteer with ISF (Inclusive Sports and Fitness) at Give It Your All Sports in Ronkonkoma. The ISF program is designed to give children with disabilities the opportunity to take part in sports and fitness activities that will help them develop and grow physically, socially and personally.
The Town of Islip has launched a collaboration with an occupational therapist to help kids with autism learn coordination and motor and social skills through golf.
“When you have a kid with a disability, it’s tough to find programs,” said John Lorenzo, of Sayville, whose son, Aiden, 9, is one of 10 children with autism in the program. “You spend a lot of money trying to find activities for them.”
He praised the program for teaching the kids while remaining fun. On a recent day at an indoor sports club in Ronkonkoma, Aiden gripped a colorful golf club and swung at an orange tennis ball, connecting solidly to send the ball flying.
“The kids don’t think it’s therapy. Aiden thinks it’s just sports time,” said Lorenzo, an aide to town Councilman Anthony Senft who learned about the program when therapist Alexander Lopez spoke at a recent town board meeting.
Through Councilman Steve Flotteron, the town has worked with Lopez in the past on a golf program aimed at mentoring troubled teenagers in Brentwood.
The program was so successful that Lopez launched similar programs at universities in Newark and Salt Lake City.
Flotteron noted that these collaborative programs reach out to local youths without costing taxpayer money. “It costs the town nothing,” he said.
Lopez said he started Inclusive Sports and Fitness to help the children improve through the fun and activity of the sport.
“They’re working on their balance, working on their coordination,” Lopez said, adding that golf involves core exercises such as “crossing your midline” and hand-eye coordination.
The 10-week program takes place on town golf facilities and at Give It Your All Sports in Ronkonkoma, which rents Lopez the facility at a discount. The town waives fees for use of the golf courses.
While Lopez and other therapists volunteer their time along with student interns from Stony Brook University and Touro College, Lopez charges a $30 fee for each 90-minute session to pay for facilities and for a yoga teacher, who provides the youths another form of exercise.
Golf is especially useful for teaching body motion to children, said Holbrook Country Club’s golf pro Bill Leposa, who advised Lopez on developing the program.
“It has the instant gratification of seeing the ball move,” Leposa said. “There’s no body type required, either. As long as you can move this way and that way,” he added, demonstrating the classic golf swing.
The golf program, now in its second session, is geared toward high-functioning children with autism who are 6 to 11 years old and left out of mainstream youth sports.
“Sports after a certain grade level gets very complicated, very cliquish,” Lopez said. “These kids, they just need attention. They’re not getting the resources anymore and they become sedentary. This is designed to help them strengthen their bodies.”
Stephanie and Bill MacIntosh, of Farmingville, watched their son, William, 6, playing tug-of-war at the Ronkonkoma facility. “We really wanted him to play sports,” Stephanie MacIntosh said.
William has been diagnosed with autism — specifically the neurodevelopmental disorder Asperger’s syndrome.
“Socially, playing with other kids, he has difficulties,” his mother said. “He’s doing great now. He has healthy outlets.”
She said the program was “priceless.” “It gives him an area where he can be successful,” she said.
“Come on, David!” “C’mon, c’mon!” “Come on, Dave, yeah!”
With shouts of encouragement and steady applause from his teammates, David Gorczynski crossed the finish line at Orchard Park High School late Tuesday afternoon, long after most of the other runners in one more race that he almost was not allowed to run.
But David Gorczynski is still running, and because of his fight, all young athletes with disabilities in New York will have one less obstacle to overcome in the seasons ahead.
Gorczynski, 20, has autism and loves to run. This summer, his family’s court case against a state education regulation that banned him from competing because of his age attracted wide attention. Hundreds of people – including his Orchard Park teammates and runners from other schools – signed an online petition objecting to the law, and in August, State Supreme Court Justice John L. Michalski issued an injunction that would allow David to run.
“He’s a great addition to the team,” said David Wert, the Orchard Park cross country coach. “To see how much athletics plays into his life is amazing. And the respect – how my boys have stuck up for him – has been great. They are stand-up kids.”
The statute that was going to force Gorczynski off the team actually was written in 2010 to make sure disabled students who were in high school beyond age 18 could still take part in noncontact sports, as long as their participation would not affect the outcome. (In cross country, only the scores of the top finishers are counted. Since Gorczynski always finishes last, his time doesn’t count to anyone but him).
But that regulation included a subsection saying students 19 and older could only get the waiver once.
David already had one waiver last season, when he was 19. He needed another to compete as a 20-year-old. Keeping him on the team was important enough to his family that, with the help of Neighborhood Legal Services, they went to court.
“The important thing about being included in the school is that school is part of the real world,” explained David’s mother, Mary Ellen Gorczynski. “The real world is not a ‘special needs’ place.”
And organized athletic activity helps young people who do have special needs make sense of real-world interactions.
Dr. Michelle Hartley-McAndrew knows all about that. She is medical director of the Children’s Guild Foundation Autism Spectrum Disorder Center at Women & Children’s Hospital and teaches neurology at the University at Buffalo School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.
Pointing out that exercise is good for all young people, whether they have a disability or not, she said participation in athletics enhances self-esteem, social skills and happiness.
David is not her patient, but she said athletics would have similar benefits for anyone with autism.
“It’s a good opportunity for them to socialize in a structured way,” she said. “It takes the pressure off. They can feel part of the event without experiencing the anxiety that can come from less-structured social engagements.”
Hartley-McAndrew said young people with autism may have trouble processing the variables in team sports like football or soccer, with players heading in different directions, with a lot of noise and motion. They are more suited to things like swimming or golf. David’s mother called cross country “an individual team sport,” with the added benefit of having no try-outs to pass.
“In sports like these, they don’t have to worry about verbal or nonverbal cues,” Hartley-McAndrew said. “They don’t have to anticipate other people’s movements but still can be part of the team and the shared experience.”
Wert says that, for all his athletes, including Gorczynski, cross country builds character and closeness.
“Everyone runs the same course, whether you’re JV, girls, boys, it’s the same challenge,” he said. “And it’s a very mental sport. Running 3.1 miles, 5K, is something many adults can’t do. Putting one foot in front of the other takes a lot of mind strength. The first mile, you’re maybe running on adrenaline, but the second mile, you realize there are two more miles to go. You have to push yourself through it.”
David doesn’t run alone. Mary Ellen Gorczynski finds places around the course from which to cheer her son on, and he also has a “running buddy,” Terri Swaydis. She was already a runner and working with people with special needs – she has a 21-year-old son who also is disabled – when she started partnering with David three years ago.
Teammates like Drew Filsinger and others will bump fists with David to encourage him before the starting gun, but it is Swaydis’ job to keep him on the course, which can be rambling and looping.
It isn’t known how many other young athletes were affected by the waiver limit and accepted it without protest, but once news of the family’s lawsuit was publicized, help came to make sure it would not keep any others off the field.
While the judge was still considering his ruling, State Sen. Tim Kennedy, D-Buffalo, contacted State Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. and members of the Board of Regents to ask that the waiver limit be removed from the regulation.
Robert M. Bennett, Western New York’s Regents representative, supported Kennedy’s request and at its September meeting the board passed an amendment allowing for additional waivers from the age requirement.
The state Education Department supports the change and is expected to make it permanent in December, after the required public comment period.
Tuesday evening, David Gorczynski crossed the finish line about 47 minutes after he started his race. While cheers rang out around him, a look of pride and satisfaction swept across his face.
With only seconds left on the clock, seventh grade student, Nick Grippo completes the shot that would make any parent proud, he sinks a basket at the buzzer and drives the crowd to its feet. For parent Denise Grippo, the play was more than she could have ever hoped for; her son Nick is autistic.
Nick is part of the William T. Rogers Middle School boys basketball team. He had expressed interest earlier in the year about playing and Todd White a special education teacher and coach for the school, along with Nick’s classroom teacher, approached Denise about letting Nick play.
“He’s having the time of his life, he’s part of a team. Everybody knows his name and for a child with autism, that’s really great,” said Denise.
The play that brought the crowd to their feet was captured by a teammate on a cell phone, as was the cameraman’s utter elation as he cheered and dropped the phone.
The coach had designed a play called the “Nick play”, said Jennifer Greco, a paraprofessional who assists Nick on the team.
“The boys, standing on the side do an inbound pass to one of the boys, Nick runs around another player and they pass to Nick,” said Greco whose cell camera was used to capture the moment.
It was the first time they had ever done the play during a game.
“They start setting the play up and the crowd starts chanting his name, then the cheerleaders chant his name,” said Greco. “They pass it to Nick, he shoots and scores and the crowd goes wild. After each win, Nick does the Conga line into the locker room. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.”
It was something out of a movie, said his mom Denise.
“The boys, I can’t say enough about them,” she said. “Just awesome. They’ve taken him under their wing and made him part of the team. The parents should be so proud they have raised such wonderful, wonderful boys.”
I have a great deal of respect for the coaches who understand that team sports like football, should be above everything else, fun. Sports should be about being with friends, doing your best, and after it’s all said and done, leave you with pride and a sense of belonging. Like a family on the Spectrum, sports takes a great deal of effort, gives a sense of family, and leaves you with memories that will last a lifetime. Additionally if done correctly and well, sports helps to develop a person’s personality, perseverance and commitment as they grow older.
Sports, especially football, has been used as a metaphor for life. This is no different for families affected by autism. -Ed
“Justin is the sweetest boy,” said his mother Crystal Haacke.
Justin and his family have battled the challenges that come with Autism. Communication and social interaction can be very difficult for him, but the game of football has helped with that.
“Afterwards, when the practice is over, when the game is over you see him get to play with all these kids,” Crystal Haacke said. “And they love Justin so much, and they think Justin is so much fun. And he doesn’t necessarily interact with a lot of people that way.”
Football has also allowed Justin to spend more time with his father, who also happens to be his coach.
“He does his best and goes out there and plays as hard as he can,” said his father Chris Haacke. “Even though he has his limitations he still gives 110 percent on the football field. As a football coach, and a dad, that’s all you can ask for from your son.”
“It’s been a really fun thing for him to be with his dad,” Crystal Haacke said.
As much as playing the game has meant to him and his family, the effects of the disorder have made it too difficult for Justin to continue to play. Due to safety concerns, his parents made the difficult decision that this season would be his last.
Knowing Justin would be playing his last game, his father had an idea; he wanted it to be a moment Justin would never forget.
Mountain View faced Juan Diego on October 20, and Chris Haacke approached the Juan Diego coach and told him about his idea.
“We would like to set up a play for one of our players who has Autism,” Haacke told the coach. “We would like to have him run for a touchdown and let him go out with a bang.”
The Juan Diego coach agreed and ran the play.
“I ran to the end zone and the other coaches said, ‘Hey, Justin, here’s the play. You’re going to get the ball, and you’re going to run to the end zone and run right for your dad,’ ” Chris Haacke remembers.
With a little help from his mother’s cheers, Justin took the handoff, ran to the right and followed his blockers into the end zone.
“Nobody even tackled me because I was too fast,” Justin said.
“Oh wow,” his mother said about watching Justin’s touchdown run. “That moment was great.”
It was a moment his parents and many of those in attendance will never forget.
“The pure joy on his face when he got in there and both teams surrounded him and patted him on the head and were cheering for him. It was overwhelming,” Chris Haacke remembers
“I don’t know if anything else that we could have done for him would have given him that moment,” Crystal Haacke said. “Where he was just the best in that moment that he could have been, that he ever will be.”
The family hopes that moment can inspire others and spread awareness about Autism Spectrum Disorder.
“Autism is hard,” Crystal said. “but there is so many joyful things that come. That experience showed me how many people out there really, really, really just are good and they want a little boy to feel good in that moment.”
“I’m so happy when we win,” Justin said. “That’s my favorite.”
On that day in October, everyone involved was a winner — a moment of sportsmanship at it’s finest. It’s a moment his parents hope he can turn to as he tackles the challenges of autism in the future.
“The funnest part of football?” Justin says, “Win and never give up.”
BRICK, N.J. (CBSNewYork) — A high school student with autism becomes a hero on the football field. Sounds like a good movie doesn’t it? Well, it’s a true story.
The score was tied with just 21 seconds left on the clock Friday night. Out trotted Brick High School’s Anthony Starego, an 18-year-old kicker who’s used to facing adversity.
Starego was orphaned at the age of 3 and then grew up with a long list of developmental issues. So when he jogged out on the field to attempt a game-winning field goal against favored Toms River North, one couldn’t blame him if he didn’t feel overwhelmed by the moment.
What happened next was something usually reserved for Hollywood. He split the uprights and the place went crazy. But there was nothing ordinary about that kick. It was a lifetime in the making, CBS 2′s Otis Livingston reported Tuesday.
“As soon as the officials went like this, I was a blubbering idiot,” father Ray Starego said, demonstrating the hand movement for a successful field goal.
“I was just crying, but I wasn’t going to stop watching him because he was just jumping for joy. It really was unbelievable,” added Reylene Starego, Anthony’s mother.
If being the hero Friday night put Starego at the top of the mountain, his entire life has been an uphill battle getting there.
“When he came to us, he had been through 11 foster homes and he had had some difficulties. He had about six words to his vocabulary,” Reylene Starego said.
“He had kidney reflux; he had an asthmatic condition. Basically, it was a special needs adoption that we had gone through,” Ray Starego added.
Symptoms of autism include children performing repeated body movements. They often experience unusual distress when routines are changed, but those are the same traits that make Anthony a successful kicker.
“Fifty times a day, that’s all he does. Just three steps back, one over and he hits the ball. That’s what he knows and that’s what he did,” coach Kurt Weiboldt said.
Anthony Starego agreed. As far as he’s concerned, practice makes perfect.
“I do the same thing over and over again. It helps me a lot, and I’m having the best day of my life,” he said.
Children with autism also have trouble with social interactions, so making friends isn’t easy, but the football field is different. It’s a safehaven.
“[Anthony is] just the man. He’s always happy, always puts a smile on your face,” Brick High quarterback Brendan Darcy said.
Anthony said he doesn’t think of himself as being different than his teammates. He said he just has a job to do.
“I feel like I’m happy and calm and enjoying myself when I kick. [It’s] the time of my life,” he said.
The Green Dragons’ only two wins of the season have come since Anthony became the kicker. He’s perfect on kicks, including that game winner. Their next game is this Friday against Lacey High School.