Before I write about the impact of running on autism, I want to define this disorder and talk a little bit about its relationship to evolution. Most people have an idea of what this condition is, but I’m not convinced of the accuracy of the average working definition. According to psychological professionals, Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental syndrome that is defined by deficits in social reciprocity and communication, and by unusual restricted, repetitive behaviors.
In an evolutionary sense, autism is a highly heritable neurodevelopmental disorder that greatly reduces reproductive success, which should make you wonder how it wasn’t removed by natural selection.
One research article out of McGill University suggests that the persistence of autism in modern humans could be the result of the role of epistatic interactions in polygenic disorders. Oh right, epistatic interactions in polygenic disorders, of course. Let’s give these words some definitions:
Epistasis– the phenomenon where the effect of one gene is dependent on the presence of one or more “modifier genes,” i.e., the genetic background.
Polygenic Disorder– Disorders that depend on the simultaneous presence of several genes.
Autism is known to be a polygenic disorder– multiple genes play a role in the effects of ASD. Among other theories, the article proposes that these genes are also involved with the development of intelligence, which is positively correlated with potential reproductive success. As a result, the genes are spread throughout the population. Some combinations of these genes do not result in any autistic symptoms, but others produce different variants of ASD.
But what does all of this mean to a person outside of the autistic community? How can someone completely unaffected by this disorder understand the day to day life of someone who has autism?
Well first, it’s called ASD for a reason- there is a spectrum of severity (which makes sense if you realize there could be a variety of combinations of genes producing symptoms). People with autism are extremely diverse in terms of capabilities and challenges. On one end of the spectrum are low-functioning individuals who have severely impaired communication skills and/or significant behavioral problems. They are typically either non-verbal or very limited with their verbal communication capabilities, and this is coupled with other problems such as health issues or sensory processing deficits. This combination of challenges can produce severe behavioral reactions, and it takes a highly skilled professional to deescalate these situations. Families alone are not usually able to provide the 24/7 treatment and care their loved one needs, so they often place them in permanent residential care facilities or hire in-home staff who can provide the support and guidance they need to live up to their potential.
On the other end of the spectrum are high-functioning individuals, such as those with Asperger’s Syndrome. These individuals have average or above-average intelligence, but struggle with behavioral abnormalities or with common social interactions that the rest of the population participates in regularly. People with high-functioning autism can succeed academically or perform normal daily tasks without many issues, but really struggle to form healthy relationships with those around them. Sometimes this means that they can’t understand social cues like body language or tone of voice- cues that the rest of us detect and interpret without any extra thought. Social exchanges can be confusing and frustrating for people with disorders like Asperger’s.
Most people with autism fall somewhere in between the high and low-functioning extremes; they have a unique combination of challenges that they must face. No matter the severity, early intervention is extremely important. The earlier a child is diagnosed and begins appropriate treatment, the better the outcome.
Be mindful of the signs and symptoms of autism, and no matter how difficult it may be, advocate for a child you suspect may have ASD. An uncomfortable conversation with a parent is nothing compared to years of struggling without diagnosis and treatment. From childhood, I’ve watched family members grow and learn to live with autism, and I’ve seen how early intervention can be the difference between a minimally verbal individual that ends up in a residential facility and a successfully independent, happy person who happens to also have social problems they’ve learned to manage. Early intervention can’t always result in independence, as some forms of autism are too severe to prevent the need for permanent care, but regardless, all forms of autism benefit from early access to therapy and treatment, so don’t stand by while a child struggles. Be an advocate.
Digressing from my call to activism, what does treatment look like for a child (or adult) with autism? Speech and behavioral therapy, dietary changes, and maybe… laps on the track? Professional administration of therapy is likely more effective than running, but can running also contribute to the improvement and growth of someone with autism? Evidence suggests that the answer is yes.
Those impacted by ASD are more likely to experience health issues associated with being overweight, including heart disease, bone and joint problems, and anxiety and depression. Running offers a way to prevent these health problems, but its benefits don’t stop there. Some families of autistic children report improved cognitive function and information processing on days when their children go running. Running can be an outlet for excess energy and anxiety, helping people with autism focus and feel more comfortable and confident in their own skin.
I highly recommend reading this article published by Runner’s World. It tells the story of a group of special-needs students in Baltimore that trained for and ran a marathon relay. In the process, the students develop strong work ethics while building confidence. The article concludes with this quote from one of the athletes: “When I run, I feel like I can do anything. I’ll never stop.”
For people with autism, learning to run can help them form stronger bonds with family and peers, build confidence through setting and accomplishing goals, and lead healthier lives. Looking at it that way, running seems to benefit those with autism the same way it does everyone else, but for these individuals, the rewards of running are much more important.
For someone with autism, every day poses a new challenge that no one else has to face, and that most people don’t know or acknowledge as a struggle for them. For these people, feeling healthy and focused, and feeling confident about themselves is a hard-won gift. It’s a prize they earn after accomplishing something that most people won’t even attempt, all in the face of much more difficult circumstances. Running allows them to shed their insecurities- when they run, they aren’t socially awkward, or disruptive, or any stereotype placed on them by others; they’re a runner, just like the rest of us.