As a father of an autistic child, I know people with autism display lot of obsessive behavior, odd quirks, and repetitive motions. That sounds a lot like running. This difference is, most runners have the social communication skills and control over their behaviors people with autism lack. But let’s face it, we’re all a little weird, so perhaps there is a little autism in all of us.
Eight days ago Jason McElwain, who is diagnosed with autism, ran 3:01 in the Rochester Marathon, finishing 15th and qualified for the Boston Marathon. This is not the first time he’s made news in athletics. His astonishing performance at the end of a high school basketball game where he hit 6 three-pointers in the span of just 4 minutes created a viral video sensation back in 2006.
As impressive as that hoops feat was, I always suspected there was a good natured fix to ensure he score some points in what might have very well been a meaningless game at the end of the season. In the video, you can see the opposing players aren’t making much of an effort to block his shots. It seems likely that he was sent into the game to get a basket or two against an accommodating defense, ending the season with a nice feel good story for the local paper. When McElwain unexpectedly started draining three-point shot after three-point shot in this scenario, that’s when the game tape went viral.
Nobody shortened the marathon course for Jason McElwain. He ran the course faster than all but 14 of 574 race entrants in a time that’s pretty impressive for someone his age, autism or no autism. What few knew back in 2006 when he was an internet basketball sensation is that he was also a member his high school’s cross-country team. And not as team manager or token backup, but one of the 4-5 fastest runners his team relied on to win meets. Given that he never set foot on the basketball court until the very end of the season, you have to figure Jason was actually a much better high school runner than he was a basketball player.
And that makes a lot of sense. Basketball requires a lot of communication and spontaneous creativity, things people with autism struggle with. On the other hand, people with autism often prefer highly organized and structured daily schedules, just like a lot of runners do. People with autism often prefer spending hours in isolation like many runners on long solitary runs. Many autists engage in usual activities many view as quirky and weird. How many times have you been asked, “You mean you actually enjoy running?”
Many will say Jason McElwain ran a great marathon, overcoming his autism. Perhaps he ran a great marathon because of his autism. Either way, let’s celebrate him.