When Tommy Des Brisay runs a race, his competitors take notice. It’s not just that the 25-year-old Canadian is fast, although he can zip through a 5K (3.1 miles) in about 15 minutes. It’s also hard to ignore his habit of singing Disney songs and reciting lines from his favorite movies.
“They kind of look at him like ‘What the hell? Why aren’t you dying like the rest of us?’ ” says his father, Peter, in a special report from Runner’s World magazine that explores the connection between running and people — people such as Des Brisay — with autism. In the decade since Des Brisay’s dad first took him along on a daily run, he has gotten more involved in the sport. Along the way, he has become much less anxious, more social and not as dependent on medication.
As writer Alison Wade lays out, research is starting to back up what Des Brisay’s family has seen firsthand: Running can really make a difference. She cites a 2016 study that showed students with autism who were in a running program improved their social awareness, cognition, communication and more.
“Despite its benefits, no one is claiming that running is the equivalent of a magic pill that will eradicate the challenges that people with autism face,” Wade notes. And there are certainly extra hurdles that people with autism face when running. In Des Brisay’s case, for instance, his dad needs to tag along during road races to monitor whether his son is hydrating and following instructions. Also, starting guns and large crowds don’t jibe well with sensory sensitivities.
But people on the autism spectrum may have an easier time with other aspects of running, Wade writes: “After all, some of the characteristics that would lead to an autism diagnosis — repetitive behaviors, strict adherence to a routine, highly restricted, fixated interests — are helpful for training.”
Wade cites several other runners in addition to Des Brisay, including Grace Ling, a sophomore on an athletic scholarship at California’s Santa Clara University who credits Asperger’s syndrome for her motivation. There’s also 20-year-old Mikey Brannigan, who’s got a shot at making the U.S. Olympic team.
His mother, Edie Brannigan, has advice for other parents of children with autism: “Get them moving. Get them swimming, get them running, get them walking, get them moving. Move, move, move, move, move.”