When our middle son Cliff moved to the High School last fall, Gavin decided to join the indoor track team with him over the winter. Naturally, this led to Gavin joining his brother on the varsity outdoor track team this spring — Cliff is primarily a distance runner, Gavin is a sprinter.
Results have been mixed, but progress by both boys has been steady, and they’ve both consistently been improving their personal records for their respective events. Still, victories have been sparse, and in Gavin’s case he’s been a back marker in every race thus far. What makes this story a bit unusual is that Gavin is a 17 year old with autism, and the disability contributes to a gross motor skill deficit which seems to make the opposite sides of his body work against each other. He’s all arms and legs as he leaves the starting blocks, and, spectacular as it looks, this flailing running style has a negative impact on his event times as it takes him nearly 10 meters to get into an efficient stride. Still, his progress has been consistent.This brings us to Tuesday (04/18/2000) at Fox Chapel. After posting a poor time in the 100-meter dash, Gavin was determined to do better in the 200. We, Gavin’s parents, told him to forget about the 100 and to concentrate on the 200 by trying to finish it in less than 30 seconds — his personal goal. He was so nervous that he reported to the starting line well in advance of the event and we could only watch from across the field as he paced around the infield and got himself pumped up for his heat.
For those of you who might not be familiar with the 200-meter dash, it is a race that includes a full corner of the track and then a full straight to the finish line. Runners start from staggered blocks in order to equalize the distance, and it’s generally not until the runners reach the head of the straight that their true position in the race can be determined.Gavin was in the last heat of five runners and started in lane 4. When the gun went off, three of the runners broke quickly away, leaving Gavin, (arms and legs flailing away as usual) and the runner in lane 3 behind. As Gavin and the other runner hit the top of the stretch, they were dead even, shoulder to shoulder. Being anything but unbiased, we both sprang to our feet and began screaming encouragement to him. Then we noticed something that will forever remain in our memories – nearly every member of the Highlands Varsity Track Team was on their feet cheering Gavin on as he and the Fox Chapel runner struggled towards the finish line.
Alas! There was to be no miracle finish. Twenty yards from the finish line Gavin lost his balance and fell face first to the asphalt surface of the track. To our surprise (and relief) he quickly got back to his feet and, just like the runner in the poem, finished the race. And what was the first thing he wanted to know after crossing the finish line? “What was my time?” [For the record, it was just shy of 35 seconds. The Fox Chapel runner he had battled down the stretch finished with a time of 29 seconds and change.]
Aftermath: Even before going to the trainer for repairs (asphalt and human skin do not mix well), Gavin was greeted in the infield by several members of his team, with most of the others running into the infield from the stands. He got high-fives for his effort from the coaches and boys, and hugs from nearly every member of the girl’s team. (We “warned” him to be more careful next meet as he shouldn’t expect hugs from the girls every time he falls during a race) then, before practice the following day, the team gave Gavin an ovation for his spirit and determination in finishing the race despite taking such a hard fall.
Except for the tumble, Gavin would have reached his goal of a sub-30 second time for the 200. Obviously, Gavin didn’t reach that goal. But, did he fail? We, his parents, certainly don’t believe this was a failure. His time and placement are irrelevant because he has achieved something through his participation in varsity track that no “program” could ever give him — the support and recognition of his peers. Support and recognition based not upon his disability, but rather on his effort! Can those of us who believe strongly in inclusion ask for anything more?
One thing is for certain, anyone who ever again tells us that the "community" is unwilling to include and accept people with disabilities — that people with disabilities are better off being segregated into their own “special places” — will be told this story; repeatedly if necessary. Talk about “natural supports!” The sight of Gavin’s teammates rising nearly as one to cheer him on to what would have been, at best, a 4th place finish has touched us both deeply, as has their continued support after the race. Guaranteed, you’ll not find anything like this level of support in an IEP (Individualized Education Plan) — it can only be achieved by living it!
In closing, we’d like to thank the coaches and members of the Highlands Varsity Track Team. We know that your support is as sincere as it is moving, and we appreciate it every bit as much as you appreciate Gavin’s efforts. And to the parents of these student-athletes: You’ve done a wonderful job! They’re a great group of young men and women!
David and Debra Wilcox – State Chair and State Co-Chair of:Autism Support and Advocacy in Pennsylvania (ASAP)
"Providing information to and support for individuals with autism and their families from the perspectives of inclusion, self-determination and social justice"
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|Permission to reprint in entirety granted - April 2000 – by Debra Wilcox|