How sports can be a levelling field for kids with autism
Created by Deepti Deshpande Updated on Jul 14, 2020
“To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest
accomplishment” – Ralph Emerson
It is 5 am in the morning and Varun is already tying his shoe laces on, raring to go for his morning
routine. It’s been 5 years, that he has been into running. A lanky youth of 21 years, he packs a punch
into his run. He has been a long distance runner and has bagged quite a few awards in several
noteworthy marathons including the Tata Mumbai Marathon, the 21 km, Satara hill run, 32 km Igatpuri
run as well as 2 hours of continuous stadium running for 21kms at Nariman point and many more. A
disciplined young man, he sets his everyday alarm, wakes up and gets ready to run every morning.
Diagnosed with autism early on at 2.5 years, Varun went through his own struggles, trials and
tribulations. For a reticent boy who prefers not to talk much, he has grown into a wonderful youth with
a confident personality and zest for life.
Recently, Varun has got registered in the India book of records for being the first autistic individual to
complete the first full marathon of 42 kms in 4 hours and 27 minutes. It is indeed a moment of pride for
the entire family and the autism fraternity.
Varun’s mother Darshana recalls the time she decided to enroll him for swimming to lessen his
hyperactivity. She ensured that Varun was always actively engaged into physical sports like swimming,
skating, badminton and cycling. This tremendously helped in venting out his excess energy and calm him
down. At 16, the pool that Varun used to go to, closed down. At that time, Darshana approached the
‘Runners Academy’, that trains individuals for long distance running. After a couple of weeks of training,
the head coach realized that Varun had immense potential. After that, there was no looking back. Varun
trained hard and consistently. He did not receive any special treatment and was given the same training
as any other fellow batch-mate.
For Varun, running continuously equals a form of meditation. Even though there are times when the
body is ready to give up, the mind propels you ahead, which is truly an example of ‘ mind over matter’.
The jubilation of crossing the finishing line as he smiles and raises his arms is what they call the ‘
runner’s high’ and what keeps him charged during the run. For Varun, the finishing line signifies a
personal achievement irrespective of the fact there are others crossing it too. According to Darshana,
this is what has lent immense confidence and vigour to his personality.
Organizational skills and Discipline
Varun enjoys running so much that he ensures he is always organized. He keeps his running gear all
ready and finishes his academic assignments beforehand so that he does not have to miss his running
Along with that, there is a self instilled discipline which necessarily means that Varun needs to focus on
the type of foods he needs to consume, the amount of water that he needs to consume 2 days prior to
a run, eating his dinner early and hitting the bed early.
Although Darshana, introduced running a another medium of getting physical exercise, it turned into a
full fledged passion for a Varun and she found him transitioning into a responsible young adult with a
A mother’s insights
Apart from being a mother, Darshana is also the president of FFA ( Forum for autism) as well as a
remedial educator and counsellor. She believes that it is important to allow your child to fall, get up,
learn and move on. Parents need to realize that they are not going to be there for posterity. Hence as
the kids grow up, the umbilical cord needs to be cut gradually to allow them more latitude in figuring
out the world and making their own decisions as well as being accountable for the same.
It is equally important to teach your child to put faith in the society. Because, Varun’s parents accepted
him the way he was and did not expect any special concessions or treatment, the members of the
runners’s academy also accepted him without any bias.
Traversing the odds
Varun’s parents have made it a point to allow Varun to test waters when it comes to interacting with
others. They also have had conversations about the general do’s and don’ts of social interactions.
Although in instances where Varun has faced difficulty in dealing with certain issues, the parents have
sat with him across the table and discussed about how he would like the problem to be resolved. It is a
good balance of guiding by offering choices and not spoon feeding.
Self image and social perception
Darshana recalls when as a younger kid, other schoolmates pointed out Varun as the boy who was
strange, weird or different, and how she got sympathetic looks from fellow parents. However sports and
running became a complete game changer where perceptions were considered. Today his peers proudly
get themselves clicked with him and display the picture on their social media accounts.
At times the society fails to realize that even atypical people have their own aspirations and dreams just
like other neurotypicals and they work towards it because they genuinely enjoy doing it. These children
are capable of doing great things but are unable to express or showcase the same.
For kids with special needs, any form of sports, be it running, cycling, swimming or any team sport like
football can be a powerful catalyst that can help in
- Increasing stamina
- Self regulation
- Giving a sense of achievement
- Building muscle tone
- Instilling self discipline Developing organizational skills
- Building a vibrant personality
- Feeling of being at par with others
- Changing the perception of others towards them
Today, when Varun is asked about how he feels about being autistic, he replies spontaneously without
missing a beat, “ Fantastic and fabulous”