by Ron Marinucci, Oct. 7, 2010
On October 17, Team Autism is taking on the Detroit Free Press Marathon and its accompanying races. Nearly one hundred runners and walkers from the team have accepted the challenges of the 5K, the half and full marathons, and the relays.
Rajesh Bihani is the captain of Team Autism. “I founded the team in 2006,” he said. “I was the only one that year.” He explained that current team members have two goals at the Free Press, “first, to raise awareness about autism and, second, to raise funds.”
Money raised will help to fund services for the Judson Center’s Autism Connections program. Program manager Ann Patronik stated, “Our niche is to provide services for all members of the family, not just the person who has autism.” The Judson Center serves five counties in southeast Michigan.
Autism is a developmental disorder that affects an individual’s ability to relate to others. Communication and social interaction, verbal and otherwise, are impaired and often difficult. The Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta said that as many as one of every 90 children born in the US today suffers from Autism Spectrum Disorders. According to the Autism Society, more than 1.5 million Americans now live with the effects of this neurological disorder. And, of course, families of autistic persons are affected, too.
Team Autism manager Nina Bihani (the daughter of Rajesh) noted that among the services provided by the Judson Center Autism Connections are “a job networking club for adults, cooking classes for teens, and a baseball league for younger children. [Autism Connections] caters to the entire family, [including] parents and siblings of autistic children.”
Rajesh Bihani began Team Autism because “I have a son with autism.” Nishant is now 14-years old. “When Nishant was young, he would run, jump, and play at the park. He got himself into difficult situations,” Bihani recalled. “I tried to keep up with him. I told myself, ‘I have to get in shape. I should be able to catch him, to stop him from running into the pond or traffic.’”
Bihani continued. “I had been running for a while, but no sprinting. I joined a training club in West Bloomfield, setting up goals for myself. I started running 5K races, then 10Ks, then a half marathon, and then a full marathon.” He achieved his final goal when, he quipped, “I was able to catch Nishant!”
Then, with his son and other autistic children in mind, “I started thinking about therapy and the idea of running for them.” That was in 2006.
He chose the Free Press Marathon for his fund-raising attempt. “They are in Detroit, in my home town. I heard a lot of good things and we are now one of the official charities” of the Free Press Marathon.
After his solo effort, Bihani asked himself, “If I can do this much on my own, how about with others? I got a very good response.” Team Autism was born—from one in that first year to what Bihani and Patronik hope will be “close to 100” by race morning. “About 90” are currently on board.
Bihani noted, “Autism is an expensive disability.” Patronik indicated that Autism Connections provides a variety of services, often for families who “don’t know where to turn.” Included are many types of therapy, from physical to occupational, counseling support, diagnoses, and financial assistance. Both Bihani and Patronik said, “We offer scholarships.” In its first four years, Team Autism has raised $50,000 for Autism Connections’ programs and hopes to significantly add to that this year.
At last count, according to the captain, “about 15 [teammates] are running the full marathon, a lot the half, and most are 5K walkers and runners. We have nine relay teams,” he said. Patronik added that runners and walkers are “a combination of parents and families and others interested in autism.” And, there’s one youngster running, too.
Nate Mansfield is 10-years old and has autism. “This will be his first year with Team Autism,” he mother Stephanie explained. When asked if he was excited about his upcoming race, in front of all those people, “the largest one so far for him,” Nate proudly answered, “Yep!”
This isn’t a one-time event for him. “He’s become a runner,” Mom said, equally proud. He ran “a handful of 5Ks this summer.” Nate typically trains with his dad, Mike, running through their neighborhood. At the Free Press, Dad is doing the 5K with him.
“Nate has tried various team sports such as soccer and baseball,” Stephanie explained further. “But the social and physical interaction with the other players sometimes proved difficult, as is often the case for kids with autism.” He enjoys his running. “He can concentrate on himself and derive satisfaction from setting and achieving his personal goals.”
And, he’s proving himself to be a pretty good runner, too. At the Crim 5K, he posted a 28:42. Three weeks later, at the St. Mary’s Mercy 5K for Cancer, he bettered that mark by two and a half minutes (26:12)! His PR, so far, is “just under 26 minutes.”
This is Stephanie’s “third year as a runner” for Team Autism. “I’ve done the half marathon each year.” She’s also a member of the team’s “steering committee.”
“I was looking for a way to stay in shape and help raise awareness for autism,” she remembered of her start. Now she raises individual funds and has corporate sponsorship. “My firm, Brooks Kushman, is a corporate sponsor. In addition, there are twelve other firm employees participating in Team Autism in either the half marathon or the marathon relay events this year.”
Patronik made certain to express appreciation for Team Autism and all that it does. “We’re really thankful for Raj, Nina, and Stephanie. They put in a lot of time and energy.” And, they haven’t run their races yet!
Rajesh Bihani added somewhat nonchalantly about his role, “I mostly just recruit runners.” He then perked up. “But Nina! She’s the team manager.” He cited a litany of her team activities: attracting sponsors, contacting the media, getting the word out, coordinating programs, and more. “I really don’t know how she does it all.”
He closed with, “We’ve had a lot of people join us on their own. Some have [direct] connections with autism and some don’t. I hope we can keep on growing and others can join us, too.”
There’s still time to “join,” by running (online registration for the events is open until October 14) or making a donation.
To register for a race on October 17 go to www.freepmarathon.com. Click on “Official Charities” and select “Judson Center Autism Connections” as your official charity partner. To donate online, go to www.active.com/donate/judsoncenter. For general information see the Web site www.judsoncenter.org or e-mail [email protected].