How one mum inspired her autistic son – by going running
WHEN Kate Gardiner took her children to their first Corby ‘parkrun’, she simply hoped it was the beginning of a healthier lifestyle for the family. But it became much more than that.
Her son Will – who is autistic – embraced parkrun more that she ever expected and is now a regular volunteer at the weekly run. The parkrun is supported by Join In, a London 2012 legacy organisation that puts more volunteers into community sport. It says volunteering at the event has helped Will – who is almost 11 – overcome some of the problems he’s faced and helped to bring the Gardiner family closer together.
Kate – who is a core part of the parkrun volunteer team – said: “We wanted all the family to embrace a healthier lifestyle based around something other than technology. Though saying that, we never thought Will would take to it as well as he has!”
Will has ‘high functioning autism’ and attends mainstream school. Kate explained: “On the face of it, he looks ‘normal’. But he’s awkward in social situations and this had led to him feeling alienated in activities he’s taken part in before.”
Will went along to Corby parkrun with his family a few times and enjoyed volunteering and cheering on the runners and it wasn’t long before he decided he wanted to take part in the 5km run.
Kate added: “He saw the runners and said ‘I can do that’. So the next week, he did. He didn’t run it all but he realised he loved it and the support he got from the parkrun community was amazing. Will was bitten by the running bug and from parkrun he then signed up to our local athletics club as well.”
With the support of the whole of the parkrun, Will slowly became comfortable being there and now regularly takes part either volunteering or running.
Kate has seen a transformation in her son that she wasn’t expecting: “He’s becoming a good sportsman and enjoys cheering others on as much as taking part. He was awarded young park runner of the year last year, in part for his volunteering duties.
“One issue with having autism is the inability to see others’ points of view easily. So even cheering someone on doesn’t come naturally to Will; it wouldn’t even cross his mind that it might be a nice thing to do. Volunteering at parkrun has given us the opportunity to help Will to develop these skills.
“I think it’s also taught him some resilience – standing in a cold park isn’t every child’s idea of fun, especially when there is no obvious reward for it. But Will has really embraced the volunteer role and loves to cheer people on. His love of statistics is also key here – plenty of runners’ stats for him to pour over once we are home. He’s also learning conversation skills and has a sense of responsibility.
Will has also grasped the vital role volunteers play in making parkrun happen each week, building the community. He said: “I didn’t want to help out at first, but now I know that without volunteers there would be no parkrun. And that would make me sad.”
Join In’s research shows that volunteering in sport helps people feel closer to their communities – and Will agrees: “It’s friendly and I love being part of it. I like to have a chat with the other runners and volunteers. I like to know that I’m cheering people on because that helps you when you’re running.”
Parkrun has brought the family together too, as Kate explains: “It has given us time together each week, to share a joint interest. With Will’s previous special interests, it was very hard to be so involved as he didn’t necessarily want me to be. But he’s let me in with this and we are able to share running tips and we look at the stats each week together.
“It’s great to see him develop into a sociable child who is able to share a conversation.”
The Corby parkrun takes place every Saturday at 9am at West Glebe Recreation Ground, Cottingham Road, (NN17 1SZ) and is free to enter. To find local volunteer opportunities, visit: joininuk.org or: parkrun.org.uk/corby
Above – HEALTHY LIFESTYLE: The Gardiner family – Adrian, Kate, Will and Ruby – agree the parkrun has brought them close together.