Autistic runner finds friends, interaction on team
The crowd began to roar as Joshua Otani emerged around the final turn.
The Pacifica High sophomore might have been the last runner to cross at the Pacific View League Championships, but the result was inconsequential.
Finishing the race was all that mattered.
Otani, 15, has autism, and joining the Pacifica cross country team this season was his first time participating in sports.
Keeping Josh running was a schoolwide effort from the administrators down to the students.
"Cross country was such a confidence-builder for Josh," said Otani's mother, Susan. "When he is around regular kids he just stands taller and smiles more. It makes him happy to be able to have that interaction."
Autism is a brain development disorder that is characterized by impaired social interaction and communication, and restricted and repetitive behavior. The cause is not known.
In 2007, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported one in 150 children has autism, and boys outnumber girls four to one.
Otani was diagnosed with autism at age 3 after his parents thought he had a hearing problem.
He is high functioning with no behavioral problems, but his verbal skills are very limited.
"He can understand when you speak to him, but his brain just won't allow the connection for speech," his mother said. "We always say it is just like a misfire. You know he understands you, he just literally can't answer sometimes."
More and more autistic children are being encouraged to take part in physical education programs because of the health benefits and social outlet the programs provide.
During an adaptive PE class at Pacifica last year, Otani's special education teacher, Brian Murphy, noticed Otani's aptitude for running.
Murphy approached Pacifica cross country coach Jason Daw and asked if Otani could join the team this season.
"I am always open to anyone with a disability running if I think I can help them," Daw said. "Even if it's a little extra responsibility, I think it's important for the kids on the team to see that anyone can participate in this sport."
Otani's parents have always experimented with change in their son's life, and cross country provided another opportunity.
"He has got to live in this world, and he has got to be able to function. It's not like we can keep him locked up in his room," his mother said. "He has to interact and deal and be a part of society. It would be a disservice if we don't try to give him all the tools he needs to be productive."
After his first practice with the team, his mother asked, "Do you want to go to back tomorrow?"
"Yeah," Josh responded.
"He is a very passive kid even without autism, so when he lets us know there is something he really wants to do, you drop everything," his mother said. "You want to get it for him because he doesn't often initiate language without a prompt."
A typical teenager
Otani is undergoing speech therapy to try to draw more language out of him, but often his actions speak as loudly as words.
While at Frank Intermediate School, Otani thought he should be in regular classes instead of special education. So one day he grabbed his backpack and walked out of the classroom. He found another classroom, took a seat and remained there the rest of the year.
He let his parents know he had become a teenager by taking all the baby items out of his room and placing them in the hall.
In many ways, Otani is just a typical teenager. He enjoys browsing the Internet, watching YouTube videos and playing Wii with his younger sister, Mikayla.
"Mikayla was the biggest catalyst in getting Joshua a lot more social and verbal," his mother said. "When they were really young, she decided he was going to be her playmate and she was unrelenting. She said, ‘Joshua you are going to play with me and talk to me.' They are buddies to this day."
The stretch run
Otani completed three cross country races this season and made great strides along the way.
During his first race at the Seaside Invitational, Otani stopped midway through and sat down on a log.
Daw, his coach, realized Otani needed to have someone running with him to keep him moving in the right direction.
"One of the kids gives up their race to run with Josh," Daw said. "The kids are cool with it, and they knew today is my day to help Josh out. It works, and the kids have a good feeling helping him."
Although she attended junior high with Otani, Andrea Oseguera never interacted with him until he joined Pacifica's cross country team.
"I think it is really cool because it is important to integrate special needs students into our program," she said.
"He has been improving with his running, and it's easier for him now. He tells me he likes it."
Hearing comments like that is the reason Murphy, Otani's teacher, encouraged him to join the team.
"It is a win-win for everybody. The students are aware of him as a person and treat him with respect and dignity, and Josh has made big progress," Murphy said. "His speech has improved, and he has really progressed socially."
Murphy ran a large portion of Otani's final race by his side for moral support.
"It was really emotional. I actually had to get away because I was crying at the end," Murphy said. "They are your kids and you are so much involved in them and to see something like that is the highlight of being a teacher."
Otani had a large contingent of fans cheering for him along the College Park course in Oxnard.
His father, Genji, asked for the day off from work at the post office to watch his son race for the first time.
He beamed as Josh crossed the finish line.
"All I want is for him to be happy, and if he enjoys being out there and running that is where I want him to be," his father said. "That is what matters to me the most."
Now that cross country season is over, Otani is considering joining the track team in the spring.
When an observer asked if he had fun running this season, Otani smiled and nodded.
That said it all.