Monday, November 17, 2008

Autistic Teenager Runs, and Makes Strides

Autistic Teenager Runs, and Makes Strides

Published: November 14, 2008

West Hempstead

Kirk Condyles for The New York Times

Jonathan Brunot, wearing his New York City Marathon medal, with his running coach, Vincent Del-Cid.

IT took Jonathan Brunot, undeniably handsome at 19 yet so profoundly autistic that the most rudimentary attempts at communication can provoke a wild-eyed struggle, six years to learn how to tie the laces of his sneakers. It took him a lifetime to master 10 words: not just to say them, but also to grasp their meaning as he blurts them out.

Bathroom, a hygienic necessity, and rice, a favorite food, are two of his verbal accomplishments. He recognizes and repeats his own name — sometimes. He has to be in the right mood. And he usually needs prompting from a teacher (he attends the Genesis School in Plainview, where all 25 students are autistic) or a family member.

“Communication is his enemy,” is the way Vincent Del-Cid of Bayside, Jonathan’s running coach and, during long-distance training jaunts, his fleet-of-foot singing partner (“Old MacDonald” is their theme song), summarizes his protégé’s social skills. Virtually nonexistent. But it turns out his athletic ability is off the charts.

The New York City Marathon? Jonathan aced it Nov. 2 on his first attempt in 4 hours 49 minutes 20 seconds, including timeouts for a slight tantrum at Mile 22 (he refused to drink his PowerGel beverage), a slight leg cramp at Mile 23 (payback for not hydrating) and a slight fumble near the finish line (he paused to wave and scream and applaud himself when he caught sight of his tearful mother, Olga, in the bleachers).

Jonathan doesn’t know he didn’t quite nail Mr. Del-Cid’s goal of 4:30. He also doesn’t know Mr. Del-Cid’s goal for 2009 is for Jonathan to run the marathon in under four hours. Time and goals are irrelevant concepts to him. But he will surely recognize the race: It’s word No. 14 in his lexicon. “Vincent,” and “to run” are words Nos. 11 to 13.

Jonathan dressed himself in running gear and bolted down two bagels before the race, and he heard, parroted and retained a complicated new word: marathon. Or, as he gleefully mispronounced it the other day, “Malathon, malathon,” while squirming self-consciously next to his coach on a sofa in the home he shares with his oft-exhausted parents. They double as his 24/7 caretakers. Though he is much less exhausting since running liberated him and, in a sense, them.

“I want to be blunt and honest here,” said Mr. Del-Cid, an accountant who left his job as a financial analyst for Merrill Lynch because it had gotten “too depressing.” Too many clients crying, he explained, over lost investments. “Jonathan has two older brothers who are extremely successful, but what could his mother be proud of after all the hard work she put into him? I told her, ‘If you allow me to, I’ll help him run the marathon.’ ”

Olga Brunot, a nurse, told him he was crazy; then she reconsidered. “I said, ‘If you can do it, I will kiss your feet.’ ” Consider them kissed, hypothetically. “Vincent is an angel.”

Until he began training with Mr. Del-Cid, Jonathan was a hyperactive, overweight teenager trapped in the psyche of an antisocial toddler. He still plays with toys and dances alone to the “Mary Poppins” soundtrack. But he is a rail-thin running machine.

According to, the odds of a child becoming a professional athlete are 1 in 16,000, the odds of a child being given a diagnosis of autism 1 in 150. The odds of a severely autistic runner (Jonathan is at the most debilitating end of the spectrum) completing a marathon have not been tabulated, if Mr. Del-Cid’s research is accurate. Just figure it’s a rarity.

“As a runner, he’s a normal person,” said Mr. Del-Cid, 52, a member of the Queens-based Alley Pond Striders, a veteran of 20 marathons and, most important to Jonathan’s family, a volunteer coach for the Rolling Thunder Special Needs Program.

Before Jonathan was paired with Mr. Del-Cid 18 months ago, he often refused to run at all. His mother attests to that. “He became my biggest enemy when I tried to get him to run,” she said of her attempts to use the Rolling Thunder program. Not anymore.

At Mile 25, when he was yanking his shirt above his washboard abs for ventilation, a quartet of female spectators noticed the name pinned to his singlet by his coach, and hollered, “Ooh la la, Jonathan!” Inspiration? They couldn’t know he was autistic and, presumably, immune to Francophile flattery. Although, come to think of it, his parents, Haitian natives, speak with heavy French accents even if he does not.

After 26.2 miles, he celebrated with two more bagels and an autographed photo from Deena Kastor, the 2004 Olympic marathon bronze medal winner whose inscription encourages him to believe in his “wildest dreams.”

Not that running a marathon was his dream. But now it is his reality: he has a medal that proves it, even if he broke the ribbon on which it is strung. The medal meshed nicely with his Superheros T-shirt when it was time to take a photo, though getting him to smile and say “cheese” was problematic. He lost interest and wandered off.

Did Jonathan believe himself capable of running the marathon? “Of course not,” said his father, Dr. Verlaine Brunot, now so convinced of the marathon’s positive impact on Jonathan that he is training him for the bicycle phase of an Oyster Bay triathlon.

The biggest concern about Jonathan for Dr. Brunot, a pediatrician, was a marathon injury. Had Jonathan gotten hurt, he said, “my wife and I would have felt guilty for letting him run, knowing he can’t tell us if something hurts like his brothers could.”

Not that either of them ever ran a marathon. The older Brunot siblings, Verlaine and Oliver, went to Juilliard on violin scholarships before attending Duke University. Prelaw and premed. The Brunots’ joys of raising their third son got sidetracked when, at age 2 ½, he stopped calling them Mommy and Daddy and, worse, withdrew his affection.

“We had no clue that something like this was down the line for him,” Dr. Brunot said. Clinical detachment went out the window. “You are a doctor yourself and then it hits your house and you think, ‘Why me?’ At first you are in shock. Then you recalibrate yourself to being an autistic parent, a lifetime situation. But seeing him run that race, reach that level of achievement, I cannot even describe it.”

Neither can Jonathan.

After posing with his medal, he bade his visitor goodbye with a handshake, gave his mother a peck behind the ear and bounded upstairs for more “Mary Poppins.” The handshake was prompted. The kiss? His own idea.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Wow this is amazing. I wish I can find someone like that for my brother. He's 13, and autistic. He's non-verbal and also is incredibly hyperactive. Stories like this give me hope to still keep pushing and fighting for him. He got absolutely no treatment or services or any kind of help because he was diagnosed at a relatively late age, and so he never made it past the waitlist. I really hope I find someone to help him make the best out of what he loves, which is music. Coincidentially, he also loves to run around, even if it may be a direct result of his hyperactivty. Unfortunately, he doesn't get to play out half as much as kids his age but I'm really trying to find ways to get him involved in what he loves.
Thanks for the article!