By Clare S. Richie

This time of year, it’s fairly common to see parents bringing their uniform-clad children to a Saturday soccer game. But traditional team sports can be especially challenging for kids, like Henry, with Asperger’s Syndrome. Though on the milder end of the autistic spectrum, Asperger’s Syndrome affects a child’s ability to socialize and communicate effectively.

Henry was disruptive to his soccer and basketball teammates because of his difficulty with social interactions, coordination, and sensory input but Aleta and Adam still wanted their son to have a positive team experience. Then the lightbulb went off.

“Last October, Running MATES came to me as I ran the 13.1 Atlanta race alone,” Aleta remembered. “ I missed my running group and wished Henry, and children just like him, had a such a group.”

So Aleta and Adam founded a nonprofit for kids ages 5-12, who seek a positive sports experience but may have disorders, such as high functioning autism, ADHD and sensory integration dysfunction.

To promote fitness and being a part of team, Running MATES strives to:

  • Train a group of children to run a 5K race;
  • Teach the children appropriate social behavior in a running group and road race;
  • Foster a sense of team membership among the children; and
  • Increase the likelihood that the children will develop lifelong fitness habits.

So far, seven children have registered for the first 10-week session. Each Thursday afternoon they meet on the Emory University Clairmont Campus for a lesson followed by a run of increasing distance. Volunteers help pace the children, remind them about running form, and model typical social behavior. “We are thrilled that Emory Women’s Cross Country Team is volunteering with us,” said Aleta.

After each week of training the children the young runners proudly add a new colored foot to their training chain. This program truly provides a safe space for these children to push themselves, have fun and be part of team.

Running MATES will finish the fall session by running the inaugural Autism Speaks Georgia 5K on Saturday, Nov. 3. Come cheer them on – even if it means being a little late to that weekend soccer game.

For more, visit runningmates.org.

Collin Kelley

Collin Kelley has been the editor of Atlanta Intown for two decades and has been a journalist and freelance writer for 35 years. He’s also an award-winning poet and novelist.