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Two Brothers with Autism Flourish after Taking Up Running

Alex Schneider

From left: Allan, Jamie, Alex and Robyn Schneider

Jamie Schneider/Photos Courtesy of Schneider Family

Mom, Robyn K. Schneider, has chronicled her family's relentless pursuit of happiness amidst daily adversity. Her identical twin sons, Alex and Jamie, were diagnosed as children with severe autism, but they eventually discovered their passion and talent for running despite enormous challenges. When they're laced up in their running shoes, they find freedom, bliss and fun.

Autism is at an all-time high and is the fastest growing developmental disability in the United States . Almost 1.5 million Americans live with an autism spectrum disorder. And there are more runners in the United States than ever before—approximately 51 million recreational runners. According to "Running USA," there has been a 47 percent increase in the number of marathon finishers in U.S. races in the last 12 years.

Alex and Jamie Schneider have emerged as celebrated runners throughout the country, and, with their parents' vigorous efforts, they've reached a place where running, rather than autism, defines them.

"Physical activity can lead to short term improvement in attention span and activity level and a reduction in stereotypies," says Dr. Max Wiznitzer, autism expert at Rainbow Babies & Children's Hospital in Cleveland, Ohio. "An improvment in confidence can occur because they are successful in the activity. Plus, the public display of doing an activity that is done by others can help others see these children in a better light."

Alex and Jamie started running at a young age.

"They were very fast," Robyn says. "We would take them to the beach and run with them. They loved the freedom, and it was a great outlet to release their energy."

The proud mom says that when her twins were around 14 years old, their gym teacher told her the boys were "running circles around everyone." The executive director of the school suggested to Robyn that she research a running club for her children.

"I was connected to a running club called 'Rolling Thunder' for special needs kids. They pair professional runners with children who have disibilities. The athletes run with the children, train them and help them to enjoy the sport," Robyn says.

Alex and Jamie were set up with two coaches. Robyn admits when she and her husband first brought the boys to a park in Long Island to run that she was very apprehensive and nervous to let her children go at first—without her supervision. She wondered, like any mom of special needs kids, "Is this a good idea? We don't even know these people. They're running, we don't want them to get lost." All valid points: After all, the boys had never been away from mom and dad.

"Some children with autism are prone to elopement or wandering, so letting them run on their own is not appropriate. However, this activity can be done with limited supervision in a secure place, such as a track or indoor structure where the parent or coach can watch but does not have to be physically proximate," says Dr. Wiznitzer. "The children need to have some interest in the activity, the length matched to their physical stamina. A good coach might be a member of a local track team, a college student majoring in special education, or an individual who already teaches physical education to children with disabilities."

Robyn expressed her anxiety to the coaches and she ended up feeling very comfortable letting her boys work with them. Robyn watched her boys run off—just one loop around Eisenhower Park in Long Island. Within 15 minutes, Robyn saw her son, Alex, in the distance.

"He was flying! The coaches were out of breath and told us our sons are gifted," says Robyn. "They called them 'natural runners' and that this was going to be 'the most wonderful sport from them.'"

Alex is a competitive runner, whereas Jamie enjoys the sport for the social aspect. They've had the opportunity to run in mainstream races, like the Boston Marathon. Alex, the faster of the two, has become a "zen runner," and Robyn says his stress is down and he's smiling more.

"He has the runner's high—this euphoric look," she says.

Even better, running has resonated with the whole family.

"Exercise gives parent and child a different way to connect that is fun and not discipline or 'work.' This is an example of incorporating the child with autism into family activities and allows the rest of the family to see the children in a nonconfrontational or stressful way," says Dr. Wiznitzer.

"It's been a wonderful outlet for their energy. Running has sharpened their focus and reduced their anxiety," Robyn says.

Read more about Robyn's remarkable boys in her book, "Silent Running: Our Family's Journey To The Finish Line With Autism."