Living with autism: How one mum inspired her son through running

The Gardiner family embrace parkrun volunteering.

Mum-of-two and and running enthusiast Kate Gardiner was looking for an activity that her whole family could enjoy together. Kate’s 10-year-old son Will has high functioning autism, so he attends mainstream school but still struggles with some social situations. This affected their ability to enjoy hobbies together as a family.

‘On the face of it, he looks “normal”’ explains Kate, ‘but he's awkward is social situations and this had led to him feeling alienated in activities he's taken part in before.’

Keen to pass on her love of running and encourage the family to embrace a healthier lifestyle, Kate decided to introduce her love of running to the entire family at Corby parkrun, with unexpected results.

‘We wanted all of the family to embrace a healthier lifestyle based around something other than technology,’ she says. ‘Though saying that, we never thought he'd take to it as well as he has!’

After volunteering and cheering on the runners at Corby parkrun, it wasn’t long before Will wanted to take part in the 5K.

‘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 parkrun, Will’s confidence grew. Now he regularly takes part either volunteering or running and Kate has seen a transformation in her son. ‘He's becoming a good sportsman and enjoys cheering others on as much as taking part,' she says. 'He was awarded young parkrunner 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 10-year-old'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 stats is also key here - plenty of runners stats for him to pore over once we are home. He's also learning conversation skills and has a sense of responsibility.’ 

Will has also learnt the vital role that volunteers play in making parkrun happen each week. ‘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,’ says Will. ‘It's a friendly community 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, ‘parkrun has given us time together each week, to share a joint interest. With Will’s previous special interests it's been 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 in to a sociable child who is able to share a conversation.’

To lend a hand at your local parkrun click here, or sign up to the Big Help Out for national volunteering opportunities near you.