By Lila Troum
April was Autism Awareness (also deemed Autism Acceptance) month, and worldwide we wear blue and spread awareness to show support for the neurodivergent community. Autism Awareness 5ks take place from California to New York and we were even honored to host our own 5k right here at the high school track, to raise money for autism research. Led by Team Michael’s Michael Cleary, a sophomore, and junior Veronica Fillipone, on April 11, we were able to host our 5K, persevering through the rainy weather and inspiring a large turnout of runners and supporters.
Team Michael has been running an annual race since 2014, this being its second year of the 5K. Together, Team Michael has raised over $45,000, but it’s never really been about the money for Michael Cleary or his family. “The running’s really good for him,” Michael’s dad, David Cleary, says. “He was happy that there were a bunch of kids running with him.” For Michael, running has been his outlet. “Autism is not going to get cured, it’s understanding and adapting. Running has been a great adaptation for Michael,” David says. Michael’s mom adds, “It’s a great lifestyle thing, not just sitting around playing video games all the time.”
Throughout the years, autism has become more common. As of 2020, 1 in 54 children is diagnosed with autism, being four times more common amongst boys than girls. Research has found that autism is genetic and is not influenced by any outside factors like vaccinations, which is unfortunately a common assumption. An issue that a lot of children with autism face is the inability to receive help from schools. “When schools have to put [kids] in special ed, they have to receive more funding. Agencies and schools don’t want to share many available resources,” Michael’s mom, Patricia Tuggle, adds. Autism does not get a one-size-fits-all treatment, either. Autism is a spectrum, there are no two exactly the same people with autism. “If you know one person with autism, then you know one person with autism. Everybody with autism is just a little different and it is important to learn the unique differences of your friends and peers with autism,” David explains.
For kids with autism, COVID has not been a help. “I like being at school with the other kids,” Michael says. “That’s been the hardest thing,” Michael’s dad says, “he’s been going in five days since October, but [the lack of socialization] with the regular ed peers, has been challenging. Communication is the best development. When he’s done running he still engages with people up at the track, and that helps out.” Quarantine, however, has brought out some good for Michael as that’s what ignited the spark that keeps him running! “He’s benefitted from that, he’s started running during COVID, he wasn’t running before. So, that kind of is a success story.” Michael has completed multiple 5Ks over the duration of quarantine, getting lots of help from fellow classmate Veronica Filippone. Michael runs six days a week, taking Saturday off to rest and recuperate. On his off days, Michael spends his time biking, swimming, and helping volunteer.
Veronica Filippone has been helping Michael out since they first met at a special needs cheer. Since December, they’ve been running together and she’s been a huge help and influence in Michael’s training. Enduring through the cold months together, she was a big help for Michael. She also helped by getting the word out about the 5K. Student Council President Sydney Pyon was also instrumental in getting the word out about the April 11th 5K run.
Team Michael has a plethora of success stories, too. Having Delaware County District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer as a proud supporter of Team Michael is beneficial in many ways. “It’s important because in today’s world the law enforcement interaction and how you resolve situations is challenging with a person who has communication challenges, who could have aggressive behavior because of stuff like medication. Opening the door for us to work with the law enforcement community and provide some education on autism and help their understanding. Making that strong connection with the district attorney enables a dialogue, working through that. It makes kids like Michael safer.” Team Michaae hosts other success stories, as well. “A guy I worked with overheard about Team Michael, committed to running a marathon and he lost over 100 pounds training for it,” David shares, “Another guy that’s run 6 times with Team Michael is a brain tumor survivor. He had to learn to walk and talk again before he went on to run 6 marathons with Team Michael.”
Being hypervigilant around kids with autism is important, too. Making sure they’re safe and you know where they are is important, as a friend and as a parent or caretaker. Important, simple tricks can be the difference in a child’s safety, so simple steps like doing an area scan, keeping tabs on who is watching your child, and putting your contact information with your child can make all the difference. If you wanted more tips on how to remain vigilant and keep an autistic child safe, David Clearly wrote a fantastic article here! The Clearys keeping their alarm systems on and giving Michael a bright, orange hat are two ways that they keep him safe, simply and effectively.
This year, Team Michael also used their race to celebrate Michael’s late grandfather. “The other thing that lined up with the 5K run, it would’ve been his grandfather’s 97th birthday. He was an Army MASH doctor during the Korean war and he ran 49 marathon during his lifetime. He would be proud of Michael and his running.”
In the future, Team Michael has plans to run more 5Ks. “Hopefully we’ll get the word out and COVID will be a little more relaxed next year. For [Michael] virtual works better, [it] works out really great,” David explains. “It doesn’t cost anything to sign up, and if people want to they can join Team Michael.”