For New Jersey student with autism, course load includes track

Will Potts, a sixth grader at Haddonfield Middle School, finishes his run during cross-country workouts near the Cooper River Trail.
Will Potts, a sixth grader at Haddonfield Middle School, finishes his run during cross-country workouts near the Cooper River Trail. (YONG KIM / Staff Photographer)
Posted: October 20, 2012

Sixth grader William Potts was ready to run at Haddonfield Middle School's last cross-country practice, as he has been almost every practice day since September.

The coed team's roster lists 82 participants, but only two to three dozen attend the optional five-day-a-week workouts, coach Maureen Baker said last week.

Will came to almost every one, she said - "maybe he missed one."

The 11-year-old stretched like the other runners, performed drills, and sported Bulldog red and white on the 11/2-mile racecourses. The difference was he also had a support person alongside at all times to keep him focused and a nurse on-site because of his autism and epilepsy, said his mother, Nancy Potts.

"It has been a fantastic season for all of us," Potts said. "It has been a learning experience, too. My challenge will be to find a runner who can support him as he gets faster - a good challenge to have."

Last March, Potts began planning for her son to join the team - a decision she made after seeing Will enjoy running on a track with his father, William, for about a year. Since Will had built up some endurance, his mother hoped he would like cross-country, too.

The nature of Will's disorder is that he gets used to routine, so Potts was unsure, after working out on a track, how her son would react to running through parks and woods. In addition, she initially was worried that the exercise might trigger an epileptic seizure.

"We didn't know what to think or what to expect," Potts said.

'Very positive'

A neurologist encouraged her to let Will participate, and both the district and school principal, Gino Priolo, assisted. Priolo knew the Potts family from his time as principal at the borough's Tatem Elementary School, which Will attended.

"Over the years, we developed a very positive and collaborative relationship," Priolo said.

Priolo enlisted the help of the district's director of special services, school nurse, and coaches to make sure Will would be safe while running and create the "least restrictive environment" for him.

"That's really wonderful about what we do in Haddonfield," Priolo said. "It's a really collaborative approach to help ensure that all our kids, whether they have special needs or not, are taken care of and have the best chance of success."

Students with special needs, including those with autism, have an "educational entitlement" to any available opportunities in their public schools, said Linda Meyer, executive director of Autism New Jersey, a nonprofit educational and support organization for families.

'Heartwarming'

Meyer said she has seen many children with autism join school athletic teams. Their needs vary depending on language, social, and safety skills, though districts always provide necessary support, such as a one-to-one aide, she said.

Haddonfield school nurse Michelle Barranger said that during Will's first practice, she feared his whiny noises and desire to go to the playground instead of run meant he wouldn't like cross-country. By the season's end, though, it was clear Will enjoyed the sport, she said. He rarely missed a run.

Will "is just overcoming so much," Barranger said.

At the beginning, his form resembled a "jumping motion," and he would start out too fast in a race, she said. The school physical therapist, Jane Burrill, offered guidance to improve his form, and his endurance increased over time, Barranger said.

Runners from other schools would coach Will at the start line, telling him to pace himself, a scenario Barranger called "heartwarming."

His teammates would wait at the finish line and cheer Will on as he finished - usually in last place, his mother said.

"He's dedicated, and he pretty much always comes in last, but he finishes with a smile on his face," Barranger said.

Through the season, athletic technique wasn't the only improvement Potts saw in her son, who she said communicates verbally well, though he doesn't carry on typical conversations.

"The most amazing thing about all of this is that I feel since he has started running he has been communicating more," she said, attributing the progress to the physical benefits of exercise, including the release of pent-up energy.

Meyer said children with autism often like routine, which cross-country offers, as teams run the same few practice and racecourses during a season. Organized sports also provide opportunities for social interaction, including riding the bus with teammates - something Will told Barranger he enjoyed.

Coach Baker said Will remembered the practice routines well and took cues from his teammates on what to do.

"He makes it enjoyable and rewarding for us," she said.

With the season ending, Potts said, she planned to try to keep her son engaged in running by having him do a winter running club before joining the spring track team.

"We're just so proud of him and looking forward to seeing how he does," she said.


Contact Erin Quinn

at 856-779-3882 or equinn@phillynews.com.

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