Running for autism awareness

Local father prepares for NYC marathon

By DAWN BOOTHConnect Weekly

Running Autism

Jeff Bowers with his autistic son, Ben, after completing the Fort McMurray Half Marathon last year. Bowers will be running in the 2016 New York City Marathon to raise funding and awareness for the Fort McMurray Autism Support Group. Supplied photo

Ever since local resident Jeff Bowers discovered his son was autistic, he started running. And after taking part in the Fort McMurray Half Marathon last year, Bowers set a personal goal to run in the world’s largest long-distance race.

On March 8, Bowers was notified that his goal would soon become a reality. The Fort McMurray father is set to take part in the New York City (NYC) Marathon on November 6, 2016. He’s doing it to raise autism awareness.

“I would like to give awareness to those in the community that may be facing a diagnosis that they didn’t see coming,” he explained on the cause. “The parents of the young kids that had a certain vision of how parenthood would go, only to have this bomb dropped on them in the form of an autism diagnosis. I’ve been that parent and know it’s not a fun place to be, but I also now know that there is a large group of others in our community who are facing the same struggle.”

Bowers and his wife Yeunsuk moved to Fort McMurray in 2008. Since residing, the couple welcomed their son, Ben, 3 and daughter, Jessie, 2.

When Ben was 21 months old, he was diagnosed with non-verbal autism and is currently affected by a number of symptoms, typical to autism, which includes absence of speech and sensory issues.

“There are many struggles we face daily that stem from Ben’s diagnosis. Ben is nearing four years old and hasn’t said his first word,” Bowers shared.

“Cognitively, he functions at the same level as a typical four year old, so the absence of communication leads to immense frustration on his part when he can’t convey his wants and needs. This regularly leads to meltdowns and tantrums if we can’t figure out what it is he desires… some nights he won’t sleep at all, he’ll just stand on his bed and flap his hands for hours on end. We know this ultimately helps him sooth himself, but at the same time, the level of stress that it brings to my wife and I is huge.”

Both Bowers and Yeunsuk have been able to cope through the Fort McMurray Autism Support Group, which he will be raising funding for, from now and leading up to the November 6th race.

“After finding the Group, my wife and I were able to network with others that were facing the same struggles as us, and it’s helped us cope with a lot of those struggles,” he said. “I want to bring an increased awareness to the Group, so others can experience those benefits. There’s a popular saying in the autism community that goes: ‘if you’ve met one kid with autism, you’ve met one kid with autism.’ Basically, everyone on the spectrum functions differently.”

Bowers said he started running as an additional way to cope, but most importantly to get in shape and stay healthy for the long-term. He said the NYC marathon will be a challenge, but a worthy one.

The NYC Marathon has tens of thousands in attendance annually. Participants have few options to take part – one is to race in a competitive first-come, first-served time qualifier, which Bowers said he “never had a hope of doing at this stage” in his running career.

Another option is to register into a lottery, where ballots are drawn. Bowers chose this option with only an 18 per cent chance of making it in.

“I’m honestly not sure what excited me more, the idea of running in the NYC Marathon, or being able to bring awareness to this cause,” he said. “They receive hundreds of thousands of applications each year, with only a limited number of spots available.”

Bowers turns 36 on World Autism Awareness Day (April 2). He said it’s a “little bit of a coincidence, but definitely gives a new meaning to the day” for him.

With April celebrated as Autism Awareness Month, the Fort McMurray Autism Support Group will be inviting the public to MacDonald Island Park to “Light It Up Blue” with a free swim day on April 2.

The Group, and the families affiliated, will be raising awareness and hope to gain acceptance from the community. To learn more, go to www.autismfortmcmurray.org.

To make a donation and support Jeff Bowers in the New York City Marathon, a webpage will be posted at www.autismalberta.ca.

-Connect Weekly-