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Physical therapy: New research studies how running programs can help autistic children

2012 September NYC 5th Ave Mile Katie Dusty Paula iv.jpg

Dusty, his mother Katie, and Paula Sen finishing the 5th Avenue Mile in September 2012 in New York City.

Dusty Sweeney faces more obstacles than the average 16 year old. Diagnosed with autism at age 2, Dusty has limited verbal communication skills, and he will likely never be able to live on his own or hold a job.

But, Dusty has picked up one habit that his mother, Katie Sweeney, hopes will make his life a little better – and a little healthier.

“When he runs, he runs with a smile on his face,” Sweeney, who runs with Dusty every week in New York City’s Central Park, told FoxNews.com.

Dusty was first introduced to running by Achilles International, a group that aims to allow people with all types of disabilities to participate in mainstream athletic events. Now, Achilles has received a grant from the Cigna Foundation to initiate a study on how running can help children with autism, like Dusty.

“We have this running program, and we’ve been seeing amazing effects on kids with autism when they run – incredible physical changes, improvements in behavior and focus, improvements in so many indicators of autism that they suffer from,” Megan Wynne Lombardo, director of the Achilles Kids Running Program, told FoxNews.com. “We’d like to study this and point to the effect running has on these kids.”

Sweeney said she’s definitely seen a difference in Dusty’s behavior since he began running in 2012. As Dusty progressed through his early teens, the family struggled to help him cope with aggressive behaviors, such as hitting and self-injury. But in recent months, they’ve seen improvements in his behavior, which Katie attributes to both running and an anti-inflammatory diet.

“I think the routine of it, the mental benefits, have been amazing – better than any drug,” Sweeney said. “And I think the endorphins have done wonders.”

Paula Sen, Dusty’s Achilles running guide, said she’s also seen huge changes in Dusty’s behavior since he joined the program.  

“There are no more avoidance tactics, no more sitting down in the middle of the road, or shouting to leave, or needing to be rewarded with a snack after each mile. Dusty’s endurance has increased tremendously and his physique has transformed into that of a stronger, leaner, fitter teenage boy,” Sen told FoxNews.com via email. “We’ve increased our Saturday morning distances from 3 miles to 6 miles.”

When Achilles International launched in 1983, it primarily served adults with physical disabilities. But now, Lombardo said the running groups for children are primarily filled by people suffering cognitive disabilities.  

“In the last 10 to 15 years, that has really switched. The vast, vast majority of kids we work with now are on the [autism] spectrum, which really reflects the growth of autism nationally,” Lombardo said.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now estimates that approximately 1 in 68 children in the U.S. has been identified as having an autism spectrum disorder. In 2000, that number was estimated to be only about 1 in 150. And as the number of children with ASD continues to rise, parents and caregivers alike are becoming increasingly concerned about how these children will fare as adults.

“These kids are going to need to go somewhere; they’re going to need jobs; they’re going to need housing and lifelong support, and we want them to be engaged in [their] community,” Lombardo said. “And [running] is a way they can do that and be part of the world.”

Though the study from Achilles and the Cigna Foundation is still in its early stages, Karen Cierzan, a licensed professional counselor who has worked with children with autism, said she hopes that it will yield insights into how physical activity can be used to improve certain symptoms of ASD. The researchers plan to study how various autistic behaviors are altered by running.

“We look at eye contact during the activity and immediately following – did it last after stopping physical activity? And general focus and demeanor, what it is during and after?” Cierzan, vice president for Behavioral Operations at Cigna, told FoxNews.com. “And for those that are verbal…did that verbal communication level change after? And how long after did that stay with them? Those are what we will be looking for.”

Sweeney said she plans to continue participating in the Achilles running programs with Dusty – and hopes that one day, he’ll run a marathon. Even more, she expects that running will become a lifelong habit that will help anchor Dusty to his community, and help him live a good life.

“This is a person who will always need care, will never been independent, never live on his own,” Sweeney said. “My only goal for him is happiness.”