Autism on the Run
Occasionally, Diana Sneddon has to take a step back to appreciate the strides forward by her son, Jay.
Such was the case last weekend after Jay Sneddon had won the five-kilometre race at the Cookie Run, in a field of nearly 700. Jay’s best pal, Tommy Des Brisay, won the 10-km race. Both young men are on the autism spectrum, Sneddon with a milder form while Des Brisay’s challenges are more severe. They both run like the wind. And they run with the Lions — the Ottawa Lions Track and Field Club.
“All these people went up to them after the race,” says Diana Sneddon. “The way they were embraced by their peers and other runners . . . I thought, ‘How incredible that these two autistic men are running and they’re both winning their races.’ Amazing.”
Jay, 25, was diagnosed with autism at age 2. His parents, Diana and Chris, didn’t know what to expect. In the mid-’90s not as much was known about autism. The Rain Man movie, with Dustin Hoffman, was their early reference point.
About two years into their experience, the Sneddons told doctors after an assessment that all they wanted was for their son to grow up to be happy, productive and independent.
“He’s accomplished all of that,” Diana says.
A graduate of Nepean High School, Jay now works in maintenance at a high-profile office on Sparks Street. He lives on his own, with a bit of home support, and has for two years.
Would it all have been possible if Jay hadn’t learned to put one foot ahead of the other — faster than most?
“Running has changed my life,” Jay says. “I’ve met a lot of friends, from back home (Vancouver), the running community out there, some Olympians from Vancouver and with the Ottawa Lions.”
Though Diana Sneddon grew up in Ottawa, she met Chris in Vancouver while at university in B.C. and the couple raised their two sons in Tsawwassen, B.C., until Jay was 15. Encouraged by her twin sister, Elaine Taggart, to come back to Ottawa to work in real estate together, Diana and Chris packed up their boys.
For Jay, the thought of moving was traumatic, especially now that his competitive juices were flowing. Just a couple of years earlier, at 13, he’d discovered a passion even more exhilarating than the great B.C. Ferries that docked in Tsawwassen and had always captivated Jay.
His aunt had signed up the family for a Vancouver Sun fun run, and Jay never looked back, even if his first 10-km time was over an hour. He joined the school track team, participating in 400-metre and 800-metre events. Running had opened up his world to include more friends.
Now he’d be starting over in Ottawa. To his great fortune, he met Tommy Des Brisay in 2009, about a year after the move. Tommy made it OK to be autistic and athletic.
“Jay had a hard time accepting his autism until being with Tommy,” Diana says. “Then he realized it’s OK. He doesn’t have a problem talking about it now.”
Jay says he was worried about getting “bullied or teased, getting called a nerd or socially awkward. I really didn’t want to talk about it.”
Today, he’s an open book on just about any subject. He especially likes talking about Tommy, who will often sing Disney songs or call out Homer Simpson lines while they run.
Ray Elrick of the Ottawa Lions coaches both men, admitting there are challenges to working with autistic athletes, but rewards, as well. The rest of the track group has been extremely encouraging to Des Brisay and Sneddon, and Elrick says a calm and patient approach works best.
Elrick calls Jay and Tommy “talented athletes who compete at a high level both on the road and during the indoor and outdoor track seasons.”
Jay admits he has some work to do to catch Des Brisay.
“About a year ago, he started to take off from me, and he’s gotten faster and faster.”
The more celebrated runner of the two, Des Brisay has been featured in running magazines and the Washington Post.
“He’s inspired a lot of people,” Jay says of Des Brisay. “He’s inspired me.”
This summer, Des Brisay competed in the World Para Athletic Championships. Sneddon would love to do likewise, but isn’t sure if his intellectual disability is severe enough to qualify him. In the meantime, he will try to improve on his personal-best 10-km time of 33:18, which he set during the 10th anniversary of his Vancouver Sun Run.
Next up is the cross-country nationals event Nov. 25 at Old Fort Henry in Kingston. An inspired Jay Sneddon, who once had a blog titled “Autistic man on the run,” hopes others with challenges can find their motivation.
“Just do anything,” Jay says. “Find a sport, any activity. Work hard at it and you will be a very successful person and very happy overall – like I am right now.”