Run­ning to­gether

Al­ta­monte Springs mom and autis­tic daugh­ter plan to com­plete marathon

Orlando Sentinel - - SPORTS WEEKEND - By Stephen Ruiz [email protected]­lan­dosen­tinel.com or 407-420-5008

A smile creases Sa­man­tha Ro­driguez’s face, and her eyes twin­kle glee­fully as she re­cites a statis­tic that she knows all too well.

“I have 14 medals in 18 months,” Sa­man­tha said.

Run­ning does dif­fer­ent things to dif­fer­ent peo­ple. For Sa­man­tha, a 15-year-old from Al­ta­monte Springs with autism, it was a gift that her mother never thought she would have.

Like she has for all of the other races, Ka­rina Ro­driguez will run with Sa­man­tha dur­ing the en­thu­si­as­tic child’s first 13.1-mile race, the Dis­ney World Half Marathon early Sat­ur­day.

“She used to trip and fall, and she had so many ther­a­pists, but when she started run­ning, it has been the best ther­apy for her,” Ka­rina said. “She feels so good about her­self.”

The Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion es­ti­mates that one in roughly 59 chil­dren will be di­ag­nosed with autism, a de­vel­op­men­tal dis­or­der that af­fects — among other things — com­mu­ni­ca­tion and the abil­ity to de­velop re­la­tion­ships.

Ka­rina did not know what autism was when she was told about Sa­man­tha’s con­di­tion. Sa­man­tha was 2 years old, and doc­tors left her mother feel­ing like a glass half empty.

They said Sa­man­tha, who is dyslexic, never was go­ing to read, to learn or be­come in­de­pen­dent.

“It hasn’t been an easy jour­ney,” said Ka­rina, a sin­gle mother rais­ing two daugh­ters (Sophia is 5). “We have had strug­gles in be­tween be­cause it is not easy to raise a child with autism.

“I have tried to find things that she likes to do. … Run­ning be­came part of her.”

Sa­man­tha be­gan run­ning with Ka­rina less than two years ago, but it is not the only ac­tiv­ity she en­joys.

Don’t try to grab her at­ten­tion when “Fuller House,’’ an up­dated ver­sion of the old ABC chil­dren’s com­edy “Full House,” is on Net­flix. Sa­man­tha swims. She vol­un­teers at a se­nior home (“I help the old peo­ple”) and wants to do the same at church.

She par­tic­i­pates in a teen so­cial group at the Autism So­ci­ety of Greater Or­lando.

Stacy Carmichael, a child psy­chol­o­gist whose 18-year-old son, Jaden, is autis­tic, led that group. She cred­its Ka­rina for much of Sa­man­tha’s de­vel­op­ment.

“A lot of times, es­pe­cially when the kids are younger, I would get a lot of neg­a­tive feed­back,” Carmichael said. “‘Make your child be­have,’ or, ‘What’s wrong?’ and not a lot of help and sup­port. It would be nice if peo­ple were not so judg­men­tal.”

Sa­man­tha re­ceives good grades at the Ar­bor School of Cen­tral Florida in Win­ter Springs, where her fa­vorite sub­jects are math and English. Be­hav­ioral ther­a­pist Maria Bru­jan has worked with Sa­man­tha for about 1½ years.

“She has im­proved so much,” Bru­jan said. “Her be­hav­ior at home, like ag­gres­sion, has de­creased. Ev­ery­thing. It’s like we’re at a point now that it is more man­age­able.”

Run­ning has served as a won­der­ful aid.

Autis­tic peo­ple typ­i­cally do not adapt well in crowded set­tings full of com­mo­tion. You know, like races.

Sa­man­tha em­braces that en­vi­ron­ment.

“It makes me feel happy to run with other peo­ple,” said Sa­man­tha, smil­ing again.

On Sat­ur­day, she will run in her big­gest race yet — both in terms of mileage (her pre­vi­ous high is 10 miles) and the num­ber of run­ners (about 22,000 have reg­is­tered). Sa­man­tha is ex­cited. So is her mom. “She has ac­tu­ally made me a bet­ter per­son, a bet­ter mom,” Ka­rina said. “There are some days that could be hard days. Just see­ing her, noth­ing is im­pos­si­ble. It makes me proud.”

STEPHEN RUIZ/OR­LANDO SEN­TINEL

Ka­rina Ro­driguez and her 15-year-old autis­tic daugh­ter, Sa­man­tha, are run­ning the Dis­ney World Half Marathon on Sat­ur­day to­gether.

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