Autistic runner Mikey Brannigan makes history at 2016 Paralympics

Mike Brannigan - Photo Francois Nel Getty Images

“I believe everyone on the planet has their thing and, especially in my experience, autistic people all have a tremendous gift. It’s a matter of finding that gift and nurturing it,” Edie Brannigan

By Debra Muzikar

October is Disability History Month. Last month a young autistic man made history at the Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro.

Mikey Brannigan, 19, became the first autistic person to win a gold medal in the 1500 meter run. He became the first athlete with a T-20 Paralympic classification to break the 4-minute mile. He won the race by four seconds.

On the Team USA website Mikey’s mom, Edie Brannigan, speaks about her journey with her son. It hasn’t always been easy.

“It’s Mikey’s thing,” Edie says of running. “I believe everyone on the planet has their thing and, especially in my experience, autistic people all have a tremendous gift. It’s a matter of finding that gift and nurturing it.”

Mikey’s mom says running changed his life.

“Even the endorphin thing, what any typical person gets from running,” she said. “I think that Mikey gets like 100 fold. And it clearly helps him to focus and absorb information.”

Mikey who was diagnosed at age 18 months with autism did not speak for many years. Experts told Mikey’s parents they should start looking for group homes for Mikey when he turned 12 because of the long wait (many years) for housing placements.

In an NBC interview Kate Snow talks to Mikey and his family members.

Do you think autism makes you a better runner?” Kate Snow asks.

“It makes me a better person,” Mikey responds.

“Autistic people can be elite athletes,” Edie Brannigan says.

The Paralympics date back to the origins of the Olympics. The same year (1948) the Olympics started Ludwig Guttman, head of the Stoke-Mandeville Hospital’s Spinal Injury Unit in England started a competition with 16 patients and one sport – archery. From this humble beginning the “Paralympic” event grew. In 1960, 400 disabled athletes from 23 different countries gathered at the Olympic Stadium in Rome to compete. With 160 countries participating in 2016, the Paralympics are now the second biggest sporting event in the world.

The word “Paralympic” derives from the Greek preposition “para” (beside or alongside) and the word “Olympic.” When the games first started “Para” of Paralympic did mean paraplegic. The word has evolved over the years. Now the word “Paralympics” means the games are the parallel Games to the Olympics and illustrates how the two games exist side-by-side.

To compete in Para-sport, athletes must have one of 10 types of impairment that are either physical, visual or intellectual in nature. They are then evaluated and given a sport-specific class, which determines how they will compete and who they will compete against in their chosen sport. This year, four other competitors in the 1500-meter run (with a different classification than Mikey) beat the Olympic gold time. It’s a serious sporting competition for some of the finest athletes in the world.

Photo: Francois Nel Getty Images

The Art of Autism is seeking blogs for Disability History Month. Email theartofautism@gmail.com if you have a blog.

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