News - 28th September 2018

Autism and learning disabilities: the power of information

Rory and Jenny

parkrun has been working hard over the past two years to reach out to people with disabilities and long term health conditions through a network of volunteer parkrun Outreach Ambassadors.


Jenny Mayne, one of parkrun’s Outreach Ambassadors for autism and / or learning disabilities, tells us her own story, explaining what has inspired her to champion the interests of people with autism and / or learning disabilities at parkrun, and explains why we’ve produced a set of accessible language flyers to break down barriers for new parkrunners with autism and / or learning disabilities.


“My son Rory is 21. He doesn’t speak and understands very little because of his severe learning disability; he is also autistic and requires adult supervision at all times. It’s no exaggeration to say that parkrun has changed Rory’s life. It has opened up a whole new world for him, led to opportunities I could never have imagined, and I feel so happy that he is totally accepted and is so at ease within the parkrun community. That’s why I am now an Outreach Ambassador for parkrun – I want to encourage and support more people who are autistic and / or have a learning disability to take part in parkrun either as a runner, walker or volunteer.


In late 2012 Rory’s dad, a regular runner and volunteer at our local parkrun, had what I thought was a mad idea of trying to get Rory to do a parkrun. It was an awful shock to a young lad who had never been out of breath in his life and had no understanding at all of what this “thing” was all about and why he couldn’t stop when marshals clapped (doesn’t that mean it’s finished?).


To everyone’s amazement Rory responded well, and after quite a few chaotic experiences he was running the whole way without sitting down at any point, trying to cut the course short or causing havoc by dawdling and ignoring instructions in the finishing funnel. Rory became well known and I am grateful for the patience and tolerance of the volunteer team! Most importantly Rory was smiling and looking confident; he couldn’t tell us but he appeared to experience the same “high” that most of us feel after our weekly 5k.


A favourite memory is Christmas day 2012 when Rory’s sister joined in and we did parkrun for the first time as a whole family – not something families like ours take for granted.


However, our lives were turned upside down just six months later when Rory’s dad died a few weeks after a diagnosis of an inoperable brain tumour. Our wonderful parkrun community rallied round us and encouraged us to come back to parkrun. Thank goodness we did!


Rory’s progress was steady and consistent and the weekly dose of parkrun also helped me considerably in dealing with my grief. I soon realised that through regular parkrunning, Rory was more than competent to join me at road running sessions at a mainstream club. Any concerns I had about other members having reservations or Rory being accepted were quickly dispelled because of the parkrun link – he was a “familiar face” to many of the group.


So since that first run at age 15, Rory has taken off! As well as having completed over 150 parkruns he has now done numerous 10k races; a half marathon and three open water triathlons! At races he runs alongside a “buddy” – many are fellow parkrunners who love the idea that he can just run without knowing what distance he has to do and that he looks so delighted with himself at the end. I also love it that he is running with his peers rather than his middle age mum!


But parkrun is where Rory is most comfortable and confident – even though he doesn’t count, Rory now does our local three lap course on his own and somehow knows when to turn in towards the finish funnel. This is Rory’s most independent activity and I grin every time I think of it. I also feel proud that Rory is challenging a number of people’s perceptions of disability.


Looking back there were lots of factors that eased Rory’s entrance into parkrun.


But there are also lots of reasons that might stop people who are autistic and / or have a learning disability taking part and getting all the benefits from being part of this amazing community.


I volunteer alongside another Outreach Ambassador called Adam who is equally passionate about trying to make parkrun more accessible for people with a learning disability and / or autistic people. Although those terms refer to a very wide group of people who are of course all individuals with different concerns and challenges, there are lots of issues in common.


As a starting point we spoke to people already taking part, people who haven’t taken part, and Event Directors, which identified some key recurring themes and issues. One of those was the fear of the unknown through the lack of accessible language information letting people know what to expect at their first parkrun. To meet this need we have produced leaflets (for parkrun and junior parkrun) that aim to directly address those points and we hope they will be useful in encouraging people with autism and / or learning disabilities to come along to run, walk or volunteer.  To produce the flyers we’ve drawn on experts in ‘Easy Read’ communications which is geared directly towards the needs of people with autism and / or learning disabilities.


We have a Facebook page that is useful for people to share their stories and offer mutual support and encouragement . One of my favourite things is reading all the upbeat stories on there.


Finally we have made links with key organisations such as the National Autistic Society, MENCAP and Special Olympics. They have all been really positive about spreading the word about the benefits of parkrun for everyone!”


You can join parkrun’s Facebook page for parkrunners affected by autism and / or learning disabilities here and can find our accessible language flyers here.

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