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Mike Brannigan opening door for autistic runners - 2014 DyeStat

Published by
DyeStat   Feb 12th 2014, 8:30pm

Brannigan's success may pave way for others


By Doug Binder, DyeStat Editor

NEW YORK -- There has been no slowing Michael Brannigan since they day he found organized running.

The 17-year-old junior from Northport, N.Y., diagnosed with autism as a toddler, is qualified for the New Balance Boys Mile at the Millrose Games on Saturday. Last fall he was second at the New York Class A cross country championship and then won the NXN New York regional.
By next fall he could be one of the top 10 high school runners in the nation, and yes, that makes him a top-shelf college recruit.



There is a tendency to look at what "Mikey" has done – like running 38 minutes for a 10K road race at age 12 -- and wonder aloud if he is a one-of-a-kind athletic talent who happens to have autism. Steve Cuomo, the coach of Rolling Thunder Special Needs Program on Long Island, doesn't buy it.

"Mikey is not the abnorm as an athlete with autism," Cuomo said. "The reason you haven't seen it before is that we never gave anyone (with autism) a chance."

Mikey's parents, Kevin and Edie Brannigan, credit the structure and guidance of Rolling Thunder, and the physical outlet of running, with transforming their son's life.

"The gap was far and wide between Mikey and the peers in his age group," Edie Brannigan said. "I wish I could (scientifically) prove it, but within two years he was age-appropriate with his typical peers. We knew right then that whatever he was doing with the running was doing something in his brain at a pronounced rate. It was a miracle."

When Mikey was three, his parents were advised they might want to get onto a waiting list for a group-home for their son.

Mike Brannigan wins the mile at the Hispanic Games."Now, the situation is so funny," Edie Brannigan said. "I can't tell you how many college coaches are banging at the door."

Mikey's autism was no secret to people around Northport but the family kept mum about the subject up through last fall, unsure what impact it would have on the college recruitment process. But the story broke in early December after Mikey helped Northport qualify for Nike Cross Nationals in Portland, Ore.

The family rolled with it.

"We are so proud of (the story) because we lived it," Edie said. "(Mikey) has had to work twice as hard to get half as far."

The Brannigans discovered that the college letters did not slow down. Instead, they found that the number of major universities with programs offering supplemental support to students with autism is growing.

"There are lots of great programs in schools for kids like Mikey," his mother said. "Whatever happens, we don't know yet."

Cuomo is quick to point out that while Mikey's achievements in running deserve recognition, his abilities are not unique. Instead, Mikey represents the tip of the arrow. He came along in time to be part of the first wave of competitive runners at Rolling Thunder and there are more ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) kids ready to follow suit.

"This is the sport for (autistic kids)," Cuomo said. "Think about it. Running is repetitive. It's left-right, left-right. All you have to do is breathe. And it's a compulsion. All of those things fit with autism."

Within the Rolling Thunder program, with 163 special needs athletes of all ages and more than 60 coaches providing a framework of support and instruction, there are young kids with autism who have taken to running the same way Mikey did. And there are older runners in the program who have run competitively at the New York and Boston marathons. One of them hopes to qualify for the Olympic Trials.

"What Mikey is doing is opening the door," Cuomo said.

It all seemed to come together by chance.

Mikey didn't speak until he was 5 and exhibited autistic behavior from a much younger age. He arranged objects in ordered lines, compulsively. His hyperactivity was extreme.

"(This) kid never walked or crawled," his mother said. "He just started running. At 11, 12 months old he just started running. He'd run into walls and fall down. At that time, we'd never even heard of autism."

Mikey was evaluated and diagnosed within the autistic spectrum. He went to a special school called a DDI, or Developmental Disabilities Institute, from the time he was 2 to 6. Then, he went into the Northport School District kindergarten program with an aide.

"He had to be taught things that normal kids pick up just by being on the planet," Edie said.

The Brannigans had in-home staff therapists working with Mikey for seven years. That included a six-month program simply to teach him to walk beside an adult on the sidewalk without running off.

"All of these (things) combined made all the difference," Mikey's mother said.

By fourth grade, Mikey's dad, Kevin, decided to get his son involved with a sport. They tried soccer and lacrosse. The athletic ability was evident but Mikey didn't respond well to the contact of those games.

The next attempted sport was going to be swimming.

"I actually never thought about running, to tell you the truth," Kevin said.

Kevin was at a seminar for union representatives in Manhattan one evening when he overheard someone talking about "my team" and "my runners." As the room began to thin out, Kevin approached the man and asked whether he was a coach. It was Cuomo.

"I'm the coach of a special needs running program," Cuomo explained.

"What is that?" Kevin asked.

A conversation started there. Cuomo suggested that Brannigan bring his son to a Rolling Thunder practice to check it out.

A few days later, Kevin and Mikey drove 20 miles to St. Joseph's College in Patchogue. There was a very short introduction and Mikey joined a few other runners on the upstairs track in a gymnasium.

"Mikey proceeds to run with these guys," Kevin said. "It's the first time I've seen him in organized running. Some of these guys are in top shape and Mikey starts trying to catch up to them. He was trying his best. And Steve (Cuomo) comes up to me and says 'Why didn't you tell me he could run?' I didn't know what he meant. We'd only been there for 15 minutes."

That night began the twice-a-week after-work treks to Patchogue. Kevin decided that as long as Mikey wanted to go, and was ready to go, he would take him to the college so that he could practice his running. Every Tuesday and Thursday, Mikey waited by the door with his bag so that his dad would take him.

Brannigan wins the NXN NY regional last November.Mikey learned to run by peer modeling. It's a common trait among autistic spectrum disorders. Instead of mimicking the behavior of the kid next to him at class, Mikey began to copy the running form he saw at practice.

Running siphoned off Mikey's excess energy, gave him a routine, and taught him about rules, diet, stretching and the fundamentals of training.

By the time he reached the eighth grade, Mikey was invited to join the high school varsity cross country team and instantly became a fixture of the top-five.

"For years his only strategy was to run as fast as he could as long as he could and as far as he could," Northport coach Jason Strom said.

The family credits Strom's patience and kindness as factors that made Mikey's progress possible. Coaching an autistic runner has been eye-opening, and never dull, Strom said.

"There are challenges I've never had with anyone else," Strom said. "There are limitations sometimes with communication. It can be hard to ask him a question and get useful feedback."

Through repetition and instruction, Mikey has come to understand the cause-and-effect of pushing too hard, too early. And he has also learned how to cope with the disappointment of a loss. There have been many successes along the way. He ran 3:59.30 for 1,500 meters at USATF Junior Olympics in the summer between his freshman and sophomore years. In early January he won the Hispanic Games mile in 4:17.04.

"He will take the positives out of the situation," Strom said. "He always knows there's another race. He's always in the present."

Strom's biggest worry is that Mikey will over-do it and run extra mileage on his own.

"He is extremely focused and sometimes it's all he's focused on," Strom said. "I have this fear all the time, because he wants to do so much. He might go for 90 minutes in the morning and then do 90 more in the afternoon."

Almost without exception, Mikey does what he's instructed to do on the track. Sometimes the smaller tasks, like showing up with the right uniform and shoes, are the things that go haywire. At an Armory meet in January, Mikey arrived at the starting line with his shorts inside-out.

"It's a crazy story every day," Strom said. "He's filling the pages of our books with stories we'll tell for the rest of our lives."

Mikey has also benefitted from having some talented teammates. Twin brothers Tim and Jack McGowan are strong runners, as well, and part of the group that competed at Nike Cross. Northport's 4x800 and distance medley relays are nationally ranked.

There is still another year for the Brannigans to figure out college plans, something that once seemed far-fetched for the Kevin and Edie Brannigan's middle son. Mikey's older brother, Patrick, is a freshman at the Merchant Marine Academy, and plays rugby. He has a younger brother, Thomas, 13, who is in middle school.

Recently, the family discovered that autistic athletes do exist at college. Anthony Ianni, at 6-foot-9, came off the bench for a couple of seasons for the Michigan State basketball team. He earned a degree. And now, he's a member of Michigan Autism Council, appointed by the governor.

Mikey's family sees no reason to set limits on what he can achieve.

"I remember an instance when a teacher said he'll never learn algebra," Kevin said. "Over the (next) summer he was on the computer every time I came home and he was studying. When he went back to school he had learned algebra and he's been doing it ever since. He's self-motivated when it comes to stuff like that. As far as college goes, we just have to make sure it's the right fit."

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5 comment(s)
That's what I'm talking about!! Keep up all the hard work brother!
great job mikey
Great story! I have coached autistic kids so his story hits home and I agree that autistic traits work well for running but some traits offer challenges.
Joe Lanzalotto
What a great story. Thanks, Doug.
Thanks Mikey.
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