Autism And Multisport: My Family’s Experience With The Grand Rapids Triathlon Splash And Dash For Kids


On June 13, 2015, my five kids participated in the Grand Rapids Triathlon’s kids’ event: the Splash and Dash.  I have four 11 year old daughters (that is another long story) and they did great.  They participated in a kids triathlon a couple years ago, on a cold and rainy day, and had, amazingly, a good experience.  However, for my son, who is autistic, this was his first race.

As the parent of an autistic child, I have been through countless episodes with Zachary in which he has a sudden, unexpected, unchangeable aversion to something that he normally enjoys. This can lead to screaming, flopping on the floor, or other challenging behaviors which can seem, to me, so contrary to logic. Well, my son has his own logic, and I have come a long way in learning about it.  Sometimes, it is best to just not push when he decides he cannot do something, but this was an experience I really wanted to go well.

Zachary is 7 years old and has been taking swimming lessons for several years.  Nonetheless, I was concerned that he would be unable to swim the required 50 meters for the race.  So, before registering him, I contacted the race officials with my concerns.  Their response was very helpful: “don’t worry, we’ll get him across the finish line.”

A few days later, I was contacted by another organizer of the race.  He gave me his personal cell phone number and asked me about specific accommodations that Zachary would need to have a good experience.  Aside from wanting Zachary to feel good about himself, I was also concerned that he would create a distraction that would take away from the enjoyment of other kids in the race.  So, we discussed, in detail, how Zachary could swim a shorter distance, start in a different lane, and start before the other kids.  After the swim I was hoping he could get some help finding the transition, putting on his socks and shoes, and starting the run.  We expected that other kids would overtake him by the time he started the run and it would then be easy for him to follow along.

On the morning of the race, the kids were all excited, but especially Zachary.  It was about a 45 minute drive to the race start and Zachary was singing the entire way.  His sisters played on their phones…

Oh no...This form doesn't exist. Head back to the manage forms page and select a different form.

Here is the crew before the race:

photo (9)

And the kids with me:

photo (10)

After the National Anthem (sung beautifully by a race participant), we all headed to the pool. Zachary was just stoked!

photo (11)

But…then it was time to get in the water.  He panicked.  My heart dropped.  There were only about 20 kids participating, including mine, so we were not imposing upon a large group of people, and the race was not timed, so there was some flexibility.  But I so wanted Zachary to have this experience.  Triathlon has changed my life.  I cannot say if any of my kids will become regular participants in triathlons, but I want them to understand and value the experience.  A splash-and-dash, which is only a swim and run, is the simplest way for a child to experience a multisport event for the first time.

One of the lifeguards then got into the pool, and encouraged Zachary to get in with her. Everybody was cheering.  He got in!!!  Look at the smile on his face!

photo (12)

After the swim, Zachary was directed (escorted) to transition.  Another volunteer helped him put on his socks and shoes.  It didn’t appear that he would be able to navigate on his own, so a volunteer ran the entire route with him.  Such nice people.

photo (13)

The pair made it around the course.  I could see that he needed a lot of encouragement and redirection to reach the finish line.  But look at the joy on his face as he finished!

photo (14)

As it turned out, Zachary finished before his sisters.  It became his job to hold their “gold medals” to give to them as they crossed the finish:

photo (15)

Here are the girls as they finished.  They all swam and ran pretty hard and complained (a lot) of being tired and, even, nauseated, at the end.


photo (16)


photo (17)


photo (18)


photo (19)

This was a nice, friendly, well-organized race.  It was unfortunate that more kids did not participate.  It was a cool morning (60 degrees) and had been raining, so the weather had something to do with participation.

This race was a nice experience for all my kids.  I am particularly happy that my son was able to participate in a way that preserved his dignity as a human being and allowed him to experience the joy of athletic achievement.

5 thoughts on “Autism And Multisport: My Family’s Experience With The Grand Rapids Triathlon Splash And Dash For Kids

  1. Kim Kremer

    Thank you for sharing this. It’s clear your son has an awesome advocate. The way the race officials and volunteers responded is wonderful. I’m so happy your entire family got to enjoy this day together.

  2. Pingback: The Autism and Multisport Project (AMP) | An Allergist/Immunologist's Guide to Living Well

  3. Adair Renning

    What a great story! Thanks so much for sharing. It doesn’t surprise me in the least that the officials and volunteers were so helpful and accommodating. That’s been our experience as well. Our 35 y/o daughter w/autism is a runner. She’s run every day for 12 years (17 if you ignore a short injury time-out). She’s run 162 races from 5k to full marathons, not including high school cross country or Special Olympics. You can see her times here
    Most of these races she runs independently, but one of us is always at the finish line to intercept her. Race officials have given us Press Passes and occasionally even escorted us past the barricades to get right to the timing mat. Running has changed Asia’s life for the better. Out on the course it’s not about what she *can’t* do, it’s about what she CAN…..she can do something that less than 2% of the population can (or want to) do…..she CAN run a marathon!.

    Best wishes to you and your son…your whole family! I hope Zachary has many more such positive experiences with running or multi-sport events.

    1. administrator Post author

      Dear Adair,
      Thank you for sharing! What a wonderful story your daughter has, as well.
      Warm regards,


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *