Father, autistic son find peace in running

Article Tab: David Burnell greets his son Logan as he arrives home from school. They've been training together for David's race in the New York City Marathon.

David Burnell greets his son Logan as he arrives home from school. They’ve been training together for David’s race in the New York City Marathon.

Published: Oct. 29, 2013 Updated: Oct. 30, 2013 9:37 a.m.

You may have seen them running along the road. They go right down Adams Avenue in Costa Mesa before peeling off onto the river trail. The grandpa hauls the 4-year-old boy in a cart behind his bike while the father, gray haired and sweating, speeds along beside them. The three, all in complicit silence and forward motion.

Maybe you have seen the child smiling as he rides along in the cart with his helmet on, his teddy bears stuffed beside him, and the signs on the cart that say things like “Daddy’s NYC Pit Crew.” The boy laughs sometimes, handing up water to his dad each time they halt at a stoplight. You might’ve even seen the man smile back and give his boy a high-five.

Maybe the man is smiling because he remembers what the doctors said, how after a slew of surgeries – five to his knees, two on his back and one to his Achilles tendon – he would never run again. Or perhaps he’s smiling because he’s got a spot in the New York City Marathon this weekend, a goal he has had for almost 20 years.

But most likely, the man is smiling because he’s with his boy, because he has found a way through to his autistic son.

They both need this.

The squeak of brakes heralds the arrival of the great big school bus, and David Burnell hides behind the cinder block wall just outside his Costa Mesa home. He can see its lone passenger, his little head just peeking into view through the window.

The boy spots his 42-year-old father hiding behind the wall, and he smiles. When the door opens, the driver, deep voiced and towering over the little boy, helps free him from the seat belt.

“Logan, you’re forgetting your backpack,” the driver says.

The boy makes for his first step down the stairs to Dad.

The driver tries again.

“Logan, what are you forgetting?”

Still nothing, so the bus driver picks up the forgotten knapsack with car illustrations all over it and gently puts it on the boy’s narrow shoulders.

“Where’s my training partner?” David says as he looks around. “Where is he? I don’t see him.”

“I’m right here,” the boy says, and David crouches down, hugs him, and delivers a quick kiss to the lips.

This is a departure from their daily ritual. It’s the boy who usually greets the father, but on this day, David is home early from his job as an operating-room tech at North Orange County Surgery Center.

They head into the house, where the third member of their team awaits. Grandpa Clay Van Sickle sits on the couch, and at the request of his father, the boy begins to load up the cart for the run.

David doesn’t ask the boy twice.

The water, juice, snacks, all put in their proper spots: the same place every time. Logan remembers.

“Sometimes, getting him to do things is like pulling teeth,” David said. “With this, it’s like he has something important to do.”

It’s toward the end of a 15-week training schedule David has been following in advance of running the New York City Marathon, which takes place Sunday. David and his wife, Heidi, said the time the father and son have had during these workouts has been a launching pad for Logan’s development. They say he’s more attentive, and overnight, almost completely cut out bathroom accidents.

“He won’t ride a roller coaster, he won’t ride Dumbo at Disneyland, but he loves to run,” David said.

They’ve searched and searched for ways to help their son. There’s nothing to do but help him confront the challenges he faces.

“Denial is a very sad thing,” Heidi said. “It’s not a bad thing if a kid has autism. It is a bad thing if a parent doesn’t help a kid with autism. The reality is denial is stupid because it’s not about you, it’s about the child.”

She changed her routine and became a stay-at-home mom because she can handle it.

The runs and extra time with Dad have calmed Logan, because the smallest change in his routine, like the loss of a favorite toy, can upset him and keep him awake all night.

These challenges aren’t unique to Logan.

As methods of identifying autism have become more uniform and widely practiced, diagnoses of the disorder have skyrocketed in the past decade. According to the May Institute, a Massachusetts nonprofit, one in 88 children in the United States is diagnosed with the neurological disorder each year. The disorder affects development and limits communication.

“I see him as a normal kid. I don’t see him as dysfunctional,” Heidi said. “To me, Logan is the hardest worker I have ever met because he’s constantly adjusting to our idea of normal.”

David doesn’t think about the statistics, or what limitations autism might impose. He doesn’t care what people say his boy won’t be able to do.

The father is supposed to have his own limitations, too. After years spent playing basketball, he ruptured his Achilles and busted up his knees, and the joints suffered heavy use during his time as an EMT. Now he’s running anyway.

His son can do anything. So they run, and even though their training camp will soon be over, David said he won’t let his boy stop. No way.

After David runs over that finish line in New York City on Sunday, he’ll be back in Costa Mesa. He’ll go to his son’s school on Monday after catching the red-eye for his son’s birthday. He’ll hug his son, and put a medal from the race over his head to remind them both that they achieved this together.

Contact the writer: wdurso@nullocregister.com