GREENWOOD, Ind. — A 13-year-old Greenwood boy with autism will become part of Indiana history when he carries the Indiana Bicentennial Torch through a short stretch of Johnson County this Friday.
Ryan Rueff was selected earlier this year to participate in the Indiana Bicentennial Torch Relay, which has been winding through Indiana communities since September 9. The relay will make stops in all 92 Indiana counties before finishing in Marion County October 15.
And while Ryan says he’s excited to carry the torch this Friday, his father is just as excited to witness the impact that running has had on his autistic son’s life.
“When he runs, autism doesn’t matter,” said Rob Rueff. “When he runs, he’s a normal kid.”
Rob, who was already an avid recreational runner, started taking Ryan with him on runs when the boy was 12. Ryan’s parents had already noticed that running seemed to help him cope with some of the challenges associated with his autism. Even running around inside the house seemed to help Ryan with some of his sensory issues. Once Rob started taking Ryan for regular outdoor runs, he noticed it having a profound effect on his son.
“It triggers something there in the brain that allows him to focus and to be almost as normal of a kid as he can possibly be,” Rob said.
Running helps Ryan to focus and communicate more clearly with others. And the effect of a morning run lasts for the rest of the day.
“The rest of the day he’s just really focused on his schoolwork and whatever he wants to get done for that day and get accomplished,” Rob said. “You can definitely tell the differences from the days that we don’t run, compared to the days that we do. I mean the days that we don’t run, there are days when he’s all over the place.”
When Rob presented his findings to specialists, he says they encouraged him to continue taking Ryan on morning runs. Aside from the physical health benefits, running seemed to be Ryan’s entrance into the world.
“He still has his little quirks, but he doesn’t melt down like he used to a long time ago,” Rob said.
While being interviewed, Ryan gave one-word answers to most questions. But there was no mistaking the message he was sending.
When asked about how he feels about being selected for the torch relay, Ryan said: “Awesome.”
Rob now encourages other parents of autistic children to search for activities that may have similar benefits for their own kids.
“It may not be running,” Rob said. “That may not be right for all kids, but try to find something.”
After introducing Ryan to daily morning runs, Rob has been chronicling his son’s journey by regularly updating a blog. What started as a form of therapy quickly became a lifestyle. The father-son duo now run half-marathons together. In fact, the two will run together in the Mill Race half marathon in Columbus Saturday, the day after Ryan runs in the Bicentennial Torch Relay.
Ryan’s leg of the relay shouldn’t be much of a physical challenge for him. The half-mile stretch along State Road 44 will barely be a warm up for someone who typically runs between 30 and 40 miles per week.
But that doesn’t diminish the honor of being selected as a torch bearer.
When asked how he will feel when he takes the torch and hears people cheering for him, Ryan said: “Special.”
You can track the progress and see photos along the relay route by visiting the Indiana Bicentennial Torch Relay website.