Mom pushes through pain, 22.4 miles for autistic son

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Jarrod Grammel
  • 23d Wing Public Affairs
On the last mile of a 22.4-mile, 72 hour challenge one runner's feet were in pain. She was exhausted and sweaty, but all she could think about was her son. On the back of her calves were the words "I run for my son."

With sunglasses hiding tears, the runner and two others linked arms and ran through the last corner of the Disney Princess Half Marathon, completing the three-day Glass Slipper Challenge, which involved a 5K the first day, 10K the second and a half marathon on the last day.

Kari Schwendenman, spouse of U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Brandon Schwendenman, ran the Disney Glass Slipper Challenge Feb. 20 to 23 to raise money for a charity that provides support to families with an autistic child. She was also running in honor of her son, whom she adopted from Korea and was diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder.

"The last mile was the hardest," said Schwendenman. "My feet were killing me, and I just wanted to quit. But I just kept telling myself that no, my son couldn't tell me he wanted a simple glass of juice until he was 4 and a half years old. And if he could overcome his speech barrier, then I can overcome another mile. I can go one more mile."

By completing the race and raising money for an autism support charity, Schwendenman hopes to help families with children like her son, whom they adopted following two failed pregnancies.

"We had been able to get pregnant, but I wasn't able to stay pregnant," said Schwendenman. "So after two losses, we decided that there were many kids out there who need a home. And both my husband and I even before we were married [considered adoption]. He actually said he always felt that he wanted to adopt. And I did as well. I thought that from a young age. I was totally open to it. It doesn't matter what the color of their skin is or what they look like, they're still my child.

"And we were able to have a biological child three years later, so we have a biological and an adopted [child], and they are no different to me," she added. "They are treated the same. They get loved the same. There's no difference in our eyes."

Although the Schwendenmans knew the child had special needs when they adopted him, they were confident they could provide the care he would need.

"He started showing signs at two and a half, not speaking, and we knew that he should be speaking," she said. "We took him to get evaluated, but they told us he was OK. They just thought it was just a language barrier from knowing Korean for the first 13 months of his life then going to English.

"And I believed them," she added. "Being a first-time mom I didn't think they had any reason to be wrong. They're the specialist, not me. Then when he turned 3 and he was still not speaking, I said 'No, there's something not right.' So we went and got a re-evaluation, and he started speech. We got on a waiting list to see a developmental pediatrician. And once we went and got him evaluated and we got the diagnosis, I kind of knew it. He had all the signs of Asperger's."

Even thought the diagnosis wasn't a complete surprise, Schwendenman said it was tough realization.

"My first thought was that we had adopted him and took him from everything he ever knew," she said, holding back tears. "And I felt horrible, like did I make a mistake? But then I looked back and thought no I didn't make a mistake because he was put into this family for a reason. And I just feel like I need to be his biggest advocate and help him learn how to deal with being autistic. Because when you're autistic, you're going to be that way for life."

After getting the diagnosis and arriving at Moody Air Force Base, Ga., the Schwendenmans got in contact with Windy Scott, the Exceptional Family Member Program family support coordinator for Moody. Scott said in addition to raising money for an autism support group by running the Glass Slipper Challenge, Schwendenman has been a big help to other parents in the area.

"Kari has been phenomenal," said Scott. "I've worked with her now for the five years I've been here.

"She's always volunteering to help out with anything, and shares her experiences," she added. "I've actually had other spouses that have come into Moody, make contact with her as kind of a support connection ... I don't know what it's like to have a child with autism, but if I can connect them with someone like Kari, who has been here for a while and dealt with the school system issues, that knows the community too, it makes that family's transition a lot easier and makes them feel more comfortable. ... I'm kind of like one of the links in the chain, but they ultimately keep that chain together for the families."

Scott added that finding support like Kari and herself can be a challenge for parents.

One challenge Schwendenman has had to deal with is people who are quick to judge, recalling an incident in a restaurant in which her son was overwhelmed and didn't know how to handle the situation.

"My thing with autism is don't judge a child by its cover," said Schwendenman. "My son, when he is overwhelmed or doesn't know what to do with himself, throws what looks like temper tantrums. He could look like the biggest brat in the world. But he's not a brat. He just doesn't know how to deal with what's going on. And I see so many moms, they call it mother judging, and they look at my kid, and it just breaks my heart. I can't sit there and argue with them and tell them he's not a brat, he's just autistic. But don't judge a book by its cover, and give moms a break."

To help combat this and help parents feel more empowered, Scott gives them resources like an autism card that parents can give to people to help educate them about the spectrum disorder.

Scott hopes that April's Autism Awareness Month will help educate more people. She says with record increases in the number of children diagnosed, awareness will be vital to helping parents, children and the rest of the population.

"Well, current studies show that one in 88 children is diagnosed with autism, and autism is what we call a spectrum disorder," said Scott. "So each child is very unique in what their issues and concerns may be. The importance of highlighting it is because the incidences of it being diagnosed have gone up tremendously in the last five years. ... And so parents struggle because of the fact that there are some resources out there, but it's really the education and awareness of April that kind of brings it to the forefront to provide an opportunity to give that education and awareness of what it is and the struggles families face that have a child diagnosed with autism."

Schwendenman also hopes she can raise awareness through her blog in which she talks about her son and some of the challenges they have faced.

Although the Disney Princess Half Marathon was the first race she ran for a charity, she plans to run The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror 10-Miler in October for the same charity in hopes of helping others affected by autism.