As Jackie Bechtold crossed the finish line on Oct. 16 in her final high school race, there was no fanfare, no fireworks, only the waiting arms of her parents Tim and Nancy Bechtold, several of her teammates on the Upper Arlington High School girls cross country team and coach Dale Hartney.

As Jackie Bechtold crossed the finish line on Oct. 16 in her final high school race, there was no fanfare, no fireworks, only the waiting arms of her parents Tim and Nancy Bechtold, several of her teammates on the Upper Arlington High School girls cross country team and coach Dale Hartney.

Bechtold finished 197th out of 217 participants in 29 minutes, 0.61 seconds in the open race for OCC-Central and OCC-Cardinal division runners during the league meet at Hilliard Darby. Her result over 5,000 meters wasn't magnificent, but still brought tears to her parents' eyes.

Bechtold, along with sophomore Brian Kincaid, have autism spectrum disorder, which is a range of complex neurodevelopment disorders, characterized by social impairments, communication difficulties, and restricted, repetitive, and stereotyped patterns of behavior. Running has not only helped them both physically, but in everyday life.

"Jackie started running in the eighth grade because when she was in elementary school, a teacher, Amy Orr, suggested that she run cross country when she gets to middle school because she had heard it was good for children with autism," Nancy Bechtold said. "When Jackie started, she had to have someone run with her, but now she can run the course by herself."

Kincaid also needed a course aide when he started running last season, but now also runs the course alone. He finished 312th (25:21.47) out of 314 runners, but effort was not the biggest satisfaction for his father, Ron. That would be seeing his son being able to compete and enjoy time with his peers.

"Coach Hartney told me that if I gave him four years with Brian, he'd have him running like anyone else, but he has come so far in just two years," Ron said while fighting back tears. "It's amazing how far he has come."

Many autistic youth have problems communicating. Jackie readily remembers faces and names, but Brian doesn't talk as much.

"Brian's communication skills are such that you don't always get a meaningful answer," Ron said. "After he finishes his run, he says, 'No!' Sometimes that means practice is over and sometimes it means he doesn't want to run anymore.

"You can always tell when he wants to run. He'll grab his shoes, run to the door and say, 'Yes, cross country.'"

Dr. Morten Haugland runs an educational consulting firm called Haugland Consulting, LLC, in Columbus. It provides services to children with disabilities, primarily children diagnosed with autism. He is a proponent of exercise to improve the standard of life for those with autism.

"I always try to promote physical fitness with any group, but it sometimes can be difficult because many (autistic students) are not as coordinated as their peers," said Dr. Haugland, who has a doctorate in Applied Psychology and a master's in Applied Behavior Analysis and Special Education from Ohio State. "But I know several (autistic students) who are runners and really enjoy it."

Dr. Haugland said running allows autistic students to be individuals and helps them become more independent.

"Running doesn't require concept of team, but not depending on anyone other than yourself," Dr. Haugland said. "If you can move, you can run. It also has a repetitive nature and a lot of the kids I work with enjoy repetition and running is nothing but repetition.

"It also is important in promoting physical fitness. A lot of times, they have sedentary lifestyles."

The workouts also help the students mentally as well as physically.

"Running promotes what could become a lifelong interest in physical activity and the blood flow to the brain can help with cognitive functions," he said. "(Running by autistic students) has shown to help with cognitive abilities. But maybe the biggest thing is to get child involved with lifelong activity and get him or her to move."

Kim Hutson, a multi-handicapped teacher at Upper Arlington, sees as definite improvement in Brian.

"I think it has been a wonderful experience not only for his schoolwork, but to participate with school. It's great that he's able to communicate with the other kids about something they have in common," Hutson said. "When he's running cross country, he comes in happy and focused and he's so happy to be able to go down there (to cross country practice) by himself.

"It also allows him to do something at the same level as a non-disabled person can do and it helps them to become accepted by them. I think that's really important."

The social aspect of running has been a boon for Jackie. When she was a freshman, her sister, Samantha, was a senior on the UA cross country team. That helped her adjustment to the sport and now she is just another one of the girls on the team.

"The girls had a slumber party last month and they wanted to make sure that Jackie would be there," Nancy said. "That means a lot to her and it also helps her to interact with people."

Jackie is an outgoing girl, who has a love of music. She not only sings along to songs on the radio, but is a member of the UA choir and glee club.

"Running has helped her focus all way around on what she needs to do. Both music and running have been good in that respect and also because she gets to be around kids her own age," Tim Bechtold said. "I went to one of her early (cross country) practices and didn't think she would like it, but I think she really wanted to be around her peers. She just wanted to be with the girls and the cross country girls have been good for her. They have been very inclusive."

Ron Kincaid said by letting Brian run his own race, it has helped his independence.

"Coach Hartney is welcoming and I'd describe him as nurturing, but that would imply that he does extra with Brian than he does for anyone else on the team," he said. "What makes this a great deal is that coach Hartney expects Brian to do the things he needs to do at practice. A lot of times with developmentally disabled kids, the coaches and teachers will try to help too much, but coach Hartney keeps an eye on him while letting him do things by himself."

Brian is already doing several tasks by himself. He not only runs in the Special Olympics, but also works twice a week putting together new patient files at Ohio State University Medical Center and once a week dusting shelves at the Upper Arlington library.

"When he started, I was kind of hesitant to let him off (at practice) because I didn't know what to expect," Ron said. "But it really has been great for him and helps him to do things independently. It also has helped me let him be more independent and that is best for both of us."