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Sophie Would Walk 50 Miles to Make Somebody Smile!

This is a post by Melissa Palmer, mom to 8-year-old superhero Sophie Palmer who has autism.

This is the second year in a row that our eight-year-old daughter Sophie is running the Operation Smile Final Mile. (For those of you who aren't familiar with it, Operation Smile is an organization that provides free surgeries to repair cleft lip, cleft palate and other facial deformities for children around the globe.) Sophie logs the first 25.2 miles of a marathon in the months leading up to the race, finished with a mile she runs as hard as she can on race day! By itself this is a feat enough. But what’s more is Sophie does it alone.

Because of her autism and accompanying sensory difficulties, things like malls and restaurants are difficult. For Sophie they are excruciating. A trip to the grocery store can be likened to torture, because the lights, smells and worst of all, the people, are scary for her. We put up visual reminders all over our house about things like flushing because the toilet is too loud. Loud or unexpected sounds have been known to throw our Pippy into full-scale panic attack. (That’s her nickname, by the way, one that she claimed from the time she was three. She turned to us one day and said, “You shall call me little Pippy.”) These kinds of announcements are part of our daily life. We self-narrate most of everything we do in our house, because anything Sophie can’t predict can throw her into a tailspin. She hates surprises so much that she dreads things like Christmas and birthdays. She doesn’t particularly care for trick or treating. Things that are unfamiliar are painful. So last year, when Sophie told us she wanted to take part in a big race in another state, we were naturally a bit skeptical.

My husband and I watched as she logged her every mile, kept track of her footsteps and time on the elliptical. She jumped rope and stretched and researched the best running shoes online. And when the time came we registered our “team”. Most groups raising money for the cause are teams comprised of entire schools, running clubs or churches. Sophie would be running her mile solo. As her mother I was terrified.

Before I knew it, race day had arrived. And despite my fear and prepping for the meltdown to end all meltdowns, Sophie did great. She ran as fast as she could and didn’t stop until she crossed the finish line. And when she did, she was the happiest we’d ever seen her - despite the crowd and the loud speaker, despite all the different things people were wearing and despite the cold breeze in the air. She was so committed to helping that she adapted. When Sophie showed up to the starting line last year, she was prepared.

We have a joke in our house that if there’s an old cardboard box, a rubber band and a wooden spoon sitting around the house, our daughter will make a costume out of them. Costumes and “being” a character are another part of our day to day. Sometimes Soph is Pippy. Other times she’s a pirate, a princess, a little Greek girl who doesn’t talk named Vanessa. That last costume consisted of a paper napkin on her head. But it worked! In this case, she rolled up to the race in a green sequined tutu, a red leopard sweater and a cheetah print fedora. Dressing up makes her more comfortable and what is so remarkable to me, is that she knows that better than anyone.

This year when Sophie asked if she could do the race again I said yes without a second’s hesitation. I’ve watched her skip, hop and dash 25.2 miles for the second year in a row. When I asked her why she wants to do it, she replied as if the answer was so simple, “Those kids have it worse than me, Mama. They can’t even smile.” 

The Autism Speaks blog features opinions from people throughout the autism community. Each blog represents the point of view of the author and does not necessarily reflect Autism Speaks' beliefs or point of view.