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Altamonte Springs mom, autistic daughter plan to complete Disney World Half Marathon together
Orlando Sentinel - 1/10/2019
Jan. 10--A smile creases Samantha Rodriguez's face, and her eyes twinkle gleefully as she recites a statistic that she knows all too well.
"I have 14 medals in 18 months," Samantha said.
Running does different things to different people. For Samantha, a 15-year-old from Altamonte Springs with autism, it was a gift that her mother never thought she would have.
Like she has for all of the other races, Karina Rodriguez will run with Samantha during the enthusiastic child's first 13.1-mile race, the Disney World Half Marathon early Saturday.
"She used to trip and fall, and she had so many therapists, but when she started running, it has been the best therapy for her," Karina said. "She feels so good about herself."
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that one in roughly 59 children will be diagnosed with autism, a developmental disorder that affects -- among other things -- communication and the ability to develop relationships.
Karina did not know what autism was when she was told about Samantha's condition. Samantha was 2 years old, and doctors left her mother feeling like a glass half empty.
They said Samantha, who is dyslexic, never was going to read, to learn or become independent.
"It hasn't been an easy journey," said Karina, a single mother raising two daughters (Sophia is 5). "We have had struggles in between, because it is not easy to raise a child with autism.
"I have tried to find things that she likes to do. ... Running became part of her."
Samantha began running with Karina less than two years ago, but it is not the only activity she enjoys.
Don't try to grab her attention when "Fuller House," an updated version of the old ABC children's comedy "Full House," is on Netflix. Samantha swims. She volunteers at a senior home ("I help the old people") and wants to do the same at church.
She participates in a teen social group at the Autism Society of Greater Orlando.
Stacy Carmichael, a child psychologist whose 18-year-old son, Jaden, is autistic, led that group. She credits Karina for much of Samantha's development.
"A lot of times, especially when the kids are younger, I would get a lot of negative feedback," Carmichael said. "'Make your child behave,' or, 'What's wrong?' and not a lot of help and support. It would be nice if people were not so judgmental."
Samantha receives good grades at the Arbor School of Central Florida in Winter Springs, where her favorite subjects are math and English. Behavioral therapist Maria Brujan has worked with Samantha for about 1 1/2 years.
"She has improved so much," Brujan said. "Her behavior at home, like aggression, has decreased. Everything. It's like we're at a point now that it is more manageable."
Running has served as a wonderful aid.
Autistic people typically do not adapt well in crowded settings full of commotion. You know, like races.
Samantha embraces that environment.
"It makes me feel happy to run with other people," said Samantha, smiling again.
On Saturday, she will run in her biggest race yet -- both in terms of mileage (her previous high is 10 miles) and the number of runners (about 22,000 have registered).
Samantha is excited.
So is her mom.
"She has actually made me a better person, a better mom," Karina said. "There are some days that could be hard days. Just seeing her, nothing is impossible. It makes me proud."
--What: 26th annual Walt Disney World Marathon Weekend
--Schedule: Friday -- 10K (6.2 miles); Saturday -- half marathon (13.1 miles); Sunday -- marathon (26.2 miles). All races will start at 5:30 a.m.
--Course: The start and finish lines each day will be at Epcot.
--Registered: More than 65,000 for the four races, including the 5K on Thursday.
--Countries: 73 represented
--The Buzz: The runDisney Health & Fitness Expo is set from 9:30 a.m.-7 p.m. Friday and 9:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m. Saturday at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex.
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