Sunday, July 27, 2008

Running for a friend

By Scott O'Connell/GateHouse News Service
MetroWest Daily News
Posted Jul 26, 2008 @ 10:53 PM

As a captain of the Westborough High School boys cross country team, Matt Gitkind is used to running to finish number one.

But in the 36th annual Falmouth Road Race on Aug. 10, Gitkind will be aiming for a much higher number: 750, the amount in dollars he must raise for his race sponsor, the Doug Flutie Jr. Foundation for Autism. More importantly, he will be trying to bring attention to a cause that is as personal to him as it is to the charity's founder, former NFL quarterback Doug Flutie, whose son has the disorder.

For the past several years, Gitkind has helped his friend Evan McNamara, who suffers from Asperger's Syndrome, a form of autism, live with his condition. During the summer, Gitkind gets together with McNamara to cook, play sports, study or just talk.

"We've lived up the street from each other our entire lives," said Gitkind, who is one year younger than McNamara. "We play a lot of basketball, video games - just hanging out, pretty much."

But Gitkind is also helping his friend prepare for a future on his own, assisting McNamara with "ADLs" - Activities of Daily Living, such as cooking.

"It's pretty organized," he said. "I'll come down from 10 to 3. I'll bring baking stuff. Evan will crack the eggs, he'll mix the stuff."

"It's something I can do when I'm living alone," McNamara said. Gitkind also helps him with schoolwork - "It really helped me pass (the MCAS)."

McNamara, who has attended school outside the Westborough district since second grade (he was diagnosed at age 4), will join Gitkind at Westborough High when the two enter their senior year in the fall.

Gitkind began working with McNamara in late 2005, after his older brother, who had also helped McNamara, left for college.

"I wanted to still hang out with Evan, so I took his spot," he said. The two were already friends, he said, and had much in common: "We talk a lot about movies, we both love 'The Simpsons' and 'Family Guy' ... I feel we have a really good connection."

But working more closely with McNamara has given Gitkind a better understanding of his friend's life with Asperger's.

"It kind of has given me a different view of autism," he said. "I feel like a lot of people don't always have a full understanding of it. A lot of people don't know what it's like to live your whole life with a disability."

Asperger's Syndrome primarily affects communication and behavior, but generally with a lower level of severity than other types of autism. Sometimes people may not even recognize the affliction in someone who has it, mistaking it simply for odd behavior.

"It can affect social life, things like that," said McNamara, who nonetheless added that he has run into few people who have misunderstood him.

But the realities of Asperger's can create challenges for families, and Gitkind noted that McNamara's mother, for example, "has a lot of problems with transportation - it can get expensive."

That's where charities like the Flutie Foundation step in - "(They) help with things like that," Gitkind said.

Gitkind got hooked up with the foundation last year, after he had run in the Falmouth Road Race the previous three years with members of his family, but was having a hard time getting an entry number.

"It's really difficult to get one for Falmouth, but organizations help," he said. Gitkind learned that the Flutie Foundation was putting a team together to run, and decided to join.

"I thought, 'This is perfect,' " he said.

"I have so much fun hanging out with Evan, I just felt I should give something back to the entire community of people and families affected by autism."

That year, he raised $1,000 for the foundation, which helps create awareness of autism and raise money for families and research.

This year he'll be running with a similar goal in mind.

"It's a really great cause," he said. "I just hope that we can raise more awareness."

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