Mansfield News

Facing the Challenge

Cooper Soesbee faces challenges every day, but he’s still looking for new adventures.

Autism makes it difficult for Cooper to do things that other 12-year-olds take for granted, things like remembering assignments and understanding social cues. But Cooper isn’t backing down.

A talented artist -- he draws comic strips and makes videos -- Cooper asked his parents if he could also participate in sports, like his siblings, Ben, 10, and Kacey, 8.

“I talked to his assistant principal (at Danny Jones Middle School) and he said Cooper could be a trainer on the football team or he could run cross country,” said his dad, David Soesbee. Cooper liked the idea of running.

“I just wanted to be part of the team so I could make new friends,” he said.

But it’s not easy for anyone to go from not running at all to competing in a mile-and-a-half race, which is how far the seventh-graders run. Having autism didn’t make it any easier.

“He said ‘Dad, it’s really hard,’” David Soesbee said. “He would get side cramps.”

Cooper has already come a long way. He was diagnosed with autism at age 3, his mom Kimberly Soesbee said, and didn’t talk until he was 5.

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a range of complex neurodevelopment disorders, characterized by social impairments, communication difficulties, and restricted, repetitive, and stereotyped patterns of behavior, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

“A lot of kids with autism get put in a box that they can’t do things outside, like cross country,” Kimberly Soesbee said. “He had to show the coach that he could run without walking, so that was a big deal.”

To get into shape, Cooper had to get up at 5:30 a.m. to train with the rest of his team and run a lot farther than a mile and a half in practice. As his first meet grew closer, training moved to after school, when the temperature was a lot hotter. Cooper kept running.

“He’s probably one of my harder workers,” said Cassi Bryant, who coaches the seventh- and eighth-grade boys and girls cross country teams at Danny Jones. “He’s just like any other kid. I kind of have to push him to go. He goes hard.”

Bryant, who is in her fifth year of coaching at Danny Jones, said she’s never had a runner with special needs, but she doesn’t treat Cooper any differently.

“He’s done really well,” she said. “I’m impressed that he kept up with it and didn’t quit, like some of the kids.”

Bryant had a bumper crop of seventh-grade boys -- 36 -- come out for cross country, but she can only take 20 to meets. The top 20 at the first meet would make the travel team.

Cooper knew the odds were against him, but he kept training, setting a time of 16 minutes, 23 seconds in his time trial.

His brother, Ben, was impressed.

“I was astonished,” said Ben, who ran his first 5K last fall. “The fact that he has autism, it’s hard. His brain didn’t develop like others did. It’s harder for him to take things like other kids do. We were at the park playing basketball and he kept saying ‘pass it to me,’ and when no one did, he got flustered.

“He’s been doing a lot better,” Ben said. “He’s a good brother and I love him a lot.”

The family has seen a lot of positive changes since moving from British Columbia to Mansfield a year ago, Kimberly Soesbee said.

“He had six kids in his class last year and eight this year,” she said. “He knows there’s a whole big school out there.”

The other kids on the team have been very accepting, Bryant said.

“He warms up with them and works out with them,” she said. “They will encourage him. If I’m getting on to them, he takes it very personal.”

On Oct. 7, Cooper, his teammates and more than 100 boys from four other middle school squads dug their running shoes into the dirt on the field behind Danny Jones Middle School, waiting for the pop of the starting gun. Cooper covered his ears, not wanting to hear the loud report.

And then they were off. The other boys soon outpaced him, but he kept trucking, passing cheering family and friends scattered along the route. Clyde Price, a friend from church, held up a hand-made sign with “Run Cooper Run.”

“He finished last of the (Danny Jones) boys, but at the end of the day what was important was he improved on his time,” Bryant said.

Cooper dropped more than a minute off his best time, coming in at 14:23.

“I was excited for him,” Bryant said. “I knew he was going to have a lot of encouragement. That really pushes him.”

While Cooper didn’t make the travel team for this week’s meet, he will be there. Bryant planned to bring him with her team manager and to keep him working out with the team. The runners who didn’t make the top 20 will have another chance to make the team at a time trial next week, she said.

“I don’t think he’ll make it, but I want to keep him involved,” Bryant said.

Cooper isn’t planning to rest, he said.

“I will never quit,” he said. “I’m not quitting.”