SINCE being diagnosed with autism three youngsters - nicknamed the Three Amigos - have become used to dealing with challenges in their day-to-day lives.
But the trio of Inverness pre-schoolers are facing up to one of their biggest yet – taking on a fun run for a charity that has become a lifeline for them and their families.
Four-year-olds CJ Elrick and Connor Smyth, and Ollie Burgess aged five, will join scores of other youngsters in completing the Wee Nessie – part of the Baxters Loch Ness Marathon and Festival of Running – in aid of Friends of Autism Highland on 24 September.
The group, which supports over 230 families, provides autism-friendly days out and activities which allow youngsters to play together in comfort – and their parents the chance to relax knowing their children are not being unfairly judged.
The fact that autism is hidden and does not manifest itself in physical appearance can mean that onlookers think that children with the condition are just acting up or are badly behaved, says Ollie’s mum, Emma.
She said: “My older son, Robbie, also has autism but has Downs Syndrome too. People are more understanding because they can see he has additional needs, but with Ollie it can be a different story.
“If Ollie is having a bit of a meltdown in public, people give you looks and just stand there staring. Friends of Autism Highland has been an absolute lifeline. We’ll hire out places like soft play centres and swimming pools for exclusive use, so it means that only children with autism are using it at that time.”
CJ’s mother, Samantha, says the group has been a fantastic source of support for her son, who has severe sensory issues and social anxiety, as well as the rest of the family.
She said: “Sometimes you can’t help but worry a wee bit going out in public and wondering if CJ will be okay.
“People don’t really understand – one time an older gentleman even came up to me and said CJ needed a skelp on the bum – so you are always a little on edge. The group meetings mean we can all relax because we all chip in and help each other.
“The fact that it is open to other family members too has been really helpful. I have two daughters who don’t have autism and my older girl has been able to meet kids who are in the same boat as her.
“The three boys met at mainstream nursery and are the best of friends. They enjoy playing together and we call them the Three Amigos.”
The cost of hiring out venues – particularly during school holidays when there is more demand for services – is a significant burden for Friends of Autism Highland and money raised by the trio’s toddle around the Bught Park in Inverness will help cover some of the costs.
The group started out several years ago as a coffee morning get together for parents with children who had been diagnosed with autism spectrum condition, enabling them to discuss their experiences.
However, it became clear there was a growing need for a support group as more and more families came forward for help, and it became a registered charity in 2013.
Amy, who is mum to Connor, is also secretary of the group, said: “It can be hard work ensuring that we always have enough funds to cover the costs of activities and venue hire – it all adds up so every bit of fund-raising we do helps.
“Friends of Autism Highland is such a fantastic source of support for so many people across the area, and makes such a difference to so many families. We thought it would be a great idea to get the boys involved in fund-raising, and we know they will absolutely love being part of the Wee Nessie.”
Connor was diagnosed with autism spectrum discover in January. He has sensory and communication issues, and he finds it very difficult to interact with other children.
His parents are originally from North Ayrshire, so the group has been a tremendous source of support when their families are so far away.
They said: “Having a child with autism is rewarding, amazing, exciting and exhausting: not one day is the same and you never know how the day is going to pan out.
“Every day is another part of the learning journey and we are enjoying watching Connor flourish, he has his daily struggles, but we work with them. At the end of the day he is our wee Connor and we wouldn’t dream of having him any other way.”
Many runners taking part in the Baxters Loch Ness Marathon and Festival of Running - renowned for its family-friendly atmosphere – will be taking part for charity. The main charity partner of the event is Macmillan Cancer Support and there are three lead charities – Chest Heart Stroke Scotland, Highland Hospice and MS Society.
Runners can also support 15 other affiliate charities, although hundreds of participants – like the Three Amigos - will use the event to raise money for good causes close to their own hearts. In addition to the Wee Nessie fun run for pre-schoolers, the event also incorporates the marathon, River Ness 10K, 10K Corporate Challenge, and the River Ness.
The finish line is at based around the Event Village at the Bught Park in Inverness where runners and spectators can enjoy the Baxters Food and Drink Fayre, a Sports Expo, live music and activities for children.
Entry is now open for all races online at www.lochnessmarathon.com until September 4, with places available in the Loch Ness Marathon for charity, club and overseas runners. The event is active on Facebook at facebook.com/lochnessmarathon and on Twitter @nessmarathon – use the hashtag #RunLochNess.