Malaysian neuro-divergent runners set for Singapore marathon this year

Captain Meng (centre) with Kong and Lim. Photos: The Star/Azhar Mahfof

Twenty-one-year-old Kong Chan Weng is training to run in the Standard Chartered Singapore Marathon (SCSM 2022) in December. That might not seem unusual to many, but Kong is autistic and he runs with a group of neuro-diverse young people.

“I’m running 21.1km (half marathon) in the Standard Chartered Singapore Marathon,” he says exuberantly.

Kong is a member of the SpecialMe.MY Run Club, a group of neuro-divergent young adults who are intellectually challenged. They take part in activities such as running, hiking and walking, together.

The run club has participated in events such as the Epic Virtual Run (Jan 2021) to raise funds to build homes for the Orang Asli Community, Run for Our Lives (Apr 2021) to raise funds for Cancer Research Malaysia, Run for the Olympians (Jul 2021) for the Malaysian Olympism in Action Society, and Kuala Lumpur Standard Chartered Marathon (Nov 2021). The latter was an in-person 10km mock race at Dataran Ara Damansara, Selangor.

“I first started running on Wednesday, Mar 17, 2021. When I go running, hiking, walking and swimming, I feel happy and excited. I’m glad to be in the SpecialMe.MY Run Club!” he says, adding with extreme precision that he learns music and artwork on Mondays and Tuesdays, and has office training on Thursdays. On Wednesdays and Fridays, he works at McDonalds.

Like many of the other neuro-divergent runners, Kong runs with his family members, in his case, it’s his mother Yoon Yoong Peng, 55, who is a housewife.

Captain Meng (right) shows the runners how to do stretches to warm-up before the run.Captain Meng (right) shows the runners how to do stretches to warm-up before the run.Although mostly quiet, 21-year-old Nick Lim, another neuro-divergent runner, is happy to chip in.

“I like joining the SpecialMe.MY Run Club and I feel good after running. I get to meet many friends like Chan Weng, Jon and Jian Qian,” he says, adding that he started running when he was in Form Two, and he also enjoys swimming and cycling, and is excited to take part in SCSM 2022.

“This is the first time our special runners will be taking part in a non-virtual run and international event – the Standard Chartered Singapore Marathon 2022 – so they are all very excited,” says SpecialMe.MY Run Club co-founder Bibo Low, 56, who is also Lim’s mother.

Both Kong and Lim will be doing the half marathon (21.1km) in SCSM 2022, while the others are doing the 10km run, she adds.

Platform for special runners

Low started the run club to help the neuro-divergent community engage themselves visibily and openly in the society.Low started the run club to help the neuro-divergent community engage themselves visibily and openly in the society.The SpecialMe.MY Run Club was started in April 2021 by Low, a voluntary trainer at a college for a group of neuro-divergent youth to help transition them into an open-employment market through an Office Immersion Programme.

“Mental and physical health is very crucial, especially for intellectually challenged adults. For a majority of them, after they finish their secondary school, there isn’t much out there to explore in mainstream society. It can be very difficult for them to be accepted as workers in an open job market, whether in cafes, fast-food, retail or office settings,” says Low.

“There aren’t many life-long learning programmes provided by the public or private sectors to engage their mind and body actively throughout their life span and help them gain skills. Everything is often left to their family members,” she says.

The creation of this platform is a way of helping the neuro-divergent community engage themselves visibily and openly in society and be seen in a different light.

“It’s our hope to see more who are mentally or physically challenged able to meaningfully associate themselves with society and give back in their own special way,” she adds.

It's important for neuro-divergent individuals to stay healthy and keep active.It's important for neuro-divergent individuals to stay healthy and keep active.

The run club enables neuro-divergent young adults to come and take part in outdoor and sports activities together.

During the MCO, most of the coaching was done on Zoom, and they trained by walking and running in their own backyard or close to their home in their own neighbourhood, reveals Low.

“The run club is an avenue for the families of these youth, namely their parents and siblings, to exercise together with them and create lasting bonds. This is also where likeminded parents can lend support to one another as they navigate through the same journey together,” she says.

Low urges members of the public who are good runners to join in the run club’s activities to help raise the bar for the neuro-divergent runners.

“It’s good for these neuro-divergent youth to interact with and learn from regular, neurotypical people so that they can be integrated into mainstream society.

Warm-up exercises before the run.Warm-up exercises before the run.

“During the MCO, we tried to engage them mentally and get them to stay active because they were cooped up at home and couldn’t go out. So, we got them to train and participate in virtual runs, the first one being the Epic Run 2021,” says Low proudly.

“We started with a team of four and they did very well. They really pushed themselves and gave their best.

“Out of the team of four, three had never gone outdoors for walks or runs before, they were sedentary and didn’t even like to exercise. But because of that initiative, all of them became active, started walking and running, and got healthier,” she adds.

Captain Meng (right) shows runners how to do stretches to warm-up before the run.Captain Meng (right) shows runners how to do stretches to warm-up before the run.From there, they continued to do more virtual runs, and more special youth joined. The group then decided to take on a bigger challenge - the Standard Chartered Singapore Marathon 2022.

“We set up the SpecialMe.MY Run Club when we had to register them (as a team) for the marathon,” she explains.

Low says that whenever they go out as a group, they wear the team T-Shirt so that people will know they are neuro-divergent yet able to take part in mainstream activities such as runs.

“We hope this will attract more neuro-divergent individuals to come out of their homes, as well as more families to bring their special children and their siblings to take part in such activities,” she says, adding that they hope more neurotypical runners will also join them as volunteers and pacers.

Low highlights that the special youth usually join with their parents and other family members such as siblings.

“Running is an activity for everyone so it’s good for family members to come support their neuro-divergent child or sibling,” she says.

Community support

Neuro-divergent runners run alongside their family members (parents and siblings) and volunteers.Neuro-divergent runners run alongside their family members (parents and siblings) and volunteers.

The club is trying to crowdfund the special runners because even though the registration fees are sponsored, they still need to bear the transportation and accommodation costs to get to Singapore.

“We’re trying to lighten the burden on those whose families are from the lower income group. Their parents and siblings have to go along because they train together and run as a family, so we want to help them with that,” she says.

Low says that they will have another target next year and are considering hiking Mount Kinabalu.

“The sky is the limit, as long as people are willing to make it happen. If triathletes come in to train them, then we can teach them to cycle and swim too.

“Sports is really good for these special youth in the long run. It helps them cultivate independence and once they’re independent, they can do many more things on their own, in life. This is necessary so that one day when their parents are no longer around, they can still lead fairly independent and healthy lives, says Low.

But, the able-bodied-and-minded society must come and help them achieve this, she emphasises.

More info: SpecialMe.MY Facebook and SpecialMe.MY Crowdfunding

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