There are some people in the world that are so good (I mean down to their core good) that it restores your faith in humanity. For me, Harry Engel is one of those people, although he probably has no idea. In fact, when I was interviewing Harry for this blog I started to cry. Silent, but happy tears rolled down my face but Harry never stopped talking and didn’t ask me why I was crying. Maybe he didn’t notice, or maybe he knew why I was crying, or maybe it was a little of the Asperger Syndrome Harry has kicking in. Either way I was glad he allowed me to the let the tears roll.
When you meet Harry for the first time, it’s clear he is not your average college student. Quirky, intelligent and outstandingly kind, Harry is one of the .2% in the U.S. that is known to have Asperger Syndrome. First acknowledged in the 1940s, there is still much to learn about the disorder. Asperger Syndrome has been called many things including “high functioning Autism, “people with a dash of autism” and/or a development disorder somewhere in the Autism spectrum. Essentially, someone with Asperger Syndrome is someone that operates a little differently cognitively.
Asperger’s Disorder is different from classic Autism because the signs and symptoms are less severe. In fact, many people go their whole life without realizing they have Asperger’s or are diagnosed as adults. People with Asperger’s often appear to be neurotypical people simply acting a little oddly. Children with Asperger’s often appear uninterested in other people and can be awkward in social situations. Usually wanting to fit in, people with Asperger’s sometimes end up not understanding conventional social rules which may lead to avoiding eye contact, body ticks, swaying back and forth and/or the inability to empathize or use sarcasm correctly.
In Harry’s case, he self-identifies himself as an “aspy” based on his tendency to take things literally, be socially awkward at times and obsess over certain hobbies and interests. A couple of Harry’s interests include mathematics and politics, while his hobbies include video games and reading Wikipedia, (correcting articles where he sees fit) and running. It was through running that I met Harry.
Diagnosed with Asperger’s at 10 years old, Harry is now a 19-year-old freshman at Central Washington University with plans to major in actuarial science. At 10 years old, Harry believed Asperger’s meant he was simply not as good. However, after diagnosis he was enrolled in a social skills course where he learned about other’s who were like him and the history of the disorder. Those classes taught him that he was, in his words, “just a human being.” A human with Asperger’s, but perfectly capable. Harry credits his parents, Robin and Larry Engel for treating him like he was any other kid and in his words “playing it cool,” encouraging him to explore all of his interests. In the first couple years after his diagnosis, Harry felt that his Asperger’s would hold him back, but now embraces his situation and takes advantage of any opportunity available to him.
“I truly believed that I wouldn’t be as good as other people at certain things,” reflected Harry.
Harry has proved to be more than “good” and is known by me as one of the most inspirational runners I have ever come across. Harry runs cross-country for Central and has already had quite an effect on his teammates, especially me.
Harry’s road to a passion for running is triumphant. Harry laughs about it now, but the story of how his passion formulated is related to his Asperger’s. He remembers the date, November 14, 2004. Harry was told “never run again…ever.” Out of context it sounds awful, but in reality it was simply an elementary school staff member telling him not to run in the parking lot. With Harry’s Asperger’s, he took that comment literally and “seriously thought the person told me I could never run,” he laughs now.
That wasn’t the first time Harry had been told he would never run. As a young child his legs and arms did not function correctly and his family had to seek treatment at Seattle Children’s Hospital. A physical therapist went as far as to tell Harry and his parents he would never compete in any sports whatsoever. The physical therapy and treatment Harry received at Children’s helped him get on his feet and now he can hardly be stopped.
For Harry, running means freedom. Through the 11th grade he was still enrolled in a social skills course and felt somewhat restricted. Running is a chance to escape to a place where Harry feels in control, knows where he is, where he wants to go and what he needs to do to get there.
This mentality was seen in action at the GNAC Cross-Country Championships last fall. The top 10 runners from each University in the conference get to compete against each other for the title of “Conference Champions.” Harry, who was Central’s number 11 runner normally wouldn’t’ve gotten to compete but because one of his teammates was sick, Harry was able to compete in Central’s 10th spot. Harry’s excitement was obvious leading up to the race. Although I didn’t doubt his ability to run a great time, even a lifetime PR, it was hard to believe that he could deliver what he did. That day, Harry ran the time of his life (so far) dropping almost 90 seconds from his previous best time and crossing the finish line in 53rd place overall, but 5th out of the Central harriers competing. Harry came into the meet marked as Central’s 10th guy, but finished as their 5th. It’s hard for people who don’t run cross-country to understand, but dropping that much time and ending up scoring for your team when you never had before was something remarkable.
Harry lists his conference run as one of the best races of his life. At the time of our interview, Harry’s new goal was to help a Central team get to nationals in XC and win a 5K or higher. Well, this Saturday Harry ran the 10K at the home Central meet and won…I guess it’s already time to set some new goals.
Harry’s XC season ended at the conference championships, but I was fortunate enough to compete at regionals and nationals that year. I remember Harry texting me advice at regionals and even called me to give me a pep talk. At nationals I received texts from Harry as well. These texts usually consisted of Harry reminding me that I could accomplish anything that I wanted; I just had to decide to do it. Crazy to think that a freshman with Asperger’s was giving the seasoned senior runner advice on how to run a race. Funny as it sounds; I give partial credit to Harry on my second All-American achievement. My last quarter of school was hard on me, running included, and reading Harry’s messages gave me an extra boost of life right before I started the final race of my collegiate cross-country career.
April is National Autism Awareness month and Harry was given the opportunity to speak at an open panel where he and other Central students with autism were able to answer questions about what it is like to be an “aspy” college student. You can find more information about that panel here.
When asked to give advice on how to live your life, Harry had a couple of things to tell me.
“If I had any pieces of advice for people I have a couple things. First of all, if you ever for a moment think you can’t do something you will not do as well as you would thinking that you would succeed. Whenever you go into a difficult task always come in thinking you will seize the day and succeed.”
For my runner friends who may be reading this, Harry had further advice.
“Those of you out there who are about to run a race, ask yourself, ‘what do I want to be remembered for?’ I don’t know about you, but I want to be remembered as somebody that could succeed no matter the situation.”
When I was trying to think of people who I respected, admired, thought were interesting and inspiring, Harry was one of the first to come to mind. I hope Harry is ok with me remembering him as someone that was wonderful to be around no matter the situation.
*You can read more about autism and Asperger Syndrome online, at autismspeaks.org.