Joining Cross Country Changed So Much for This Teen With Autism

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Within Teresa Miranda’s first months of being born, doctors were convinced she would not live to her first birthday.

“There were three significant times of them calling me and saying, ‘You need to come down with your family and say your goodbyes, because she very likely won’t make it through the night,’” said JoAnn Miranda, Teresa’s mom.

Even if she did survive, the doctors predicted Teresa wouldn’t be able to walk or talk. What they didn’t know at the time is that the 16-week-premature baby would grow up to eventually run on the cross-country team at Sparks Middle School in Reno, Nevada, with a huge smile on her face.

Now 14 years old, Teresa still has challenges. As a runner and student with autism, she has some developmental delays. JoAnn said reading is the most difficult subject for her to grasp in school. Other than that, Teresa has no physical setbacks and only visits her specialists once a year for checkups. All of this seems hard to believe, considering Teresa—and her mom—almost didn’t live through her birth.

When JoAnn was only 24 weeks pregnant, she became very sick with toxemia, a pregnancy complication that comes from high blood pressure and other symptoms, and she went into an emergency C-section.

“I had to deliver Teresa in order for both of us to survive,” JoAnn said.

Teresa was just over 1 pound when she was delivered. JoAnn went into a coma for a couple of days, and Teresa had heart surgery to separate her heart from her lungs, because her body didn’t have enough time to do it on its own.

“That’s why it’s so significant that she’s running [now], because her heart and lungs were practically not even there when she was born,” JoAnn said.

After being born on December 16, Teresa remained in the hospital until around the time of her actual due date in late March. She was only home for about three weeks before she developed whooping cough and was taken back to the hospital. Within an hour, the doctors had Teresa on a gurney and then immediately put her in a drug-induced coma. Because of her small size (she was still only 4.5 pounds), she was unable to receive a vaccination. Essentially, Teresa had no defense against the infection, and she stayed in the hospital for 10 months.

During that period was when doctors expressed their concern that Teresa would never recover. But to everyone’s astonishment, she made it through the next day.

Even as an infant, Teresa had to go through physical therapy, with doctors moving her arms so her muscles would learn how to move the right way. She had so many breathing and oxygen tubes, JoAnn would carry Teresa around in a double stroller—one for her, one for the machines. Teresa was on a feeding tube until she was 4 years old, which was about the time she was finally able to talk.

Even after the hospital days were over, the battle still felt uphill as JoAnn and her family tried to find a school for Teresa. During her second and third grades alone, Teresa went to 10 elementary schools.

Finally, Florence Drake Elementary School and now Sparks Middle School came along and welcomed Teresa with open arms and wanted her to succeed.

“The principals know Teresa, the counselors—everybody is involved in her care,” JoAnn said.

JoAnn’s niece, who also has autism and is a few years older, ran cross country and benefited greatly from the experience. JoAnn said in passing that might be helpful for Teresa as well, and one of her former teachers from Florence Drake passed the information along to Sparks Middle. When the school found out about the interest, they pushed and encouraged Teresa to try it, willing to help with any financial or other barriers that might stand in the way. At the start of her eighth grade year, Teresa was standing with her new team.

“The best memory I’ve had with her was the first day of practice when [Teresa] was very, very excited and was bouncing off the walls and smiling and jumping and laughing with everybody,” said Ashlyn Hartz, a fellow eighth-grader who joined the team this season. “Just seeing her have fun with everybody made me really happy, and I’m pretty sure everybody else was thinking the same thing.”

Coaches also noticed how committed Teresa was from day one to not only encourage others, but to push herself

“She brings a unique sense of leadership just because she’s an eighth grader, and she gave everything 100 percent,” said Coach Nathan Youmans. “She experienced huge growth from wanting to say, ‘Coach, do I have to finish?’…to saying, ‘Coach, I’m going to finish.’”

Pity or annoyance seems completely absent among the group—it’s truly a team where encouragement and service goes both ways. Teresa pushes them to be better, and is never met with teasing or bullying.

“Running with my teammates is amazing, they are the best and I love them,” Teresa said.

Teresa was often near the back of the pack during meets, but after completing their races, her teammates would find her on the course to finish alongside her. And even when JoAnn was ready to go home after the girls’ race, Teresa insisted on staying for the boys’ race so she could cheer them on.

“If we were down, she would put us back up,” said Elyssa Hammes, another eighth grader on the team. “When we were at practice she would say, ‘Come on team, let’s go!’”

More than just a new sport or a new set of friends, JoAnn has joyously watched Teresa gain a new sense of freedom. Mostly for her own safety, JoAnn sticks by her side most of the time. Now, she’s letting her daughter run through the woods with her teammates, unaccompanied by an adult.

“That has been huge—the independence for her,” JoAnn said.

Simple tasks at home and school have become easier for Teresa, too, like concentrating on class reading or brushing her teeth. Running became an avenue to release her energy, which in turn has affected every other aspect of her life. So for now, it looks like Teresa is just going to keep running.

“We’ve actually talked a lot about training for track!” JoAnn said.

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