At the starting line on the track, Brendan Torres smiles as he puts on his colorful bandanna with a puzzle-piece pattern.
He’s ready. Ready to race and embrace.
It is an autism awareness bandanna that the Empire High School (Tucson, Ariz.) junior runner proudly wears.
“He wants to make a stand but he doesn’t want to be singled out,” his father, Tony, said. “He says, ‘What do I do?’ I say, ‘Be proud of it.’ ”
Brendan, a state qualifier during the fall cross country season, ran on Empire’s 4×800-meter relay team at the Sun Angel Classic track and field meet at Arizona State last week.
He ran his leg in 2 minutes, 7 seconds and the team finished fourth at 8:19. That relay team is now ranked fifth in Division II in Arizona.
It was another big gain, another proud moment in Brendan’s journey.
“Being a kid with autism means that I had to overcome challenges,” he said. “I had to work harder than other people but what I’ve learned is that if I put my mind to something, I can achieve that goal. Or, if not, go a long way.
“My goal right now is to improve in the events I am doing and to help my team get into state and help them do well at state.”
Brendan has come a long way in his speech development.
Tony said his son was a pretty normal baby. But at the age of 2, Brendan hadn’t begun talking. By age 3, he acquired words but with limited connections, Tony said. By age 4 and through preschool, he started to gain the ability put words together.
His parents took him to different doctors and specialists to try to figure out what was going on.
“At first, we were told that he had low muscle tone, and that was why he was not talking,” said Tony, who is the head girls soccer coach at Vail Cienega High. “We then had our school district, neurologists, speech therapists, and bio-medical doctor all see Brendan. With all of their input, evaluations and tests Brendan was diagnosed with autism.”
Autism falls under a pretty big umbrella.
“We had the questions, ” Tony said. “Will he ever talk? Will he have a normal life? Will he be able to be independent? What is his intelligence? How will the world see and accept him?”
Tony said that he and his wife, Sou Moussa-Torres, were aggressive with their intervention with speech therapy, nutrition and experimental treatments.
“One summer Brendan took part of a study where we spent one hour each day in a hyperbaric chamber,” Tony said. “We had Applied Behavioral Analysis services in our home, and wonderful people that worked with Brendan everyday when he was young.
“When he started school, we were blessed with so many great teachers in the Vail School District that loved and took care of our son.”
In the fifth grade, at Ocotillo Ridge, Brendan began to run as a club activity and during lunch recess. He fell in love with it.
In middle school, he joined the cross country and track teams and thrived.
“He found something that he was good at, and something that made him feel normal,” Tony said.
It win in middle school that Brendan was told he had autism for the first time.
“We had never told him and treated him like he was like everyone else,” Tony said. “He said to us, ‘I’m going get rid of my autism.’ We told him it’s something that he will always have, but he can learn to live with it and overcome some of its obstacles with determination and hard work.”
In middle school, Brendan started to pass AzMerit and was proficient in math and reading. He worked so hard at being normal like everyone around him, his dad said.
He ran cross country, played soccer, did track. In the eighth grade, he was named the Male Athlete of the Year at his school.
“A boy who had no speech until really the age of 5 gave a promotion speech in front of hundreds of people with no fear,” Tony said.
He is making A’s and B’s at Empire, taking regular courses. He has been nominated for leadership and character awards. At Empire, he has asked to be part of the student-athlete leadership team.
Coaches Heather Frushour and John McKean have embraced his love for running, “and the the little quirks our son with autism has,” Tony said.
“You always hope for a chance to coach and guide an exceptional athlete,” Frushour said. “Brendan Torres is a great athlete, but what makes him exceptional is his positive attitude and extraordinary work ethic. He sees no limits for himself even though he deals with autism everyday.
“He comes prepared to work hard every day on the track and lets me know he is ready to do whatever workout we have prepared. His enthusiasm for track spreads to everyone around him and he is a positive force for good on our team. I am grateful for the privilege to be his coach and chance to help him reach his goals.”
Torres has run a sub-5-minute mile, but it is the long relay that will likely be his ticket to state next month.