Captain in the Marines runs to combat autism


Howard At Play

October 10, 2004|By LOWELL E. SUNDERLAND

PEOPLE TYPICALLY run marathons and 50- and 100-mile endurance races for the love of competition and, beyond that, fitness and testing the body's limits.

Joseph Zwiller of Columbia, a U.S. Marine Corps captain, runs for an added cause: combating autism. His older son, Thomas, 2 1/2 , was diagnosed with the neurological brain disorder about a year ago.

Thomas, wrote Zwiller in an update last month on his Web site about his son, "has a social repertoire [that] is a little small. He still has sensory integration issues and gets overwhelmed in new or dynamic social situations, but he's come so far that the future is very bright, indeed.

"It's time for us to shift focus and attend to his social skills, widen his interests and find coping mechanisms for him regarding sensory integration. The only trouble ... is that there are undercurrents with the local school system cutting back services."

Zwiller and his wife, Jenna, are clearly in the midst of a crash course on what to do when a child has a thus-far incurable health problem that occurs in as many as six out of 1,000 births.

The Zwillers, whose year-old son A.J. seems to be developing normally, note Autism Society of America statistics that cases of the disorder have grown by 172 percent in a decade when the population rose by 13 percent. Boys are four times more likely than girls to be diagnosed.

"Fighting autism is a race," said Zwiller, the youngest of nine children and a candidate for a master's degree in business administration at Johns Hopkins University. "Early intervention is the key. You've got to start sprinting as soon as you stop grieving [about the diagnosis]. So the learning curve is very steep."

With Jenna doing much of the research, her husband said, the Zwillers have learned more than they ever knew existed about gluten- and casein-free diets, digestive enzymes, brain development and possible courses of treatment. A lot of their medical guidance has come through Baltimore's Kennedy-Krieger Institute, which specializes in children's illnesses.

On his Web site, Zwiller indicated that he and his wife have high hope, in particular, for a leading edge of autism research that involves diet.

"If there isn't a concrete brain/gut connection discovered in the next five years, I'll eat my hat," he wrote, attributing much of Thomas' improved speech to dietary measures.

What is now a fund-raising goal paired with a running ordeal began while Zwiller, a resident of Kings Contrivance village since March, was on a nine-month military deployment - about seven of them on a Navy ship - in the Middle East.

He decided to try finishing 12 marathons in 12 months, once back home.

But Thomas was diagnosed while Zwiller was a sea and, he said, "that seemed a bit selfish, not big enough. So I redefined it as 1,000 miles in 20 months, with the intent of doing something that can benefit Thomas. Then I set $10,000 as a fund-raising goal, too. It seemed that getting 1,000 people to donate $10 would be feasible."

Not so far.

With 308 of his intended 1,000 miles finished, Zwiller's campaign has raised just $541 for research - from 14 donors.

"It hasn't gone as well as I'd hoped, to be honest. It's been a mixed-bag response," Zwiller said. "We've gotten some publicity, and that's helped, and more is coming, but donations are lagging."

His mileage has been compiled since February in three marathons, a 40-mile race, three 50-kilometer (31.25 miles) events, one 100K (62.5 miles) race and several 10Ks. In the process, he has lost several toenails and been accosted in Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains by a goat.

This month, he has finished a half-marathon at Quantico, Va., has a 10-mile event scheduled, and will run in this Saturday's Baltimore Marathon.

And then, Nov. 6 and 7, it's off to eastern Ohio for the Dan Rossi 100-Miler centered at 1,540-acre Atwood Lake - Zwiller's first try at that distance, which can take 24 hours to complete. He hopes to top his mileage goal in July at a 135-mile race in Death Valley, Calif.

If you would like to learn more about this father's pursuit to help a young son, check that Web site:

Call the writer at 410-332-6525 or send e-mail to

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