By Jack Harrington

Since I can remember, I have been chasing goals. As a person with autism, my journey has been different than most of the kids I know. From my diagnosis at age three, I faced several challenges. I attended speech for language delay, but I was considered “gifted” in academics. Socially, I enjoyed being around other kids, but struggled to make friends. There wasn’t as much research 15 years ago, and I didn’t fit into the typical box of someone with Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Having autism was challenging, but it has also given me some advantages, as well. In elementary school, making good grades was easy, while making friends was hard. I wanted to connect, but just didn’t know how to relate to my peers. When I was in kindergarten, I met my first friends, Holden and Bette. Bette was the calm one, while Holden was the one who liked to get into trouble with his own shenanigans. Having friends that “got” me was one of the best things that ever happened. It gave me a feeling that I belonged, and school wasn’t as lonely. As I got older, things began to change. Bette and Holden went to different middle schools, and I found myself in a new place, where I knew how different I was from others in my class.

Middle school was very challenging. Things that came easy to others, were difficult for me. Knowing when kids were joking around versus making fun, was hard to figure out. There were not many options for kids like me in our area, so my mom decided to enroll me in a virtual school called SC Connections. During this time, I learned a lot about myself. I definitely prefer to be in a real classroom, and virtual school was not a good fit for me. I realized how much I missed being around others, even if it could be hard, or make me anxious. Having friends and being social became even more important to me, and I made a goal to go back to public school. I enrolled at West Florence High School for my sophomore year. For me to stay, I had to make good grades, feel safe and be involved in some type of school activity or sport. I was on a recreational cross-country team for two seasons when I was younger, so I thought I would enjoy running for West Florence. They have a competitive program, and you had to try out to be on the team. To qualify, you had to run a 5K in 24 minutes or less. I really wanted to be on the team, so I practiced, and on the day of tryouts, I came in at 23:48.

I was never considered the best at cross-country. Most of my teammates had been running for years, and I was coming in as a sophomore that only ran a few seasons in middle school. I was always put on the junior varsity team. It was tough to be a senior that never had the chance to run in a varsity spot, but I attended every practice and did my best for my team. Running wasn’t something I really loved, but the friends I made meant a lot to me, so the hard stuff was worth it. I wanted to be a part of a team and spend time with the friends I made, so I showed up, every day. There are not any regional titles with my name listed, but there were moments that I’ll never forget. This season, I helped the junior varsity team get a perfect score, twice. It felt good to truly contribute to something and not be the kid with “accommodations.” There are not accommodations in cross-country, and I did it on my own.

Being a new runner on one the best teams in the region wasn’t easy. There were times when I felt like I would never be good enough or “one of the guys.” Then, I found out about the SUB 20 Club. This is a list of all the runners from West Florence to run a 5K in under 20 minutes, since 1986. I wanted to be on that list. At the start of my senior year, my best time was 22:42. Each meet, I tried to run faster, and beat the clock. Sometimes I came close, and sometimes I didn’t. October 26th was the last meet of my high school career. We made regionals and traveled to North Myrtle Beach, where I would run my last race. I have never been so anxious before a meet. I knew this was my last chance to make Sub 20. My whole life has been a series of goals that I have worked for and achieved. Most were academic, so those were easier to obtain. But there were some, like getting my driver’s license and getting involved at school, that were

hard, but I did it. Knowing everyone else was pulling for me, made me want it more than anything else. The gun went off, and I don’t remember much else. I finished that race with a time of 19.58 and made the Sub 20 list.

This year has been filled with some amazing moments. The faculty of West Florence awarded me with The Shining Knight Award for exemplifying character and kindness. I was chosen to represent the Girls’ Cross-Country Team for Mr. West Florence, and won first place and fan favorite out of 29 contestants. Last Sunday, I received the Individual Performance of the Year Award during the Fall Athletic Banquet. There was a time I never dared to dream for moments like that.

Chasing a Sub 20 is the theme of my life, and acceptance to Clemson University would be my biggest Sub 20, yet. It has been my dream to attend Clemson University since I was a kid. I knew getting in would be tough, but I worked hard, applied and put the rest in God’s hands. On February 10th, I received my acceptance letter.

I have no idea what the future holds, but I’ll keep chasing my dreams. My wish is that all people of all abilities are valued, and that they see the value in themselves. We aren’t defined by a diagnosis, but by the difference we make in this world.

Go chase your own Sub 20, never hold back and dare to dream BIG!

Jack Harrington is currently a sophomore at Clemson University, where he is majoring in Business. He is the son of Jessica Brown, Executive Director of THE PALMETTO PARTNERSHIP of All 4 Autism.