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'Children with autism and their families run a marathon every day'

Denzil Jacobs is doing something mental this summer…

Image: Denzil Jacobs

OCCUPATIONAL THERAPIST DENZIL Jacobs is gearing up to do something extraordinary later this summer.

On August 19th he plans to run a marathon between Carlow and Kilkenny, in order to raise funding and awareness for Irish children with autism, and their families.

Then, he’ll wake up the next day, and run another marathon. And the next day, and the next day.

His monumental, almost insane “12 in 12 Challenge” consists of running 12 marathons, on 12 consecutive days, in 12 counties.

When TheJournal.ie caught up with him by phone earlier this week, he was preparing for two consecutive days of the 36-mile Clonakilty ultramarathon – “as practice” for the 12 in 12.

“I’m actually an average runner,” says Jacobs, who has worked with children with autism at the Saplings Special School in Graiguecullen, Co Carlow since 2007.

The South African native, who arrived in Ireland in 2002 before marrying Elaine, a Tullamore woman, says he “gave up the drink and the young man’s lifestyle three years ago, and just started running.”

Despite that modesty, the 37-year-old father of four will have run a total of 71 marathons by the time he crosses the finish line in Tullamore, Co Offaly on 30 August.

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So what’s this all about?

To be sure, Jacobs is taking on this completely outrageous project, in order to spread awareness about autism in Ireland, and raise €25,000 for Irish Autism Action, and the Saplings School.

But you get the sense from him that there’s more to it than that.

As far as I’m concerned, children with autism, and their families, run a marathon every day of their lives.
They’re constantly battling everything, including the system.

In fairness, Jacobs does at least accept that there are easier ways to raise the money, and that there will be seriously tough moments on the road through every county in Leinster.

Honestly, there will be no better feeling than knowing that every step I’m taking will improve the lives of these children in the future.
That’s what will keep me going.
The parents of the kids I work with spend every day hoping that they’ll get some sleep that night, and here I am with the strength to be out running.

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‘There’s no two ways about it, they’re being failed by us as a society’

Jacobs is very clearly a guy who doesn’t lack “positive mental attitude” (Note: he’s running 12 marathons in 12 days).

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But he also has very specific views about what keeps parents of children with autism awake at night.

The HSE and the Department of Education are failing children with autism. The saddest thing I see isn’t so much the tears and pain and tantrums and difficult therapy sessions.
It’s not even the initial diagnosis of autism.It’s the lack of a proper diagnosis, and the shortage of services and resources that come after that.
Some of these parents are left waiting for years for a diagnosis of autism – five parents in just the last five weeks have come to me looking for help, because the system has failed them.

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When asked what he would tell Leo Varadkar, the newly-appointed Minister of Health, if he had the chance, Jacobs didn’t hesitate.

We need proper diagnosis and early assessment, because I’ve seen the damage it causes when children don’t get that.
Or when they get diagnoses of intellectual disabilities, even when that’s nowhere near the reality, when they have all the classic signs of autism.
Then, these children need proper resources. They need to be given a special needs assistant, so they can cope in a mainstream school.

He sees special schools like the one he works at as “bridging a gap”, when the Irish education system has failed children with autism.

But the cost involved in running those schools means that many families simply cannot afford to get their children the services they need, and are left stranded.

The money Denzil Jacobs raises will go directly towards helping those parents.

Although he’s inviting everyone to join him along the way (here’s his itinerary), if you’re not a marathon runner but you’d still like to help, you can donate to the cause here.

Read: €9 million research programme in Autism described as ‘groundbreaking’>

Here’s how these furry friends are changing the lives of autistic children in Ireland>

About the author:

Dan MacGuill

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