SACO — Two girls wearing Bonny Eagle singlets sat on a fence adjacent to Thornton Academy’s athletic fields during last week’s SMAA Relays, the annual kickoff to the cross country season.

They shouted encouragement to the passing runners until finally climbing down, thinking all the boys in this junior varsity heat had gone by. Suddenly, two more wearing a lighter shade of green came into view.

“Good job, Massabesic!” yelled Bonny Eagle junior Anna Weyand.

“Good job, Noah!” called out classmate Maddy Logan.

Noah Harfoush, a Massabesic junior, plodded on, followed shortly by teammate Alex Marino, a senior wearing dark sunglasses and accompanied by assistant coach Sam Person.

Harfoush and Marino are both autistic. They’re also members of the Massabesic cross country team. When they completed their mile-and-a-half journey Thursday in a little over 16 minutes, they were greeted by appreciative applause from the stands and high fives from teammates and Person, who said working with special needs athletes “has been an awesome experience. As a coach during the indoor (track) season, I was blown away.”

Other sports may occasionally include special needs athletes, but cross country seems to be uniquely qualified not only to accept but to embrace a broad range of abilities. Playing time is rarely an issue because at most meets, everybody runs.

“We’ve had special needs kids out for track and cross country for a long time,” said Massabesic Coach Mark Crepeau, who started coaching in 1978. “When you’re doing drills in soccer or field hockey it might make it a little difficult to do those drills. But when you’re running, everyone’s spread out all over the place, so it doesn’t matter where you are.”

Massabesic has a third special needs runner, a freshman girl, who has yet to compete in a race. Sanford High also has a second-year runner on the autism spectrum, senior Ray Hutchins, who last week broke into the varsity seven and wound up beating four boys from other schools in Saturday’s 12-team Ellsworth Invitational.

“He works hard at everything he does, so we knew that he would do all right,” said Sanford Coach Nate Smith. “We thought last year we were going to need a guide through some of the courses, but he kept up enough so he didn’t need a guide through anything. He just goes and finds someone to latch onto and then runs. It’s been nice.”

Harfoush, the junior from Massabesic, started running track in seventh grade, added cross country in eighth grade and even earned a ring as a member of the 2012 state championship team.

“It has worked out to be such a phenomenal thing for us as a family,” said Noah’s mother, Belinda Harfoush. “This environment, this community of athletes, is so supportive. It’s just been a great experience for him to participate with the team. He’s loved it and has gone on to run 5Ks.”

“He even got me to run with him and I used to hate to run,” said Noah’s father, Dan Harfoush. “I was a sprinter in high school and I’m like, ‘Well, if he can do it, I’m going to try.’ ”

Crepeau and assistant T.J. Hesler often have an ed tech help out with practices, but occasionally the coaches are on their own. Harfoush and Marino take part in all team activities. From stretching to hurdle work to running games, “they’re all involved in it and they have a good time,” Crepeau said. “They have put no extra burden on us at all. No one gets hurt by having these kids out here. It benefits everyone.”

Massabesic senior Michael Aboud is the team’s fastest runner. He said the Mustangs rally around Harfoush and Marino and appreciate their effort and perseverance.

“When we’re all together at the end of a race, cheering on one or two kids at once,” Aboud said, “we come closer together as a team.”

As a freshman, Harfoush completed his first 3.1-mile race in about 45 minutes. His best time last year was 27 minutes. Marino, who joined the team last year after admiring Harfoush’s team jacket, finally completed a race in the last meet of the season, in 36 minutes.

“We went from, he didn’t really talk at all last year to he’s talking to me the entire race,” said Person, his guide, “Al gives me goosebumps.”

Jennifer Marino, Alex’s mother, said she appreciates the patience and support shown by Massabesic’s coaches and the other runners.

“Even though you see (Harfoush and Marino) and they’re always on the periphery, they feel like they’re so included,” she said. “That’s all they want. They don’t have to be in the middle. They don’t have to be the center of attention. They want to be there. That’s enough for them.”

Noah Harfoush has a simple explanation for his involvement in cross country.

“I like to run,” he said. “And it’s best for me.”