While his family members busied themselves with strings of lights and ornaments, Zach Johnson crawled under the Christmas tree. He stayed for a long time, watching and listening to the activity around him from beneath the branches.

Mom went for the camera. A few years later, the photo you see appeared on a Christmas card printed by Borealis Press of Blue Hill, where DeDe Johnson works. During a chance conversation with Johnson, I mentioned that this card, among all those sent by my family at Christmas, was my favorite.

I heard a brief version of how the card came into being. Zach was 5 at the time of the photo. He’s 13 now, a seventh-grade soccer player at the consolidated public school in Blue Hill.

Zach also has autism.

Sunday, the day after more traditional gifts are usually exchanged, one of Zach’s older sisters will give something more special. Sarah Johnson Emerson has organized a 6.1-mile run to promote autism awareness that will begin and end on the Southern Maine Community College campus in South Portland. As of Wednesday, Sarah had 17 registrants.

Instead of feeling disappointment at the low number, she’s grateful. One runner learning about autism will be a gift. Autism, in many instances, disables the ability to communicate with or relate to others. If people with autism can’t communicate well, how can you reach them?

You tend to turn away, which breaks Sarah’s heart. Her brother can write his name, but not much else. He can’t read. He does listen to books on tape in class and participate in class discussions. His insights can be different but relevant.

Sarah gave birth to her first child, Tyler, five months ago. Another sister organized a baby shower and suggested Zach draw something for the baby’s room. He drew four pictures, each of a pea in a pod. The pictures were framed as one.

Those with autism can be quite functional or not.

“He knows the word,” says Sarah on her blog. “He knows he has it. But he doesn’t know what it means.”

On a recent trip to her parents’ home in the Mt. Desert Island area, Zach showed her a telephone he invented by taking other things apart.

“I told him I thought someone else beat him to it,” said Sarah on Wednesday. “But it was pretty interesting.”

At a soccer game this fall, Zach said to an opponent, “we’re going to take you down today.” Sarah told him later that was not something said before a game.

“His teammates are fantastic with him. They understand,” she said.

Sarah was the goalie on the MDI High girls’ soccer team about 10 years ago. She remembers being happy she didn’t have to run much. Now she’s running the roads regularly around the Westbrook home she shares with her husband, Ruddley, and Tyler.

Through the running community, she met Sam Felsenfeld, who organized Operation Jack after his son was diagnosed with autism when he was 3 years old. Felsenfeld runs marathons to promote Train 4 Autism, a national organization that works to raise money for autism charities.

Felsenfeld will run in his 61st marathon of the year on Sunday in the Manhattan Beach area of Los Angeles. He spoke with Sarah at the Boston Marathon. Next fall he plans to run with Sarah and members of the new Maine chapter of Train 4 Autism she organized for the MDI Marathon in Bar Harbor.

“Zach,” said Sarah, “gives me a purpose to my running.” She has a copy of the Christmas card photo taped inside her daily planner at St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center in Lewiston, where she’s a recreation therapist in the adult psychiatric unit.

Her brother is different. She wants people to see the strength in him and others with autism.

Not too long ago, Zach asked to say grace before meals. It’s now his responsibility.

“Dear Lord, thank you for this most wonderful food. And thank you for this most wonderful family. Amen.”

(For information on Sunday’s run, contact Sarah at sarah [email protected]).

Staff Writer Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at:

[email protected]


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