The WellSpan Spotlight

Mental health and wellbeing

WellSpan BrightSpot: Young guys on autism spectrum run for fitness and friendship

2024_INET_WellSpan BrightSpot CADD Running Group

Who: WellSpan Center for Autism and Developmental Disabilities in Lancaster County team members Kristine Welsh-Eves, Ana Filippo, and Frank DiBella, and the CADD Running Group, a group of young men with autism who are CADD clients.

What: CADD offers a seasonal running group, in the spring and the fall, that meets weekly for about three months and then culminates with the group entering a local run.

On Memorial Day weekend, six members of the group, from ages 17 to 33, competed in the Luau 5K, a 3.1-mile race in Lancaster County. Joined by their leaders from CADD and some parents, the group ran with smiles, high-fiving CADD medical director and race supporter Dr. Michel Fueyo along the trail and listening for the sound of a cowbell enthusiastically run by Karen Sessamen, one of the group member’s moms.


The group’s members have a variety of athletic backgrounds. Some members regularly run, including one young man who does challenging Spartan Runs, which feature obstacles and challenges, with his mom. One has played soccer on a team. For some, the running group is their first try at organized physical sports.

For 10 weeks leading up to the race, the CADD team gathered with the group on Tuesdays, doing light stretching and then talking about wellness topics such as hydration and a healthy diet before going on a group run, substituting yoga or circuit training on rainy days.

The benefits are not all physical. The group offers socialization, as well as the process of setting a goal and sticking to it, Kristine says.

The physical and social benefits are aimed specifically at those with diagnoses on the autism spectrum, who may not be physically active and experience unique differences when interacting in social situations. The guys encourage each other and there is a friendly competition that grows out of the group, as they try to keep up with each other.

“We are not just talking about the healthy behaviors, we are doing the behaviors,” Frank says. “It’s a group that hits on all of the elements.”

Words to live by: In the warming sun on the day of the race, the group gathers in loose knot, quietly standing with parents. Group member Jon Gehr, 33, who is a fan of dad jokes and bad puns, arrives and goes around and greets his friends with a fist bump and a friendly, “What’s up, man,” helping to dissolve some of the pre-race jitters.

Carsten Kauffman, 17, is in his first year with the group. He later will sail through the race, something he has never tried before.


“I like a lot of things about it,” he says. “I like hanging with the people in the group. I’m in better shape. It’s fun.”