Having successfully overcome his own health challenges in childhood, Edmonton’s Adam Biel is using his health and athleticism to raise awareness to a challenge affecting many families around the world – autism.
Biel is the midst of cycling the Pan-American Highway, which began in Ushuaia, Argentina – the southernmost city in the world – on March 20 and will end in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, and included stops in Dawson Creek and Fort St. John this week. He is making the epic journey all in an effort to raise money and awareness towards a better understanding of autism, which he believes is one of the great medical challenges of our society.
“It’s growing at 10 to 18 per cent a year, which is about the same rate cancer was growing 20 years ago,” he said. “We don’t know what is causing it, we don’t know why it is growing, we don’t know how to prevent it and we don’t know how to treat it, and because it’s a social/behavioural disorder and not a cellular, localized disorder such as cancer, we can’t research it the same way we can other diseases or conditions.”
“In 2007, it affected only one in 150 Canadians. By 2009, it affected one in 122, and now it is one in 88,” he added. “The number that people don’t talk about is that it’s actually four times more prevalent in boys than girls, so there’s almost a two per cent chance of having autism if you’re a boy.”
Biel said autism is actually something he and the team of family and friends that are helping him along the way have experienced personally, but they feel a responsibility to do something about it.
“We’re all doing this because we think it’s important and we don’t want autism to be the legacy that my generation leaves behind,” he said.
The intercontinental journey is even more impressive considering that as a child, he struggled with severe asthma and allergies that made him very sick. However, through the support of loved ones, he was able to overcome those challenges and turn his sickness is to peak physical fitness.
“I’ve been able to overcome my asthma and I’ve been able to overcome my physical limitations, and to push that into doing ultra-distance [cycling],” he said.
He bought his first bike in 2009 and didn’t start off with any kind of pleasure cruise – he immediately took off for a tour across North and Central America that started in Anchorage, Alaska and included stops in Vancouver, Halifax, Florida, Texas and then down through Mexico into Central America, about 17,000 miles.
“I’ve done a distance of this length before, but not of this terrain and this intensity,” he said of his current journey.
That’s because Biel was going for a world record by completing the Pan-American Highway in 100 days, which meant setting a pace of about 150 miles per day.
“That’s almost the same distance as doing three Tour de France in the time it took Lance Armstrong to cycle two,” he said.
However, in Costa Rica – on what Biel said was a seemingly mild hill – his gears locked up when they shouldn’t have and the extra strain on his calf caused him to rupture his plantaris muscle. The injury meant he had to be driven to San Antonio, Texas, to receive treatment and recover.
“I knew the next day when I essentially couldn’t walk that I wouldn’t be able to finish at my pace and set the world record.”
The injury may have ended his hopes at a world record, but not his determination, as five days later he was back on the bike, albeit at a “slow” pace of 60 miles a day until about two weeks later when he was fully recovered and able to return to his pace of between 100 and 150 miles per day. He was in Dawson Creek on Tuesday and left Fort St. John early Wednesday morning.
He said in his international travels he has seen the misunderstanding and misconceptions about what autism is.
“I was in Nicaragua at a centre for people with disabilities, and the person who is running the centre has never even heard the word ‘autism’ before, so I’m talking to this person in Spanish – which is a second language for me – and I’m having to educate someone who is a special needs professional on what autism is.”
He added often those misconceptions lead to people, including children, being abused, abandoned or even imprisoned simply for having autism.
“There are even religious misconceptions where people think it’s demon possession or something like that,” he said.
Biel said he sees the effects of autism being much broader than just the individuals diagnosed.
“I would describe it as almost a community issue, because autism affects families, it affects people in schools, and because it’s a social behavioural disorder, oftentimes it’s incredibly misunderstood. On an individual case level, it really affects communities and families – the divorce rate is double for a family dealing with autism than one that is not.”
He said he is trying to raise awareness and acceptance of persons with autism who often can’t speak for themselves.
Biel has set a goal of raising $1.4 million for autism research and support in Canada and the United States.