From autistic teen to cross country champion

A young Christchurch teenager has defied expectations to become a cross country champion.

Nathan Carter, 16, knows he's autistic and is proud of it. At 15 months old he stopped responding to his name, and was diagnosed at just two years of age.

Now he's competing in and winning both para-athletic and mainstream races. The latest title under his belt is this year's para-athletes secondary schools cross country champion.

"I felt proud of that," he says.

It's an achievement his mother Bridget Carter never thought she would see.

"Thinking back to the first time he ran, I remember him yelling out 'Mum', because there's all these people around him and it's quite scary."

Nathan's biggest challenge is social interaction, noise and crowds. He was non-verbal until the age of seven, Ms Carter says.

"He found it very difficult to be around people, and in groups in particular - and just really wanted to be moving. That seemed to be what made him happy, and helped him cope with chaos around him."

But running hasn't always been a straightforward task for Nathan. He ran up and down fences, sideways or skipped until he got to Darfield High School.

There, sports became compulsory, so teacher aides would run with him - until they couldn't keep up when he started winning.

He only joined running club Papanui Toc H Athletic last year. The gun signalling the start of the race terrified him so much that he would run wearing earmuffs.

Ms Carter says he now expects the noise, and even cheers other people on when he's finished.

"I couldn't imagine this even like two years ago, to now thinking one day Nathan could be representing New Zealand and running in a world champs race - I can visualise that happening."

She says the community now sees Nathan as a sports champion instead of 'the autistic boy'.

"People were not particularly scared of Nathan, but would sometimes avoid him because of maybe the way he behaves in public - it's a little bit different socially," Ms Carter explained.

"But now they're quite confident to come up because they've got something to talk about and acknowledge."

She has a message for other families dealing with autism.

"Just follow their dreams, follow their interests, and dream big - because you just don't know what the future holds."

The mother and son will run a half-marathon together in August, before tackling more cross country challenges and even the Great Wall of China next year.