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Posted on Mon, Apr 22, 2013 : 5:57 a.m.

Autistic Chelsea teen nominated for state fitness award after losing weight

By Janet Miller


Sophie's mother Mary Hellner, left, Sophie Lash, middle, and stepfather Skip DeWall pose for a picture in their Chelsea home. Sophie worked to lose almost 70 pounds and is up for the Michigan Fitness Foundation Governor’s Fitness Award for Conquering Obesity.

Janet Miller I For

Sophie Lash, of Chelsea, was caught in the familiar circle of weight gain: She would over-eat, causing her to pack on pounds and making it difficult to be active in order to lose weight. By the time she was 12, she was tipping the scales at nearly 200 pounds on her 5-foot 4-inch frame.

Sophie also is a non-verbal autistic teen, unable to communicate with the world that surrounds her, which worked to complicate the situation.

By 2008, with a diet heavy in energy bars, Pop Tarts, cereal, rice cakes and microwave popcorn and a sedentary lifestyle with hours spent sitting in front of a computer watching YouTube videos, Sophie started having health issues.

“She would exceed her recommended daily caloric intake with popcorn alone,” said Skip DeWall, Sophie’s stepfather.

Her ankles were swollen and she rebuffed her family’s efforts to get her out of the house. She’d become too heavy and too strong to be moved against her will.

But when Sophie’s mother, Mary Hellner, married DeWall in 2011 things began to change. Sophie had met her match: DeWall, who participates in triathlons, was convinced Sophie could lose weight and get into shape. He began counting Sophie’s calories, convinced her to eat healthier food and started an exercise program that included time on the treadmill, swimming and hiking.

“We started running laps at the track,” DeWall said. “She hated it.”


Sophie Lash prepares to walk on the treadmill with the help of her stepfather Skip DeWall. DeWall helped Sophie to start eating healthier, exercising and overcoming anxiety.

Janet Miller I For

Today, Sophie, 14, is a comfortable 132 pounds and a much happier child, her mother said. They go on family outings, the days of locking food away are over and Sophie completed the one-mile Chelsea Run for the Rolls last summer to a cheering crowd. She’s also training for this year’s run.

For her efforts, Sophie is one of three finalists for the Michigan Fitness Foundation Governor’s Fitness Award for Conquering Obesity. She will be honored with a day in Lansing on April 25, where she’ll meet Gov. Rick Snyder and visit the Senate gallery.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder frequently accompanies autism, Hellner said. Sophie would play with food, such as cereal, and then eat it.

“She was very food-motivated,” she said, but Sophie would eat only a limited number of foods. At the same time, Sophie had anxiety about going out in public. As a single mom, it became difficult just to run errands, Hellner said. Sophie’s weight began to balloon.

DeWall delivered tough love to Sophie’s strong will: He would carry her when she refused to move. When she spit out a grape, he would put it back in her mouth, over and over until she ate at least one grape.

“There was a lot of good cop, bad cop,” DeWall said. It wasn’t easy for Hellner or her older daughter, Hannah, to watch Sophie struggle with the new discipline, Hellner said.

And the changes didn’t come overnight, DeWall said. At first, she’d just walk to the car. Then she would walk to the sidewalk. Next, she’d walk to the corner.

“It was baby steps and every step forward was celebrated,” Hellner said.

Today, Sophie enjoys hiking through the woods with her family. She runs on a nearby track with DeWall, although she still doesn’t enjoy it.

“She doesn’t like to run in circles. She doesn’t understand why you would run around the track more than once,” DeWall said.

While Sophie can’t speak, she communicates in more subtle ways, with facial expressions and sounds. But she’s aware of what’s happening around her. When spectators began to cheer when she ran last summer’s Run for the Rolls, Sophie stopped and smiled at the crowd, DeWall said.

“She knew she was being acknowledged for her accomplishment. And it made her happy. She did it on her own.”


Renee VanEpps

Tue, Apr 23, 2013 : 12:18 a.m.

Wow, this is bringing tears to my eyes!! Such a great story and I'm so happy for these people. Don't ever stop being healthy Sophie!!!!

Danni M

Mon, Apr 22, 2013 : 2:52 p.m.

What an amazing and dedicated step dad! Congratulations to Sophie and her whole family.


Mon, Apr 22, 2013 : 1:22 p.m.

What a marvelous story and congratulations to all involved. Best wishes to Sophie. Hope you win. Actually, you already are a winner. Keep up the great work.


Mon, Apr 22, 2013 : 1:04 p.m.

Clean food is critical for autistics. I'm only mildly on the spectrum but removing artificial food additives, removing grains, removing legumes (especially soy), removing refined sugar, and switching to healthy fats, pastured meats and organic veggies made a world of difference. Besides increased clarity I lost my excess weight. This works for neurotypicals too. I'd also do the hair test for heavy metals, following Andrew Cutler's protocol. Absolutely, positively do not do provocation tests or IV chelation! Mercury, arsenic, aluminum and cadmium are common toxins. Autistics tend to have trouble excreting heavy metals. It's probably a good idea to switch from city water to spring water too, especially with Arbor Springs being so convenient. I totally understand the puzzlement with running around in circles. Neurotypicals can be so silly.


Mon, Apr 22, 2013 : 1:32 p.m.

Thanks for sharing! I wasn't sure which phrase to use to indicate someone who isn't challenged with autism.


Mon, Apr 22, 2013 : 12:57 p.m.

As an eating disorder professional, I cringed when I read this article. Contrast "she did it on her own" with the following statements: "He would carry her when she refused to move" "she hated it" "she still doesn't enjoy it". I know that people have strong feelings on both sides about the obesity "crisis", and some say the "tough love" approach is sometimes needed, but I fear this family missed their opportunity to help her find movement that she enjoys and build a deeper trust in her body. Given that most people who lose weight on diets gain it back if they are not able to find their own intrinsic motivation to sustain these changes over their lives, I think it might be premature to state that she has conquered obesity.

Renee VanEpps

Tue, Apr 23, 2013 : 12:30 a.m.

I understand your point, but since she does have special needs, it might have been all they could do to save her life. Hopefully with her renewed health, she will find something she does enjoy with the help of her parents :)

Eg Eg

Tue, Apr 23, 2013 : 12:04 a.m.

Do you also have an autistic child? If not, you really have no clue of the challenges we parents face with simple, everyday living that most people don't give a second thought to. I applaud these parents for the "little" steps that they are accomplishing, as most parents of autistic children don't get to see their children reach all of the milestones that "normal" children reach. And there is no way to reason with an autistic child if they are dead set against something. Their brains don't work that way.


Mon, Apr 22, 2013 : 10:45 p.m.

She finished the "Run for the Rolls" on her own.


Mon, Apr 22, 2013 : 1:29 p.m.

One step at a time...she wasn't moving at all. Now she is in a position to find movement she enjoys. Kudos to that step-dad, most people don't tackle that challenge with kids who have no problems verbalizing on their own.


Mon, Apr 22, 2013 : 1:24 p.m.

Sometimes working with children with "special needs" you have to do what you had to do to make it work. Consistency, commitment, and love.


Mon, Apr 22, 2013 : 12:05 p.m.

Wow! Great story.

Anne Kornow

Mon, Apr 22, 2013 : 11:43 a.m.

Difficult and rewarding for the whole family--way to go!

Sam S Smith

Mon, Apr 22, 2013 : 10:11 a.m.

Congratulations Sophie! Outstanding!