Football Great Curt Warner Opens Up about Autism

August 2, 2013 at 2:22 pm 4 comments

The Warner family at the podium, as captured by Trish Hummer of Penn State Outreach.

The Warner family at the podium, as captured by Trish Hummer of Penn State Outreach.

When the doctor said “autism”—about five minutes after Curt and Ana Warner entered their new pediatrician’s office with their 5-year-old twins, who weren’t developing the way their older son had—they didn’t know what to think. Autism? All they knew of autism was Raymond from Rain Man, and Dustin Hoffman’s character didn’t resemble either of their boys, Austin or Christian.

So Curt and Ana went home and went to the Internet with one question in mind: How do we fix this?

Turns out, they couldn’t. All they could do was live with it—and love their boys. Which hasn’t been easy.

Austin and Christian are 19 years old now, high school seniors with what the Warners call a “medium” level of autism. They’re old enough to shave, but Ana has to do it for them. When they travel, Curt and Ana fly separately, reducing the odds that the twins could be left without either parent to care for them. All doors in their home are always locked—adults carry the keys on their person, even when they’re inside, at all times—and their property is surrounded by a high fence to keep the twins from wandering away.

That’s not to say there aren’t moments of joy. The twins know everything about Disney (name a movie, Austin will respond immediately with the director and producer), so there are movie nights and family trips to the theme park, and Ana records milestones like new words or properly using the bathroom on sticky notes, the better to remember.

“Count your blessings,” Ana told attendees Thursday at the National Autism Conference at Penn State. “It helps a lot. You’re going to have dark days, so remember to count your blessings. Write them down and read them, the funny stories. When you’re sad, you’ll laugh at stuff like that. It will brighten up your day. “

The Warners told their story—for the first time, excepting this short ESPN piece in December 2011—Thursday afternoon at the National Autism Conference at Penn State. (Click here to watch; it lasts about an hour.) Curt, tailback on the 1982 national championship team and a three-time Pro Bowler with the Seattle Seahawks, Ana, and their other son Jonathan, a redshirt freshman wide receiver for the Nittany Lions, stood together at the podium. It was to give all sides of their story, of course, but also to give each other support; it took Curt months to respond to the invitation to speak, he said, because he gets so emotional talking about “the boys.”

The Warners weren’t polished or practiced. Sometimes they rambled. Sometimes they talked too softly to be clearly heard in the back. Sometimes they talked over each other. But they were raw and real and compelling. In the audience, mostly parents and educators of autistic children, people whispered “yes,” or “right,” or nodded as the Warners discussed their ups and downs. As Jonathan talked about how he knows that one day, when his parents are gone, he’ll be responsible for taking care of his brothers’ every need and that he’ll be proud to do it, a woman sitting across the aisle from me went to the back of the room for cocktail napkins and handed some to another woman who needed something to wipe away her tears. (I could have used a couple myself.)

Curt Warner retired after the 1990 season, but he looks almost fit enough to play.

Curt Warner retired after the 1990 season, but he looks almost fit enough to play.

Curt opened the talk by giving what he called “three disclaimers”—that he and Ana were speaking only of their own opinions and experiences, that they are not politically affiliated with any group, and that he wanted to “commend the front-line people,” parents and educators, who deal with autism every day.

“I assure you that I’m in the same boat with you,” he said. “I don’t want this challenge. I tell people that—I don’t want this, I don’t want to deal with it. Let somebody else deal with it. Well, sorry—you got picked. Whether you like it whether you don’t like it, you’ve got to deal with it. We choose to deal with it from an optimistic standpoint. We are never going to give up on our boys.”

This brought applause. Curt added: “Never give up, never give in. But you learn to pray quite a bit. Learn to pray—this will force you to your knees.”

Then he stepped away from the podium, unable to continue. He took a few deep breaths. “Excuse me,” he said, softly.

Ana took over as the family discussed everything from the twins’ educational options to how to make other siblings feel included to the importance of date night, even if that’s just popcorn from Target and a movie. And she told the story that I’m sure no one in the room will be able to forget.

The twins—particularly Austin—are obsessed with Disney. They can rattle off the director and producers of every Disney film, and they often call people by the names of Disney characters. (Ana, who laughed as she called herself “the sergeant,” is often addressed as Evil Queen or Evil Stepmother or Cruella. Curt is Scar, but sometimes he gets Cruella, too. The twins called a teacher Rasputin.) Sometimes, Ana told ESPN, the twins “think they are in a Disney movie.”

One day in 2008, 12-year-old Austin thought he was Pinocchio, trapped in the belly of a whale. Pinocchio got out by setting a fire, so Austin followed his father, discovered where the matches were hidden in the garage, and later returned to get them and set a fire in his bedroom. Ana found out when she saw Austin creeping up the steps with a glass of water to put out the fire. Jonathan—who was home sick from school that day—helped her get the twins out of the house, and they piled in the car and waited outside for Curt to race home from work.

Their home was destroyed, along with many mementos from Warner’s career. As ESPN put it, his AFC Rookie of the Year and Player of the Year trophies melted.

The Warners rebuilt their home—with extra-thick walls. (That said, hormones made the twins so destructive during puberty that Curt had to learn to hang dry wall.) They found a school where the twins are learning, although they’re not being challenged as much as Curt and Ana would like. They adopted a daughter, Isabella. They watched Jonathan help to lead his Camas (Wash.) High School team to the state semifinals. They are thrilled as they see more options and more support become available for autistic children and their families.

And they are beginning to talk about their experiences.

“I think the most important thing in this whole situation comes down to having faith,” Curt said, wrapping up the talk. “I will say that again and again and again: You’ve got to have some faith because this is a struggle that doesn’t end. … It’s an ongoing process; it’s not something you volunteer for. You’re picked; you’ve got to deal with it. So God bless all of you.”

Ana had the last word. “Count your blessings,” she reminded the audience. “Write them down—it makes life easier. And the numbers (of autistic children) are now huge. So society better get used to us. We’re not going anywhere.”

She raised her fists. The audience stood and applauded.

Lori Shontz, senior editor

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