Being a parent isn’t easy, but when you throw in that one is a Major League Baseball player, the challenges can be even more difficult. And, if you’re Shonda and Curt Schilling, the challenges greatly increased when they got the diagnosis in 2007 that their then 7-year-old son Grant had Asperger’s Syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism.
As someone with a child with autism (see Biz of Baseball’s Maury Brown Speaks on Fatherhood and Autism), and with the Business of Sports Network’s Autism Awareness Campaign kicking off today, there seemed no better interview to publish this month than the following with the Schillings. Through Shonda’s book, The Best Kind of Different: Our Family’s Journey with Asperger’s Syndrome (Harper-Collins) I was struck by seeing a different view of professional athletes and their wives, and the challenges that are added when Asperger's Syndrome is in the mix. As Curt writes in the Introduction of the book, and mentions within the following interview, parenting by way of AT&T becomes a way of life when you’re on the road 9 months out of the year.
With well over 60 interviews published on the Business of Sports Network family of sites, this was by far the most personal. It is a candid and revealing view of not only Curt, but of life within the Schilling family through the eyes of Shonda. – Maury Brown
Select Read More to see the interview with Shonda and Curt Schilling
Maury Brown for the Business of Sports Network: Shonda, you write in The Best Kind of Different that it finally came upon you in the Summer of 2007 that something was different about Grant. Depending on where a child is on the autism spectrum, a lot of parents can put two and two together and say, “It looks like autism.” When you realized that something was different with Grant did the idea cross your mind that it could be a form of autism?
Shonda Schilling: To be honest with you, I didn’t even know there was an autism scale. I thought autism was just what we see. What I had seen was just some of the children that my kids go to school with. I didn’t know there was a different variation of the functioning and how that effects. Certainly when you find out that when you’ve met one child with autism, you’ve really only met one child with autism. The only thing that tipped into my head was a couple weeks before when Curt went out to throw the football with him and came back and said, “He’s not processing anything.” When I Googled “processing”, that’s autism is what came up. I had already had Grant seen by a neurologist because I was having him diagnosed for ADHD. I went into that doctor’s appointment thinking about the processing issue. For a few weeks, I just was pushing it back down. “It can’t be. “It just doesn’t make sense, even though there are things going on here that seemed like autism.” So, I just tried not to think about it until I went into the doctor’s office and was expecting one diagnosis and I got two.
Maury Brown: Curt, Grant’s diagnosis came in the summer of 2007, your last season in baseball. The timing of the two allows you to now focus on Grant and the rest of the family without the distractions of playing. Let’s say that the diagnosis had come earlier… say, 2005. Do you think it would it have affected your career path in MLB?
Curt Schilling: No idea. I mean, we walked away when we wanted to walk away. I honestly don’t know; it depends on how we both would have addressed it at that point. I might have retired a year or two earlier, so I don’t know.
Maury Brown: Shonda, you describe a painful moment early on in The Best Kind of Different in which Grant has a meltdown during a trip to Camden Yards to see Curt play. For those that have children, or spend time with children on the ASD scale, this type of occurrence can be all too typical. The difference is, there is level of celebrity in both your lives compared to most. Have you two had to learn to ignore the stares, comments, or gestures, or is it a case of gritting your teeth through it?
Shonda Schilling: We try to ignore it. I can think of time when we were in Minnesota watching Curt play. We were at the Mall of America, doing all this fun stuff, and I thought, we’ll just get a haircut here. I think that was the most mortified I had ever been, it was such a simple thing. If I had just known, it could have avoided the change in place where he got his hair cut. I don’t think that I pay attention to [the added stares] as much as I used to. I still find that if he’s out on the soccer field and he’s flipping stuff up in the net, or if he’s not paying attention, I’m not explaining my myself, I still do explain his behavior, but I think that comes with maturity and understanding the situation, too.
Maury Brown: Asperger’s, or classic autism, both bring about frustration. There are countless moments where you are trying to get a point across… maybe something as simple as, “Go over there and pick your clothes,” that simply doesn’t register. That is frustrating for the parent but there is many times frustration by the one that has the disorder. Who gets more frustrated in trying to communicate, you two or Grant?
Curt Schilling: It’s both. Remember, I only got snippets of this. I was parenting over the phone. My response was, “Just be stricter. Punish him more.” You know, all the things that a guy says that are those quick-fix solutions. For me it always was, just be louder. As a father, I don’t spank my kids. I didn’t grew up in a house were spankings were handed out with any consistency. So I yelled a lot, and she yelled a lot. With someone who has heightened sensory awareness, yelling is the exact opposite of the right way to go about talking to someone with Asperger’s. The frustration, that’s probably the one thing that’s gone away since [the diagnosis], because you understand with other kids - kids that understand and react to social cues and the family hierarchy - when I say something, you do it. With an Asperger’s kid, it depends on the time of the day and the day of the week as to how they are going to act and react to everything you say and do. When you understand that, it makes it a lot easier. You’re not saying, “I need you to do this right now and it has to get done.” You understand that a kid with Asperger’s, there’s a different clock in his head and a very different schedule on his mind, he’s going to work and beat to his own drummer.
Maury Brown: Grant is not your only child; you have three others that you are raising. In my experience raising one neurotypical child and one that is autistic, it can be difficult as you wind up having different sets of rules for each of them. How have you adjusted to that difficult aspect? And how has Gehrig, Gabby, and Garrison adjusted to having a sibling with Asperger’s?
Shonda Schilling: The funny thing is, if they just start with bringing it up, I don’t want to hear it. I still discipline them the same way, and I still expect things from them. I’m sure it’s tough because their young and they don’t always have to understand it. We made them, we love them. It’s probably hard on the kids because it’s frustrating to them. When Gehrig has his friends downstairs and Grant is walking down and pushing on his friends trying to get him to fight when he shouldn’t even be down there, it’s frustrating because we can’t get him out. If I were to say (with a typical child) “Grant get up here right now,” he’s going to circle around because he likes the attention. It’s frustrating on a different level, but it also teaches them compassion. Last week, my daughter was in a play, and one of the people in the play had Asperger’s and he messed up the first night, and he was yelling out, “I suck, I suck”. He was talking to himself and he got in a meltdown. Gabby was able to walk up to him and say, “You know what Douglas, you’re fine, you’re doing a great job” and tried to help him get through where he was stuck.
Maury Brown: Life on the autism spectrum is about order. Life for one on the scale becomes heavily schedule driven. Shonda, you discuss at length in the book about what happens when you’ve broken Grant’s schedule. How have you two adjusted to dealing with this aspect of Asperger’s?
Shonda Schilling: He does better in school because school is on a schedule and it’s the same every single week. The things that we have to schedule in are the things he’s involved in, like the soccer games. You just wake up on Saturday morning and to a typical kid you say “In an hour we’re going to a soccer game,” but we have to prepare him three days before that soccer game that this is coming, that way the transition is much easier. It takes a little bit of time, but I often compare it to potty training. We dread potty training because we think it’s going to be so much work, but when it becomes part of the routine it’s not, it’s fine, it’s part of who you are and it’s part of how you’re day goes by smoother and it’s part of what you do.
Maury Brown: When parents find out about the diagnosis of their child being on the ASD scale, you run through a broad range of emotions… there can be grief, anger, disbelief… When the dust settles (and let’s be honest, it never truly does) there can be that point where you accept that Asperger’s is part of Grant’s life, but it does not define him. Are you both at that stage?
Curt Schilling: Sure, if you talk to Shonda about it, one of the things she talks about is that every parent has a vision of what they want their child to become; what they hope they can aspire to be and do. In conjunction with the way things have gone before, there’s this immense guilt when the diagnosis comes in. A lot of it has to do with how long the child has been in your life as to how much guilt you have. Grant was seven or eight... I look back on seven or eight years of strict discipline and “my God, why doesn’t he listen?” and punishment for things Grant had no intensions of pissing me off or defying me; it’s just how he worked. So there’s an immense amount of guilt because of the time you’ve lost. It’s obviously very different for someone who has an autistic child, because autism tends to lean towards a full life of care. You can meet kids with Asperger’s and never know they have it…autism, not so much. Obviously, we felt very blessed that we had a child who we could find a path to normalcy or as close to normalcy as possible, where we could envision Grant getting married and having kids. That’s something that parent’s of autistic children, they don’t get that. We’ve always lived by “the silver lining thing”, our entire lives and have been built around that. When Shonda sat me down to explain to me what had happened and what the diagnosis was, my first thought was, “How do we do it? What do we do?”
Shonda Schilling: Absolutely. It doesn’t define him by any means, but what it does is, the way he is in thinking, the way he lives his life, is actually instead of being an inconvenience of schedules, it’s an inspiration. How neat it must be to get up in the morning, it’s like “I’m going to wear my shirt backwards and I really don’t care what people think.” Can you imagine that that’s how you feel and you can just express that? If I want to carry a stuffed animal because I like the feeling of it today I’m going to carry it and I don’t really care.
Maury Brown: It’s been said that often times the little victories in life are the greatest. With therapy, those on the scale can achieve more than parents might initially think possible. Has Grant’s diagnosis changed the way you see “achievements” in life?
Curt Schilling: Absolutely. You’re on a level that we’re not [with a “classic” autistic child]. Your little victories could be something as simple as brushing teeth. Ours could be something as simple as going to a social function, and literally walking away allowing him to be by himself and interact with other kids. Kids with autism, you can’t do that. Grant’s at that age, eight, nine, ten-year-old boys holding hands and hugging and being close and personal, it starts to become uncool. But Grant is very emotional. If our emotional meters are one to ten, a kid’s with autism and Asperger’s is negative 500 to positive 500, and there’s no in-between. You don’t have a kid with Asperger’s or a kid with autism who’s just sitting around going through the day. For a child of the ASD scale, everything is extreme. You can imagine how it would be to live as an adult like that. You know how kids are, the most important thing in your life at 12 you forget about by the time you’re 18. It’s got to be incredibly taxing. So, yeah, we look for those little things, sports has always been a natural part of our lives. We’ve gotten Grant involved in a lot of sports activities. A Monday, he might want to play the most intense soccer game of his life, and Tuesday he doesn’t even want to put his soccer shoes on. That was the immense challenge for Shonda trying to do that alone for so many years.
Maury Brown: There is a parent out there today that will have their child diagnosed as being on the autism scale, or someone may be wondering if their child might be on the scale. What would you two say to those parents?
Shonda Schilling: That it’s OK to feel the feelings that you’re feeling, and that you will get through it and you will feel better, but the feelings never go away. Being scared, the sadness, the frustration, it never goes away, that’s why it was so easy to write the book, because all the feelings could come right to my head at any time.
Maury Brown: The Best Kind of Different seems to be both a cleansing of the soul by telling the story in very honest detail, but also a way to help other parents that may be experiencing some of the same emotions and challenges
Shonda Schilling: That process of getting from the place where I got to first diagnosis to writing that, it wasn’t overnight, it literally took me two years to do that. You have to sort, and you have to give yourself time to deal inside and keep working. If you are a single parent dealing with this, get help for yourself. Make sure you’re taken care of, because if you are in a good place, it’s going to make everything else easier. This is a strain, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with you getting couples counseling or having a pastor or someone like that, that can help you learn to communicate how you feel, because you need to be validated that you do feel bad, and you do feel frustrating, and you don’t mean to be judged, I just need to be understood.
Maury Brown: Finally, be it Asperger’s or low-functioning autism, those touched directly by the developmental disorder see the world far differently than they did before ASD came into their lives. For the rest of society, there seems to be a lot more to be learned, be it compassion, or patience, or both. What would you say to those that may not know anything about Autism Spectrum Disorder?
Shonda Schilling: It’s not just ASD either, it’s all of it. Why have we gotten in a place in our lives where we have the right to judge other people? We’re supposed to be her to take care of each other.. Those times where Grant was having a meltdown and I was humiliated and frustrated as possible, it made it ten times worse because people were giving me those looks. I could have used that smile to get me through. That’s just how I feel that hopefully we realize that we are judging people as parents and we never know what’s going on in the house. Hopefully we do become more compassionate towards people, even in coaching and when you’re kids friends come over. We just have to step back and know that everybody’s different, there’s no perfect child and no perfect way to parent; we’re just doing the best that we can.
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Special thanks to Nick Kappel for transcription assistance
Maury Brown is the Founder and President of the Business of Sports Network, which includes The Biz of Baseball, The Biz of Football, The Biz of Basketball and The Biz of Hockey. He is available for hire or freelance. Brown's full bio is here. He looks forward to your comments via email and can be contacted through the Business of Sports Network.
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