By Ron Sandison
Curt Warner is a two-time All-American at Penn State, a 2009 College Football Hall of Fame inductee, and a former All-Pro running back for the Seattle Seahawks and Los Angeles Rams. Ana Warner has dedicated her life to the care of her family and the study of autism spectrum disorder. Curt and Ana Warner are the authors of the just released bestseller, The Warner Boys: Our Family’s Story of Autism & Hope.
1. What were some of the early signs your sons were on the autism spectrum? At what age were your twin sons diagnosed with autism?
Curt and Ana: “Some of the early signs we noticed in our twin sons, Austin and Christian, were their extreme hyperactivity. Climbing on everything in the house and also eating carpet and nonfood items. The twins were speech delayed and had difficulty sleeping. Instead of gaining new words, they began constructing a confusing vocabulary of their own. When they were two years old, the twins would cry continually. Compared to our older son, Jonathan, who as a child, was calm and happy. Christian was sick all the time with ear infections or sinus infections.”
Ana: “For almost three years, we worked our way through the lengthy lists of pediatricians, giving one doctor after another the full account of the twin’s behaviors. One doctor handed Austin a tongue depressor to occupy his interest while he asked me a few questions. By the time the doctor charted his notes and looked back at Austin, he had chewed the stick down to nothing. “See, that’s what I’m talking about, I told the doctor.”
When the doctor told us, our twins had autism, my first questions was, “What did I do wrong?” The doctor replied, “No, no, it’s not your fault.”
Curt and Ana: “The twins were diagnosed with autism a month before their fifth birthday on June, 10, 1999.”
2. What was your biggest fear raising two sons with autism?
Curt and Ana: “The Future! Our boys need to be cared for 24/7 and who will care for them when we’re gone?”
3. What makes your sons happy? Do they have any special interests?
Curt and Ana: “Our sons love Disney movies and the characters. They also love Broadway shows, theaters, and nature hikes. Both twins are very energetic and active. When they are happy you can hear them jumping and giggling.”
Ana: “Austin can provide any detail of every Disney movie from the last decade or more. Producer, director, voice actors, anything. His recall of his information is instant and thorough. But he can’t tell you how many quarters make a dollar.”
4. What has been your greatest challenge raising two sons with autism?
Curt and Ana: “When the twins were young the greatest challenge was their frequent meltdowns. Our primary focus for the twins was keeping them safe and healthy. This required us to be vigilant 24/7. In 2002, Christian began one of the most alarming behaviors we would experience—head banging. Austin did it occasionally but not as violently as his brother. Christian was in a trauma ward for a CT scan after banging his head violently against a concrete wall and bleeding intensely.”
Curt: “Having twins with autism made it challenging to get a babysitters. We couldn’t ask some young neighbor kid to be responsible if the boys started kicking the walls or having meltdowns. These were difficult situations even for us, as their parents, to deal with.”
Ana: “Puberty was a nightmare. Adding hormones into the mix caused the twins behaviors to become more destructive. And with their increasing physical strength, the boys seemed on the verge of demolishing the house. There were holes in the walls everywhere.”
5. Please share the story of the house fire and what it taught you?
Curt and Ana: “Our twins lack natural fear. When the twins were thirteen they had the strength and physical capabilities of their peers but the cognitive abilities of a four or five year old. The combination of physical strength with the absence of judgement and understanding of dangerous consequences was a recipe for disaster.”
Ana: “A few days after Isabella’s birthday, Austin found in the garage, the lighter that lit the candles on the cake. Johnathon was home from college sick with bronchitis. Suddenly, the cry of the smoke alarm rang out. As I approached the staircase, I saw Austin exiting the kitchen with a small glass of water, his face a mask of guilt. By the time I entered Austin’s room the fire had spread from the trash can to the curtains. I immediately ran to the master bedroom and grabbed the extinguisher. I pulled the pin and aimed it at the flames climbing up the wall and squeezed the lever but nothing happened.
“I screamed to Jonathon to get the kids out of the house. ‘Mom! Mom!’ Jonathan replied from the mudroom. ‘I can’t find Austin.’ I almost fainted in fear. A few seconds later, Johnathon shouted, ‘Mom, I found him.’ I quickly drove the car down the driveway, when suddenly an explosion like a bomb baste shook us. From the road we watched as the firefighters arrived and fought the flames in vain. The fire completely consumed our home.
“Austin said, ‘Mama almost died.’ The sight of me, covered in ash and coughing, made Austin realize what had happened and he was sadden and scared to death. Later Austin explained that while he was in his room that afternoon, he thought he was Pinocchio inside the whale, Monstro, and the only way to get out was to light a fire, just as Pinocchio had. In Austin’s mind, he was acting out a Disney movie.”
Curt: “My family learned by the fire—the most important thing is our family. We lost family photos and many of my football memorabilia but thank God, my family was safe. Material things, don’t matter. Memories are good enough.”
6. What helps your twins’ sensory issues?
Ana: “Riding in the car calmed the twins. Maybe it was the motion, the steady vibration, or the sound of the spinning wheels. Whatever it was, the combination acted like a soothing lullaby for them. Almost nothing else quieted them for such a long period of time.”
7. How has your faith in Christ empowered you in parenting?
Curt and Ana: “We honor God in our parenting by asking the question, “How would God want us to raise our children?” We pray daily for God’s parenting wisdom and safety. Faith in Christ also provide us with hope and confidence since God is in control.”
Ana: “We both think that having a solid foundation based on our love for each other and our strong faith helped us weather the hard times. We made a promise to one another, and to God, and we were going to stick it out through sickness and health. That meant there was no giving up.”
8. What inspired you to write The Warner Boys: Our Family’s Story of Autism and Hope?
Curt and Ana: “We wrote our book to provide hope and encouragement to families who have children with autism and as an example of how marriages can thrive even with an autism diagnosis.”
9. What are some life lessons your twins have taught your family?
Curt: “When Jonathon was in third grad, he asked his teacher if he could help with the kids in the special needs class. He said he wanted to because he knew how to make them smile. Jonathon explained to the teacher that he had learned how while dealing with his twin brothers.”
10. What advice would you give to parents whose child was recently diagnosed with autism?
Curt: “When playing in the NFL coach Chuck Knox told our team, “You have to be ready and able to adapt to your circumstances. Things can change drastically at any time so you need to play the hand you’re dealt.” In raising a child or children with autism you need to be able to adapt to the circumstances and also take advantage of all the therapies and resources available. You need a team to help you.”
11. What therapies have helped your sons the most?
Ana: “We decided to give ABA a try, and within the first couple of weeks after diagnosis, the twins were enrolled in the program. We started feeling such a sense of progress. It was as if we were finally able to do something that would make the boys better. We were encouraged and hopeful for the first time in years…
“There was a constant rotation of therapists every couple of hours who would use flash cards to help develop language and positive reinforcement to shape behavior. It was an intense environment. There were people in our home all the time…
“The chaos was productive. The boys learned a lot; we were seeing meaningful results. They were recognizing numbers and letters and even started to read a little… Over the course of the year, the twins’ immediate improvements were impressive: language skills, using utensils, and potty training.”
12. Now that your sons are adults what is your main focus in helping them?
Curt and Ana: “Right now our main focus is for our sons to live healthy and happy lives. We are building a home for them in Sunridge Ranch to live. The twins will have live-in aides and counselors to teach life, vocational, and social skills. Austin and Christian will work with crops and care for animals on the ranch.”
Curt: “At twenty-three, Austin and Christian still write letters to Santa and get excited to go to the mall and get in line to tell Santa what they want. Since there are a lot of little kids there, of course, the twins get some curious looks.”
Ana: “The twins are currently employed part-time for SEH America in Vancouver, Washington. They enjoy working five days a week, in two-hour shifts. Austin likes working to make money.”
13. Please share a humorous autism story.
Curt and Ana: “Austin passed gas in front of his sister, Isabella, and said, “I just let the bubbles loose!” Once when we were disciplining Isabella, Austin exclaimed, “Lock her in the tower.”
Curt and Ana’s Bios
Curt Warner is an honors graduate in communication, a two-time All-American at Penn State, a 2009 College Football Hall of Fame inductee, and a former All-Pro running back for the Seattle Seahawks and Los Angeles Rams. A three-time Pro Bowler, Warner was inducted into the Seattle Seahawks Ring of Honor in 1994.
Ana Warner has dedicated her life to the care of her family and the study and treatment of autism spectrum disorder. Both she and her husband have served as keynote speakers at the National Autism Conference at Penn State and the Texas Autism Conference in San Antonio. The Warner Boys is their first book.