“I would trade the football for Autism any day,” Penn State letterman Curt Warner said to a teary-eyed audience at the 2013 National Autism Conference.
The 17th annual conference, held at the Penn Stater Conference Center and Hotel, ended Thursday with the keynote address by Warner and his family.
Speaking about his twin teenage sons, Austin and Christian , the two-time All-American shared his family’s story and how they deal with autism on a daily basis.
With his wife Ana and son Jonathan by his side, Warner struggled to keep his composure.
“It doesn’t just end. It’s ongoing and you can’t put it in reverse,” Warner said.
While looking into the audience filled with parents, family members and educators of those involved with autism, Warner let his wife speak as he took some time to recollect his thoughts.
“Autism is a daily grind, struggle and it’s just one of those things you have to deal with,” Ana said.
Expressing the toll that autism has taken on their family, Ana described the stress they endure and how they cope with it.
“We choose to deal with it from an optimistic stand point,” she said. “We are never going to give up on our boys.”
The family continued to take the audience on an emotional roller coaster throughout the presentation.
But stories of Austin and Christian’s behavior also brought out laughter, as Ana made light of the situation.
Whenever the parents correct their Disney-loving boys’ behavior, Austin and Christian typically refer to them as Disney villains, Ana shared.
“They’ve called me Cruella de Vil and Maleficent , and Curt has even been called Scar a few times,” Ana said.
Laughter aside, the presentation mainly touched upon the more serious side of the disorder.
“I don’t want this challenge, but it’s like someone said, ‘Well, sorry. You got picked,’ ” Warner said.
He mentioned that praying is one of the ways they get through the hard times.
“Learn to pray,” Warner said, through tears. “Because autism, it will bring you to your knees.”
Reminding the audience that autism affects everyone in the family directly, 20 year-old Jonathan expressed his difficulties growing up with his two younger, autistic brothers.
“It’s been interesting growing up with them, especially socially,” he said.
Feeling unable to connect with Austin and Christian, Jonathan said he considered his childhood friends his family. Watching his friends’ easy lifestyles, young Jonathan said he couldn’t help but wonder, “Why can’t I have that?”
However, Jonathan admitted that his family situation has helped him mature faster and acquire patience easier than his peers.
The Warner’s presentation painted a clear picture of what living with autistic children truly entails.
“There is no vacation for us,” Ana said. “You deal with emotions as a parent —dreams that aren’t going to happen.”
The family shared thoughts that the average person typically would not have to worry about.
Jonathan expressed his wishes to just “shoot some hoops” with his brothers, who would otherwise be physically able.
Both Curt and Ana were brought to tears at the thought that they can’t see their 19 year-old sons drive a car, go to college or get married in the future.
The couple acknowledged that the problem will never go away, but the increasing number of support systems is exciting to them.
To wrap up the National Autism Conference, the Warners collectively expressed powerful advice to their listeners.
“Count your blessings. It makes life easier,” Ana said. “The numbers [of people dealing with autism] are huge. Society better get used to us because we’re not going anywhere.”
Candace McPhillips and Gabriella Santoliquito can be reached at (814) 865-1828.