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Shonda Schilling, wife of retired Boston Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling, utilized the platform her husband’s baseball success provided to further the philanthropic goals her family had set. Through their two decades in baseball, the Schillings leveraged their name to benefit three main causes close to their heart. The first cause was the ALS Association, an organization for which they have raised 10 Million dollars since 1992. They also aided in generating awareness in protecting your skin from the sun with the SHADE Foundation after Shonda’s personal battle with skin cancer. However, perhaps most close to Shonda’s heart was the Schilling’s alignment with Asperger’s Syndrome and promoting the unique qualities of children who are on the autism spectrum. One of the Schilling’s 4 children was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, at the age of 7, in 2007, the same year Curt won his third World Series ring, second in Boston as a member of the Red Sox. Shonda is a NY Times Best Selling Author of The Best Kind of Different, Our Family’s Journey with Asperger’s Syndrome and is a sought after speaker on the topic. (www.thebestkindofdifferent.com)
As a baseball wife, you more often than not were a single parent raising four kids. What challenge did this present in getting the Asperger’s Syndrome diagnosis for your son Grant?
Before Grant’s Asperger’s diagnosis I had a lot of mixed emotions. How can a child that I am raising just like his older siblings be so incredibly different? Having Asperger’s without the diagnosis brought on challenges for me as a parent. I had no insight on how to be the mother Grant needed. When he would get hurt, my first reaction would be to hug him. But you cannot touch a child on the spectrum of autism unless it is on his own terms. This often left me frustrated and at a loss for how to console my own son. Grant’s behavior in public often created a situation for strangers to interfere or give me their take on what kind of parent I needed to be for him. The input often left me feeling humiliated and forced me to become isolated. My husband Curt couldn’t see what our son was doing since he was traveling so much. To Curt it seemed Grant didn’t respect me and he needed more discipline, causing me to get angry at Curt. Because Grant needs nothing from his parents like typical kids need, and with a lack of connection to Curt, I found myself trying even harder to overcompensate, leaving the other kids angry as if Grant was always getting away with stuff. After the diagnosis I felt the guilt of not recognizing this earlier or trusting my instincts that something was really different about Grant.
Grant was diagnosed in the summer of 2007. That year, Curt and the Boston Red Sox won the 2007 World Series. What role did baseball play in processing and accepting the sudden news that your son was on the autism spectrum?
Baseball was my drug. It was my way to escape the pain and emotion that I was going through and keeping inside all to myself. For three hours a night, life at baseball was the only normal comfort that I had.
Did you find that being the spouse of a professional athlete was an asset to getting the support you needed for yourself, your son and your family, or did it present more issues for you as you embraced Asperger’s?
Being the spouse of a famous baseball player was in so many ways not an asset, it was the opposite. I was such a shell of the confident person I was before. I needed to be hugged and treated like a mother who was so sad. I couldn’t bring myself to put my happy face on for anyone so I didn’t ask for help until I was ready. I didn’t want to call and have someone be excited that I was Curt Schillings wife. I needed to be treated like any other mother who just found out their child was on the autism spectrum and not have to talk about my husband and the Red Sox success.
How did the baseball lifestyle present challenges for Grant that children outside professional sports are not faced with?
It seemed like everything about the baseball lifestyle presented challenges. We traveled so much and change was hard for him. Behavior in public was tough sometimes. Grant doesn’t recognize how his actions affect people so his behavior is unfiltered as a youngster. Asperger’s children totally miss the lesson on appropriate learned behaviors so their behavior goes from cute to obnoxious because it seems they should be old enough to know better. He had unfiltered outbursts in public and he couldn’t deal with loud noises and lots of commotion. All of the ingredients in the recipe for a good baseball game were difficult for him. Moving was hard. He was used to repetition and change was difficult. On top of that his interest is in sea life. He has access to everything baseball and does not care, but take him to an aquarium and he is in heaven. This attitude made big moments like the World Series hard to celebrate as a family. It was Grant’s way or no way.
Was there an “AH HA” moment that you just knew you needed to utilized the platform that baseball provided to educate others about Asperger’s Syndrome?
After retiring, my husband became a little league coach. He came home from his first town baseball draft. Curt said he had never seen grown men act the way they did. No one wanted to pick this one kid. They couldn’t stand him. No one would do it so Curt took the boy. I asked for the list and saw the child’s name and I knew he had Asperger’s. I knew at that gut check moment that this is the way people viewed our son Grant. People didn’t understand Grant’s brain and the good in him, so I knew we needed to do something to help Grant and other kids like him.
What was your goal in writing the book The Best King of Different, Our Family’s Journey with Asperger’s Syndrome and what response did your receive?
The goal was to give Grant the dignity that he deserves. I wanted Grant and the people like him to be understood and given the chances that kids before him never received because they were considered too different. I wanted people to see that even though we seemed to have it all we were hurting. You never know what a family is going through. I think the editors wanted me to write it because it would tap into Red Sox nation, but the book was not about baseball. The book touched parents of special needs and typical children. It gave them a sense of… someone gets it and I am not alone. Many were isolating themselves, the way I was. I wanted Asperger’s to be thought of as a blessing. I have a wonderful gift from Grant… he lets me see life through his eyes. After I wrote my book and began speaking, I came to find out that by sharing my story, I was bringing comfort to those other parents out there who felt so alone. They could feel comfort in having a name they could recognize that would understand their struggles.
What advice do you offer to other spouses in sports that are raising a child with special needs such as autism?
When, and only when, you are ready, reach out for help for yourself through support. Do it at your pace. There is no timeline to healing the loss of the child that you thought you would have, and accepting of the child you are given. When and if you are ready to share your story, you will be overwhelmed by the people you touch, and in the end you will realize you are so blessed to be a part of it and have such a support of people who get you that anything is possible!
Shonda Schilling grew up in Maryland and graduated from Towson State College majoring in journalism. She worked in television production for Home Team Sports in Baltimore until marrying Curt Schilling in 1992. They have four children and the family resides in Medfield, MA.