Penn State football great Curt Warner, family relate challenges of autism for parents, siblings

mdawson@centredaily.comAugust 2, 2013 

— Legendary Penn State running back Curt Warner and his wife struggle with their twin sons’ autism diagnosis.

One son started a fire that burned down their house in 2008. They’ve felt discrimination among other parents and teachers. And now that the twins are 19, the Warners are facing the reality that their sons aren’t going to do the typical young adult things, such as go to college.

“It’s a 24/7 struggle,” wife Ana Warner said on Penn State’s campus Thursday during a national autism conference at Penn State in front of a couple hundred parents of autistic children and educators. “There are some days that I just don’t want to deal with it and get out. I don’t have a choice.”

Curt and Ana Warner, who live in Camas, Wash., delivered what was a heart-breaking, brutally honest snapshot of their life rearing 19-year-old autistic twin sons, Austin and Christian, who were diagnosed when they were 5. For the Warners, the presentation was the first time they’d braved speaking publicly about the topic they said has made them stronger, patient and appreciative.

“The most important thing in this whole situation when it comes to autism is faith, and I will say that again and again and again,” said Curt Warner, wearing a Penn State golf shirt standing with his wife and their oldest son, Jonathan, who will be a redshirt freshman for the Nittany Lions this year.“You’ve gotta have some faith because this is a struggle that just doesn’t end.”

The conference, hosted by Penn State’s Outreach unit, brought in more than 1,400 educators and parents for four days of seminars and sessions on wide-ranging topics related to autism. Sessions included research initiatives, legal issues, toilet training, sleep problems and more.

Curt Warner said they deal with their sons’ diagnosis from an “optimistic standpoint.”

“We are never going to give up on our boys,” said Curt Warner, choking up and receiving a comforting pat on the back from his wife. “You never give up, you never give in, but you learn to pray.”

The Warners’ trials have been extreme.

The twins are interested in Disney movies and nothing else, the parents said. The boys have memorized fine details about the movies, such as the producers and the years the films made their debuts.

When the boys are upset, they’ll name-call using Disney character names. For instance, Curt Warner is Scar, the evil uncle from “The Lion King.” Ana Warner may be Cruella de Vil from “101 Dalmatians” or a sea witch.

In 2008, one of the boys re-enacted a scene from “Pinocchio” inside the whale. The boy started a fire in his bedroom that eventually destroyed their house. Warner lost his football trophies in the process.

“Even with the fire and losing everything, that’s just material stuff,” Ana Warner said.

The son ended up suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and blamed himself for nine months, Ana Warner said.

The family rebuilt their home. In retrospect, the mother said, it was a “blessing disguise.” It has thicker walls, the windows have chimes and all the doors have locks.

“That’s how we know that they are OK so that nobody is escaping in the middle of the night,” Ana Warner said. “It turns out that’s how life is, that’s our normal.”

The Warners’ oldest son, Jonathan, said he matured quicker and is patient because of his brothers’ disorder.

As a child and into his teenage years, he struggled. He didn’t invite friends over to his house, and when he visited his friends, he’d see them play with their brothers. That made him wonder what kind of different relationship he may have had with his brothers.

“Autism had a big influential role on me in maturing and understanding life a little bit differently,” Jonathan Warner said.

The sons’ diagnosis has also made the parents look well into the future.

Curt and Ana Warner got guardianship over their sons after they turned 18. Ana Warner choked up when she said a social worker had to come and determine if she and her husband, who’d cared for the boys for 18 years, were capable of doing so as adults.

The parents have also been confronted with thinking about their own mortality.

The parents also travel separately, in case something were to happen to one of them and leave the boys without a caretaker.

They’re also working to figure out how the sons will be taken care of financially.

“Our main goal, I think for every parent, you want your child to be happy and safe,” Ana Warner said.

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