After Ben Schneider nails his read for a Families for Effective Autism Treatment of Washington PSA on the first take, John Schneider heaps praise on his 14-year-old son.
"Stop trying to make it sound like a big thing," a slightly annoyed Ben tells his dad, who is better known to sports fans as the general manager of the Seattle Seahawks.
After several more takes to film the PSA from different angles, Ben announces, "One more time, then I'm getting out of here."
Later, when Traci Schneider mentions being cold inside the Virginia Mason Athletic Center's indoor facility, Ben sarcastically tells his mom, "Well that's what you get for not wearing a jacket."
This is Ben Schneider being a very typical teenager, a kid with little patience for something he'd rather not be doing, a kid ready with a sarcastic retort when mom wants to snuggle up to him for warmth. This is also hope for parents of autistic children.
"It's awesome, the progress has been really cool," John Schneider said of Ben, who was diagnosed with autism just after his third birthday. "We know there's a lot of hope yet out there as he continues to mature and grow. The stuff he's doing right now, the typical teenage boy stuff that mom shouldn't know, to see that part of it—we know he's behind, socially—but just to see him putting the Disney stuff aside, to 'Dad, can we watch an inappropriate PG-13 movie?' is really cool."
And for John Schneider, who frequently quotes movies like "Step Brothers" or "Anchorman," and who owns a "Catalina Wine Mixer" T-shirt, there are few things better than enjoying an inappropriate PG-13 movie.
"We've seen a lot of growth," adds Traci Schneider. "He was verbal, but he was only echolalic—he would just repeat what we said—so he wasn't communicating with us when he was diagnosed. To have the conversations that we have with him now is really cool, because we didn't know if he was ever going to get to that point. So just the fact that he can interact with us and he can communicate with us, and he can go to school and do these things that we didn't know if he would be able to do or not, that's really big."
Ben still challenges his parents and younger brother Jack, he still has his struggles, but the progress he has made, his ability to in many ways be a typical eighth grader, is why Autism Awareness Month, Ben's Fund, and Thursday night's Prime Time celebrity waiter event are so important to John and Traci Schneider. Thursday's dinner is sold out, but people can donate to Ben's Fund here or bid on online auction items here.
"Hope's the biggest thing for us," John says.
After years of marriage and two kids, the two regularly finish each other's sentences, and Traci jumps in, "Just letting parents of kiddos on the spectrum know, 'You can make it, things can get better.'"
"You have those moments of, 'How am I supposed to do this? I don't know how to do this.' It's very hard."
Before John and Traci Schneider could become advocates for families with autism, and before Ben's Fund could raise more than $1.4 million to fund 825 grants for Washington state families through fundraising efforts that include Prime Time, they had to figure out how to handle life in their own household. The Schneiders first noticed things were different with Ben when he was about 14 months old, but it took another year and a half to get an accurate diagnosis. Doctors caused John and Traci to question themselves, suggesting parenting classes; they were told outbursts were typical for boys that age, even though Ben's could last more than an hour. Finally, when Ben was 3, the diagnosis came.
In those early years, the Schneiders often felt alone, they lost touch with friends, and they tried to learn on the fly how to raise an autistic son.
"It was hard being the one at home with this kid where you didn't know what was going on with him, and with an infant," Traci said. "It's like, 'How the hell am I supposed to do this? I'm trying to put an infant down to sleep, and my two-year-old is losing it.' You have those moments of, 'How am I supposed to do this? I don't know how to do this.' It's very hard. We lost touch with friends, we didn't go out anymore, we weren't really social, because we couldn't be."
The Schneiders were fortunate to have the financial means to support Ben—Traci notes that the added cost of raising a child on the spectrum can range from $60,000 to $70,000 per year—but that hardly made it easy. But as the Schneiders felt like they were getting their own lives under control, and as John Schneider continued to climb the ranks in Green Bay's front office, they felt it was time to help other families going through similar struggles
"The awareness is a big thing, and hopefully that awareness stems into understanding as well, so when you're out, you don't get those looks from people," Traci said. "And that awareness is also important so families can feel like they're not alone, because when you're going through this, especially in the early years, you feel like you're all alone. Nobody really understands what you're going through except other parents with kids on the spectrum.
"After Ben got diagnosed, and as we went along the journey of trying to help him, we really saw what it entails for families, and how much of an impact that has not just on the child who has autism, but the entire family unit—the parents, the other siblings, every dynamic of your day-to-day life. It affects everything."
As the Schneiders began to interact more and more with other parents of autistic children, they saw people who needed help, which is how Ben's Fund came to be. They were actually planning something similar to the Prime Time event, which is now in its fifth year, in Green Bay, but not long after that, Schneider was hired by the Seahawks. In Seattle, they found a community that embraced them and their cause.
"Obviously a huge part of that is a financial piece," Traci said. "The financial piece is a burden, because you either can or can't get your child help. We met a lot of families along the way that couldn't afford to get these things for their kids. They would wait and keep looking for grant opportunities and things like that, so that kind of planted the seed in our minds to do something like this, specifically for the parents. It's such an issue on coverage—does the state help in any way, do the insurance companies help in any way? It's a scramble to find support to give these kids help, but yet you're being told to act early and to get them help right away and to do all these things immediately, because the further they are in their developmental years, the harder it is to bring them back. So you want to capture as many of those years as you can, but that's not possible if you can't afford it and if there isn't any support. To us that was huge."
"Should I keep doing what I'm doing, or should I go down a different path?"
John Schneider, along with head coach Pete Carroll, gets a lot of credit for bringing the Lombardi Trophy to Seattle for the first time in franchise history, and for very good reason. But if John Schneider played a big role in building the best roster in Seahawks history, then the woman sitting to his right on this April afternoon deserves a lot of credit too. Because if it weren't for the strength of Traci Schneider, John probably wouldn't be Seattle's general manager.
When Ben was diagnosed with autism, John was a rising star in the Packers organization, but the life of an NFL scout or executive is a very demanding one that requires a huge time commitment, a lot of travel and even more stress. With so much going on at home, John wondered if he needed to reconsider his career path.
"The divorce rate's like 85, 87 percent (for parents of autistic children)," Schneider said. "Marriage-wise, you're challenged. It was like, 'Should I keep doing what I'm doing, or should I go down a different path where I'm around the house more?' We had to balance that and make that work.
"It was a group decision, we're a team. We were like, 'We can't do this unless Traci is strong enough to handle it.' Initially, it was hard, we just had these little battles we powered through. The longer you go, the more you work at it and pray on it, that's basically how it went. If Traci wasn't tough enough and strong enough to handle what was going on at the house, and with me being away, this wouldn't work, we would have figured something else out."
But the Schneiders did figure it out, and as a result, he is here in Seattle as the Seahawks' general manager, Ben is thriving, and through Ben's Fund and Prime Time, hundreds of other families with autistic children are getting help with their own battles.
Back in the VMAC, Ben is itching to get out of here and on with his life. First, the camera man says, we need one more shot to get a close up of Ben, Traci and John doing their reads individually.
"Can I go first so I can book out of here?" Ben asks impatiently.
Again, Ben nails his read, and as promised, he books it out of there. Running, quite literally, to whatever is next for him on this afternoon. It's typical teenage stuff, and at the same time a moment of hope for the Schneiders and for parents of autistic kids everywhere.
John and Traci Schneider with help from the Seattle Seahawks raised $382,000 for FEAT Washington.