The Schneiders host their fourth-annual dinner and auction Thursday to raise money for their foundation, Ben’s Fund, which is named in honor of their son, Ben, who has autism.
Traci Schneider never went anywhere without an escape plan.
A team employee jokingly calls Traci, the wife of Seahawks general manager John Schneider, “the family general manager,” and with good reason. She has handled much of the responsibility of raising the couple’s two children: Ben, 13, and Jack, 11.
Ben, in particular, could be a handful. He was diagnosed with autism at age 3 and would erupt into tantrums that could last hours. So when Traci walked into stores, she ran through her checklist: How far are we from the door? Where is the car? Where are the bathrooms?
She has left full grocery carts idling in stores as she and the boys ran out.
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“I can’t imagine what that feels like,” Traci says of autism. “So many times I’m like, ‘God, I just wish I could know, feel it in my own body, what that feels like for (him).’ Just so I knew what they were experiencing and going through.”
The Schneiders are hosting their fourth annual dinner-and-auction fundraiser, called Prime Time, on Thursday to raise money for their foundation, Ben’s Fund. Guests will buy and barter with Ben Bucks, featuring Ben’s face instead of George Washington’s, and the money will go to families affected by autism.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a group of developmental disabilities that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges in children that last throughout their lives. The disabilities can range from mild to severe, according to the CDC.
Ben’s Fund was established in 2012 by the Seattle Women’s Seahawks Association and Traci and John Schneider.
“The reasons why we’re doing this are one, because of awareness,” Traci Schneider said. “We want people to understand what this is like. Two, so we can raise funds for families that are faced with autism. But three, when you have a kiddo on the spectrum, you can feel very alone. You can feel like you’re not living life and interacting. We don’t want them to feel like they’re alone in this.”
The diagnosis was so life-altering that John Schneider, then a rising star in NFL front offices, nearly quit football.
By age 30, in 2002, he already had a high-ranking job with Washington and was rehired by the Green Bay Packers.
That same year, John and Traci had their first child and named him Ben.
When Ben was about 14 months old, the Schneiders noticed small peculiarities with his behavior. Ben wasn’t responding to them. He never pointed. He typically hung out away from other kids.
Traci took Ben to his 18-month wellness visit and was told Ben was fine. Part of Traci clung to that. Part of her knew it wasn’t true.
Ben was having meltdowns, and Traci had no idea how to calm him or even what caused the outbursts. She and Ben used to take walks together, the same path every trip, but one day Traci cut the walk short. Ben lost it. Traci had no idea why.
A fundraiser to benefit Ben’s Fund is Thursday at El Gaucho in Seattle, and is sold out. For more information or to donate, go to Seahawks.com/BensFund.
She called the doctor’s office frequently until one day a doctor told her, “Maybe you should take parenting classes.”
She felt like an awful mom.
Amid the ambiguity, Traci and John had their second child, Jack, and noticed right away how different he was from Ben. But they still were searching for answers.
Shortly after Ben turned 3, the Schneiders had him tested. Doctors told them their son had autism.
“Heartbroken,” Traci says.
“It rocks your world,” John says.
The Schneiders grieved.
“You have all those goals and dreams and hopes for your children that you’re thinking about while your wife is pregnant, things that you’re praying on,” John says. “And then this comes along and you’re wondering what it means. What does this mean for our lives? To have some feelings like, ‘Gee, I hope he has a really good friend someday. I hope he has a wife, or I hope he can have a job.’
“I think that was and still is the hardest part. Like, ‘Do people get my son?’ I get him, but … ”
John considered giving up football.
He had gotten a job with the Packers as a 21-year-old by pestering the team’s front office with letters and calls. He showed a natural ability to evaluate players; celebrated Packers general manager Ron Wolf said Schneider could “really, truly evaluate” players.
But John wondered if he should get a more stable job.
Ben’s Fund provides grants to families across Washington state to help cover costs associated with medical bills, therapies and numerous other aspects of supporting children on the autism spectrum.
“It tugs at you because you’re like, ‘Are we going to dedicate our life to this, or are we going to find a balance?’ ” John says before adding, “There was a time where we went through a period where I was like, ‘What’s more important?’ You can say your family is more important, but you’re still traveling a lot and spending a ton of hours on the road.’ ”
Ultimately, the decision came down to the financial means football provided to pay for the tens of thousands of dollars of treatment for Ben, that and John’s own childhood dreams.
“Are you going to just stop all those things because this happened to you?” he asks. “Or are you going to put your big-boy pants on and suck it up? Having a wife that’s as strong as Traci has really enabled me to have as much … I don’t think I’m a great father. I try my best at it.”
The challenges seeped into all aspects of their lives. If Traci made it through one errand with Ben, she considered herself lucky and headed home. Other errands had to wait. Visits to the dentist were problematic. He couldn’t go to soccer or baseball games because the noise bothered him.
In fact, noise still is an issue at the Schneider house. Jack loves singing and playing drums. Ben doesn’t love it. Jack wants to watch games and play catch with John. Ben likes his alone time.
“I want to be able to teach them discipline, love, compassion, hard work,” John says. “I never want to raise boys who weren’t disciplined like my father raised me.
“But to not be able to understand the differences with a child who has autism, and yet you’re still trying to discipline them, is very difficult. And then figuring out, you have a typical son behind him and his needs and how you’re going to discipline him, that’s a challenge, too.”
The fund has raised more than $850,000 and distributed grants to more than 500 families in the state, Traci Schneider said in a statement. Information: www.featwa.org.
Ben is in seventh grade now. High school is coming fast. He loves Legos and wants to be a master builder someday.
“We just really hope for him to have that typical, normal life,” Traci says.
But Ben’s focus right now is on an upcoming vacation at an indoor water park. Ben loves swimming, and he proudly says he can hold his breath longer than his brother or mom.
But before Ben could fall in love with swimming, he first had to put his head underwater.
“I literally hate having to go underwater without goggles,” Ben says. “I actually tried to open my eyes once.”
“How’d that go?” Traci asks.
“I could not see. I tried to open my eyes under water in a hot tub, too.” Ben pauses for dramatic effect. “Guess what? Didn’t work!”
Traci estimates it took Ben two years to wear goggles and dip his head underwater.
“My husband and I used to say all the time, ‘We just have to get through the screaming,’” Traci says. “Because on the other side of it you know it’s going to be good.”
On vacation, at the indoor water park, Ben will put his goggles on, dip his head underwater and love every minute of it.
“I’m about to conquer my fears,” Ben says, “on some of the waterslides.”