New book details Schilling family's struggles
Pitcher's wife discusses son's diagnosis of Asperger's
BOSTON -- To outsiders, at least, Shonda Schilling was living the perfect life. Her husband, Curt, was not only one of the most renowned big-game pitchers in the history of baseball and a beloved figure throughout Red Sox Nation, he was a champion for charitable causes, most notably Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS). Shonda herself made quite a mark apart from her spouse, having recovered from melanoma nearly a decade ago and starting her own foundation, SHADE, which dramatically increased awareness of skin cancer.
The Schillings had money, a nice house, four kids and just about the most enviable existence imaginable, right?
Well, as it turns out, not exactly. And thanks to Shonda Schilling's recently released book, "The Best Kind of Different" (published by Harper Collins), the public can now know in vivid detail the struggles the family faced during the latter years of Curt's illustrious playing career.
After several years of public and private outbursts by their young son Grant, the Schillings at last learned the reason in the summer of 2007. That is when Grant Schilling was diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder called Asperger's Syndrome. According to Wikipedia, people with Asperger's "show significant difficulties in social interaction, along with restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior and interests. It differs from other autism spectrum disorders by its relative preservation of linguistic and cognitive development."
Though the diagnosis was chilling -- as it would be for any parents and siblings -- it was also a bit of a relief for the Schillings to finally know why Grant struggled so much with seemingly routine things. Putting on his shin guards for a soccer game could be an ear-splitting event for either parent. For Shonda, taking all four kids to a baseball game in which Curt was pitching ran the risk of Grant having a major meltdown due to sensory overload.
In her book, Shonda Schilling doesn't couch anything about her life during that difficult time period and feels no urge to hold back some of the traumatic events she went through. Her story is raw, and it is real, not to mention eminently relatable for families that might be going through similar things. During this highly challenging time, Shonda was a "baseball mother," meaning that more often than not, she was enlisted with anchoring the family by herself while Curt was on the road or at the ballpark.
"There were so many times that I felt so alone and I was smiling my way through it at the ballpark and I was pretending to be [happy], but I was dying inside," Shonda Schilling said during a phone interview. "I felt like I was failing as a mother, so the whole idea was when I felt that people were judging, I felt so alone when Grant would have a meltdown somewhere. People are so quick to give you that look of, 'Uh, get control over him,' but you just never know what's going on in a family. With Grant, there's no physical sign that his brain is wired differently."
Grant is now in the fourth grade, and like his three siblings, enrolled in the public school system of Medfield, Mass. Now that the school and the family know that he has Asperger's, the situation has become more manageable for everyone involved. It used to be that nearly every day Grant went to school, Shonda would wonder and worry how he would make it through the day.
Now they understand why Grant Schilling obsesses about certain things -- animals, for instance. Or why he has immense difficulty transitioning from one place to the other. Or why he might invade someone's personal space without realizing he is doing anything wrong.
Before the diagnosis, the Schillings would react to Grant's behavior by yelling at him. Only with hindsight can they realize that was only exacerbating the situation.
Now their home is a much different environment, and not just because Curt no longer plays baseball for a living.
"I think the biggest thing is, the house got much quieter. Kids with Asperger's usually have sensory [issues], and when we were [raising them], we yelled," Shonda Schilling said. "You can imagine when a child is doing something that they're not supposed to be doing and you're getting louder and louder and you're getting the opposite response, and you just keep getting louder. So I think the biggest thing for us was, the house got quieter. We learned that when we didn't want Grant to do something, we certainly couldn't yell, because that was going to do the complete opposite."
Shonda is frank in the book about how hard it was for her, before the diagnosis, to get through to Curt exactly how challenging things were getting.
Since the book came out, the couple has come to a better realization of the distance that had been growing between them in the final couple of seasons of Curt's playing career.
"You really do understand that toll between the two of us, where we just felt unappreciated by each other when baseball was going on," Shonda Schilling said. "He didn't understand [what was going on], and I never had a choice when baseball was going on to have a meltdown. Red Sox Nation doesn't care what goes on in my house, so I had to keep going in order for him to be the best that he could be.
"And then there was so much going on. That caused the tension where we didn't really want to talk to each other on the phone. But I also understood that when we grew up, we weren't exposed to any of this. He could never understand the things that I was saying to him when he was on the road [because he didn't] see it."
There were other things going on in the household as well. Shonda learned that three of her four children have ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder). That is something that Curt has long had and been medicated for. Aside from having ADHD, Gehrig, the oldest, had a bout with anorexia as a young teen. Overwhelmed by it all, Shonda wound up being medicated for depression, and there was a period when she would take to her bed and sleep to hide from her worries while the kids were at school.
When she decided to write the book, she had the full support of her husband and all her children.
"Otherwise I would have never written it," she said. "With Gehrig, that's a hard thing for a boy to talk about -- anorexia. He said, 'Mom, if it helps one person, please do it.' For him, it was the one thing he could control in his life. It wasn't about appearance."
Curt Schilling wrote the introduction for the book. In it he speaks of learning of Grant's diagnosis from Shonda in a Chicago hotel room.
"I was overcome with an immediate and overwhelming sense of guilt, horrible, painful guilt only the parent of a child he loves more than life itself could possibly know," he wrote. "At the same time, about 10 different pieces of the undecipherable puzzle that was Grant fell into place. I didn't know what ASD meant specifically, but I knew that answers were coming -- answers we thought we were years from having were now right on the horizon."
At the close of the introduction, Curt credits Shonda for her courage.
"Looking back, and having helped her through this book, I had no idea she'd gone through some of the things she has, just like she has no idea of some of the things I endured over the past five years. But I don't think either one of us has or will allow that to affect where we are today and where our family is. She's managed to raise four children who love unconditionally (albeit four children who can still raise the hair on your neck at a moment's notice). She's managed to undergo a massive transformation as a mother, a wife and woman that very few women her age would even consider, and she's done it for our children and our marriage."
Now the Schillings are charging ahead and bonding with other families who deal with Asperger's.
How is Grant doing now?
"I think that Grant is like any kid," Shonda said. "There's always changes. He's in the fourth grade. They basically have one teacher all day. Two years from now, he's in middle school, and the next thing that's going to happen is the social part of it, which becomes more important than when he's in fourth grade. We're not yet facing those problems. We're just trying to help him get through the day and teach him the things that he knows and the tools so that he'll be able to lead a productive life and get married and have kids and have a job that he really loves."
Making matters easier, she is no longer a single parent for most of the year.
"Now our day consists of Curt and I both coaching and getting the kids all around, and it feels good to be a complete family," she said. "So many families are torn apart by this. We really fought hard to try to keep our family together."
Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.