Longtime sports writer Dave Boling knew all the stats about former NFL player Curt Warner, a standout 1980s Seattle Seahawks running back.
A two-time Penn State All-American, Warner’s 1,449 yards and 13 touchdowns his rookie year helped usher the franchise’s first playoff berth. Appearing in three Pro Bowls, Warner is a member of the College Football Hall of Fame and the Seahawks’ Ring of Honor.
What Boling didn’t learn until 2014 is what happened the past 20 years, when Warner and wife Ana Warner faced the challenges of caring for twin boys with severe autism. Only recently did the couple feel ready to share that story and teamed up with Boling to write “The Warner Boys: Our Family’s Story of Autism and Hope.”
“They want to help raise awareness about the challenges of autism,” said Boling, who worked 1985-1996 at The Spokesman-Review and then as a Tacoma News Tribune sports columnist. “They wanted to tell the story to help people who are dealing with these circumstances; that you’re not alone.
“They don’t talk a great deal about the treatments, but more to the point, it’s about understanding the commitment it takes for parents to raise these children.”
Published in December by Little A, part of Amazon Publishing, the Warner memoir describes the chaos, emotional exhaustion and bonds as the couple dealt with around-the-clock care of the boys’ unpredictable and sometimes violent behavior. Twins Austin and Christian are now 24.
The Warners will be coming to Spokane April 14 to share their family’s story with The Spokesman-Review’s Northwest Passages Book Club.
Boling, who has authored other books including “Guernica,” said a mutual friend connected him to the Warners a few years ago. From his Tacoma work, Boling was aware the couple had withdrawn from the public eye.
“Curt and his wife, Ana, had been a high-profile couple in Seattle, and it seemed like they fell off the face of the earth,” Boling said. “Curt would rarely come back to alumni events or games, so it was a little mysterious. I didn’t really understand what they had gone through.
“This was a pair of twins who at times were violent. They grew into strong physical boys and could do a lot of damage. It was a really heart-wrenching story, and they also went through some family health issues and stress.”
The Warners, who live in Camas, Washington, said in a Jan. 16 phone interview that they hope the book brings awareness around what families encounter raising autistic children, especially those who aren’t high-functioning. They described “chaotic” years focused on raising a family and caring for the twins. They also have an older son Jonathan, 26, and adopted daughter Isabella, 12.
“The twins were diagnosed a couple of weeks before their fifth birthday (in 1999),” said Ana Warner, 56. “There wasn’t much explanation, other than hearing there’s nothing we can do. There’s no cure. I went home and got online and started doing research.”
She said the twins have the cognitive skills of about a 5- to 6-year-old. They would sometimes physically harm themselves, each other and the house. Other times, the boys were sweet and loving. They watched Disney films passionately.
Once when playing out a Disney scene, Austin set the family’s house on fire, destroying it and nearly taking his mother’s life.
The twins couldn’t be left alone for fear of harm and their inability to understand dangers.
“Ana said sometimes she felt like a jailer. Austin sneaked out one time, and there was fear he’d drown. It was constant, and they had to control their environment. That’s why they more or less disappeared. They were in the house trying to keep the twins safe.”
Even today, Ana Warner said she thinks there’s more public information about higher-functioning autistic people. “But there’s very little material on the lower side of the spectrum,” she said. “I think people need to understand what families go through.”
Her husband agreed that was a major motivation for the book.
“It was pretty chaotic for a long, long time,” said Curt Warner, 57. “My wife said it best. We were just in survival mode, so there wasn’t even time to think about writing a book.
“At one point, we spoke to an autism conference at Penn State. The response was really positive from people who were dealing with children and autism. The message kind of resonated also for people who might not understand families dealing with special needs children.”
Back in 1999, little was known about autism. The book details how the couple approached the news and went about learning more about the disorder and finding peace with the challenges, Boling said.
“That in a way is the victory they found, taking the joy from their twins as they are and helping them lead the best life they can,” he said.
Boling said the Warners share a Christian faith and are grateful for their financial resources, so they were at first unsure how much they should share about struggles. After leaving the NFL, Warner owned a Chevrolet dealership until 2010 and now works in insurance.
The Warners also don’t consider themselves autism experts, Boling said, and they didn’t want the book to debate causes or treatments.
“So many people are dealing with just how to keep their kids healthy, so it’s not about pointing fingers,” Boling said. “As a professional athlete, Curt had far more resources than a typical father. That’s why they never want to say, ‘Poor us.’ ”
The couple echoed that “The Warner Boys” isn’t a fix-it guide, especially since each person with autism is different.
“We’re not telling people what to do,” Ana Warner said. “It’s really telling our story, our love and our faith, and what has kept us together and loving our boys.”
Boling met often with the Warners to shape the book. But in their first discussion, Boling realized it’s more about their love story and fierce commitment to support each other and family.
“I kept thinking how in the world do you stay strong in all this, through the damage to the house, the way the kids would hurt themselves and each other? Ana would say when I got down, Curt would lift me up. Curt would say when I fell down, she was my rock. It was very inspiring.”
During those years, Ana Warner describes in the book a time when she had suicidal thoughts.
“There were very dark times in the beginning,” Ana Warner said. “I would drive around with the boys and be crying. I was just sad, and many times I thought about ending it all and that it would be easier for Curt and Jonathan to have a life without us. Thank the Lord he pulled me out of that.”
The book also touches on awareness about a high number of autistic youth reaching adulthood or as adults, who still require care. Curt Warner is an Autism Society of America board member.
“These kids are going to grow up and still have autism,” Warner said. “We need to be ready for adults with severe autism and that they need help. They need living conditions and jobs. We need to be ready as a society to be more accepting and inclusive.”
The Warners are planning for the long-term needs of their twins. In adulthood, they have worked in adaptive employment but challenges remain.
“It’s still there for us,” Ana Warner said. “I can’t let them go out on their own. They have no awareness of danger.”
Curt Warner also described a process over the years.
“You learn to accept the fact you can’t fix it, and you move into another direction so you can help your children, help and support your wife and not let it become a divider,” he said.
“We found that with our hope, faith and love, we can work together and at least manage it as well as we can on a day-to-day basis. That’s where we’re at right now.”
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