Olaf Kolzig was idling away the afternoon in front of the television set in a Buffalo hotel room, savoring a rare game day that would not include starting in goal for the Washington Capitals, when a phone call from his wife shattered the placid solitude and changed his life forever. Christin Kolzig had taken their son, Carson, to the pediatrician for routine 15-month immunizations and left his office dazed after learning that their baby was, in all likelihood, autistic.
The doctor had observed autistic tendencies while watching Carson and, after asking Christin a battery of questions, suggested she take the child to a specialist as soon as possible. What was supposed to be a simple checkup was anything but. Suddenly, hockey did not matter.
"It was devastating," Kolzig said almost a year after receiving that call. "My wife is on the other end of the phone and I was trying to keep her calm and keep my own emotions in check, because at first you feel like you're the only people in the world facing this disorder. And for your year-and-three-month-old son to be going through this, it hit us hard."
Kolzig, who has become a fixture in the Washington community since being drafted by the Capitals in 1989, flew home with the team that night -- April 12 -- and did not play in the season finale. He had planned to represent Germany in the world championships -- he lived there briefly as a child but was raised in Canada -- but canceled. For the rest of that spring and summer, virtually every day of the couple's life was dedicated to finding Carson the best care possible, a ritual of therapy that will continue for several years.
The Kolzigs have consulted specialists all over the Washington and Baltimore area, as well as in Washington state, where they spend summers. Carson, who was diagnosed with pervasive developmental disorder, which is on the mild side of the broad spectrum of autism, works with speech, behavioral and occupational therapists for 30 hours a week, utilizing puzzles, problem-solving games, imitation and play activities to promote brain development.
The Kolzigs travel to morning and afternoon sessions during the week while also tending to their four-month-old daughter, Kendall. Christin, who was eight weeks pregnant with Kendall at the time Carson was diagnosed, commutes constantly and her husband helps as much as he can despite the relentless cycle of practices, games and travel during the season.
Autism often does not manifest itself in a child's first year, and many autistic children display no characteristics of the disorder before then. Such was the case with Carson, who became withdrawn at that stage. He would not respond to stimuli, would scream and bang his head occasionally and resisted contact. He was not developing normal social and speech patterns. Once a happy, cooing baby who passed all of the usual milestones with ease, now Carson rarely smiled and shunned affection.
Carson's advancements in the last year have thrilled his parents, however, and they are optimistic that he will be able to interact well with others in society and display fewer of the characteristics typically associated with the disorder. He has some verbalization skills, saying the word "car" -- like many youngsters, Carson is fascinated by moving objects -- and he is also pointing to things to convey thoughts and ideas, a significant breakthrough, although it is too early to project how self-sufficient Carson will be as an adult.
"Our goal is for Carson to mainstream with his peers one day, hopefully," Christin Kolzig said. "We don't set unrealistic goals for Carson or anything out of reach, but that's what we hope. The therapy we are doing is really helping him. Without the therapy, when you don't see any progress, Olie and I would kind of stay in that depression mode. But this has really helped Carson. He's making so much progress."
A Mysterious Disorder
Autism is the result of a neurological disorder that affects the functioning of the brain, impacting normal development in social interaction and communication skills. Scientists have determined no primary cause for autism, but it is commonly attributed to abnormalities in brain structure or function. Researchers continue to investigate a multitude of theories, among them links to heredity, genetics and medical problems, but no single gene has been identified as the root of autism.
The disorder manifests itself in varying ways and to varying degrees for each individual; some autistic people can hold jobs and live alone while others need institutional care. Its diagnosis is on the rise, affecting two to six of every 1,000 people. In the past, autistic children were treated much the same as the mentally retarded, but in recent years the options for care and therapy have improved vastly. Autism is also being identified at earlier ages, which dramatically increases the potential for children to make strides in their development.
Initially, the Kolzigs felt some trepidation about the doctor making such a diagnosis after a brief examination, but if not for the swift intervention and an immediate meeting with a child physiologist, precious time might have been lost. Kolzig was already well connected with Children's Hospital because of his charity work there over the years, and a session with a specialist was scheduled as soon as he returned from Buffalo.
"It's amazing when they ask you the questions and you've seen the signs and all of a sudden it hits you," said Kolzig. "And it's like, 'How come we didn't notice that?' We wondered why our little boy wasn't happy to see dad when he came home from the road. It was really tough when I'd come home after a week-long trip and your little guy wasn't smiling at you or anything.
"He would just be off in his own little world and just kind of stare into nothingness, and you could call his name and snap your fingers -- you could clap your hand -- and he wouldn't respond to anything. The occasional time when he would smile it would be so special for my wife and I.
"It was hard, and at least by finding out what was wrong -- it didn't ease the pain at all -- but it helped explain it. And now it's unbelievable. I can't leave the house without him getting upset. He's my little man. He follows me everywhere, he wants me to go everywhere with him, he always grabs me by the hand. He's really affectionate. His eye contact is unbelievable. He still has a lot of other issues, but he is really responding to this therapy."
Kolzig, 32, struggled much of last season as Carson displayed troubling signs that were still unexplained. A former all-star and winner of the 2000 Vezina Trophy as the league's top goaltender, Kolzig did not perform to his usual standards on the ice, and the team fell woefully short of expectations by failing to make the playoffs. He was more agitated and short with teammates during practices and it was clear to those who know him well that Carson's problems were weighing on him.
"I wasn't as happy of a person as I should have been," Kolzig said. "It had a hand in me not being myself, that's for sure."
Christin tried to comfort her husband, assuring him that the disconnect between him and Carson was due to an erratic schedule, while she privately fretted about his behavior.
"It was heartbreaking to watch Olie," Christin Kolzig said. "I was just crushed. Here's this man whose child is his world and he'd come home from a road trip and all he wanted to do is see his little guy light up, and it was hard to watch. I would make excuses and say, 'You haven't been around a lot and he has to get used to you.' But it was hard on him. It would bother him for several days after he'd come home from a trip. It affected him and it showed."
The Kolzigs continue to seek alternative measures to help their son. Rarely do two doctors agree on how to treat autism, which can leave parents exhausted and confused. They wonder sometimes if they are pushing Carson too hard, and have no way of knowing if one procedure would work better for their son than another.
"It can be a little demanding for him at times," Kolzig said. "When you're that young your attention span is really limited, and when you're going through four or five hours of therapy a day, he has his mental meltdowns sometimes when he's had enough. But for the most part he does wonderfully."
Some believe that a restricted diet can help autistic children, who often have acid reflux problems. Carson is on a diet free from products containing milk and wheat, which was prescribed by a nutritionist. Carson also resists certain textures and is particular about his likes and dislikes.
"Every doctor has their own theories and philosophies on what we should do," Christin Kolzig said. "One doctor says do this diet, another says don't do that, do this. It can be pretty frustrating because you worry that you are hurting your child. Everyone has a different answer."
Changes for the Better
Eventually, the Kolzigs reached out for support. They have become close with other families in the area who have autistic children and Kolzig is in contact with a community of NHL players who have children suffering from the disorder, although many of them have not spoken publicly about their ordeal. Sharing their experiences with others was difficult at first, but has proven cathartic for the couple.
"I've talked to Olie a lot about it and what it's like, and he's handling it great," said defenseman Calle Johansson, Kolzig's teammate of 10 years and one of the first people to know about Carson's condition. "I can just imagine how tough it is to go through, but at same time I think it maybe has given him a new perspective on life and how important it is not to sweat the small stuff, and I think Olie has been a different person.
"Before he was much more emotional outside the rink and I think he's calmed down and toned it down a bit in that regard. He's smiling a lot more now and when he talks about Carson he always does it with a smile on his face. I don't know if he's just doing that for us, and deep down inside he's probably sad to see his son has to go through something like that, but I think it's genuine. I feel for him so bad, and we all want to help him in any way we can, but I think he's doing a great job handling it."
As Carson has improved, so to has his father. Christin Kolzig, who has known her husband since he was 16, witnessed the unexpected evolution. Always one to carry the burden of his team's expectations on his shoulders -- and that is often the role of a goaltender -- Kolzig is now more at peace with himself and others.
"I've seen a huge difference in Olie," she said. "This year has been a totally different season. He comes home now and he leaves all those [hockey-related] issues at the rink, and before I don't think he could do that. But when you have kids, and especially a child with special needs, you realize all that other stuff is small stuff, and I've seen a huge difference in him. He seems a little more relaxed, a little more at ease."
Carson's disorder has changed Christin as well.
"I've always been a very private person," she said. "But when I started to tell people about Carson I can't tell you the amount of resources I got out of it. Someone always knew someone in the circle and it gave us someone else to talk to and that probably saved me. If I would have been private and quiet like I normally am, I wouldn't have gained all the knowledge and help that we have now, and that has gotten Carson where he is today."
The Kolzigs are now dedicating themselves to helping others cope with the disorder, particularly those less fortunate, and hope to raise awareness of autism so parents can identify warning signs swiftly. Kolzig is among the most active athletes in area community causes. Besides his time spent at Children's Hospital, he donates money for every save he makes to charity and sponsors golf tournaments here and in Washington state to raise money for sick children.
In 2001 Kolzig was awarded the NHL Foundation Award, presented to the player who dedicated himself the most to community service, and also was named one of the Washingtonians of the Year by Washingtonian magazine, while he and Christin received the "Chairman's Special Award" from Children's Hospital.
The Olie and Christin Kolzig Foundation is being planned; it would raise money for research into the disorder as well as provide stipends for families to afford the kind of daily treatment Carson receives. Such therapies are not covered by many insurance companies, despite the rise in the diagnoses of autism, and even upper-middle class families would have difficultly affording treatment, said Kolzig, who earns $6 million a season.
Kolzig also formed another foundation for children with his buddy Stu Barnes, a forward with the Dallas Stars who also spends summers in Washington state. The men have hosted a golf tournament together for the past two summers and have earmarked a significant portion of the money raised for autistic children.
"Stu agrees that a lot of the donation should go toward autism research, because it's unbelievable when you have a child that doesn't respond to you and show the affection that everyone dreams of when you have a child," Kolzig said. "It's heartbreaking, it really is, and it's through no fault of the child. But you don't know what's going on in their mind and it's gut-wrenching and heartbreaking. We want to find some cure or some way to make it easier for parents to deal with it, and if can contribute money and make it better for those families in any aspect, we'll do whatever we can."