CLEVELAND -- Austin Kearns' youngest son, Brady, was about 14 months old when he stopped interacting with his parents and with others. Stopped making eye contact. Even stopped playing with his toys. It can be a heartbreaking thing for a parent to watch a child's developmental path slowed to a halt by autism, as Austin and his wife, Abby, learned firsthand. Brady, now 4, was diagnosed in May 2009, while Kearns was with the Washington Nationals, playing through a disappointing and injury-plagued season. But in the two years since learning that their son suffers from a condition that afflicts one in 91 children in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Health Resources and Services Administration, the Kearns family has found a new home and new hope in Cleveland.
In December, Kearns re-signed with the Indians, the team that traded him last July, not just because he wanted to return to his former role as the club's fourth outfielder but because the progress Brady has made at the Cleveland Clinic Children's Hospital's Center for Autism has been marked enough to coerce Austin and his wife, who are Lexington, Ky., natives, to make Cleveland their full-time place of residence. "It just seemed like it was in God's plan," Abby said. "It couldn't have worked out better for us at this point in time." Time moves slow for those monitoring the developmental progress of an autistic child. When Brady was diagnosed, the doctors told Austin and Abby that he would require up to 40 hours of therapy each week. "That's tough," Austin said. "We're very fortunate to be able to do it. I can't imagine what some families must go through. It's a regular school day. It's not just an hour here or there. You're talking about at least a six-hour day." Kearns' Major League career has afforded the family the resources to ensure Brady gets the proper help. But that doesn't mean they are immune to the stresses and frustrations associated with autism. Autism is a lifelong developmental disorder that affects functioning of the brain, interfering with reasoning, behavior, socialization and communication. It typically appears in the first 12 to 18 months of a child's life, characterized by impaired social interaction and communication. Austin and Abby began to suspect that Brady might be autistic around the 14-month mark. Beforehand, Brady was walking and talking as much as any child his age. In fact, he began talking earlier than his brother Aubrey, who is a year older. "But right around 14 months or so, he just stopped interacting with us," Abby said. "All he was doing was climbing on things. It was tough watching a developing child just completely stop interacting with the rest of the world." Tougher still was the gut punch of the actual diagnosis. Abby received the news at the Cincinnati Children's Hospital and relayed it to Austin, who was in Los Angeles with the Nats. Surrounded by his teammates when he got the phone call, Austin kept his emotions in check. But inside, he was hurting. Even now, Kearns tries to downplay the impact the news had on him that season, in which his body was besieged by injuries and fans ripped him for not living up to the expectations of his three-year, $17.5 million contract. "It's your family, so of course that's your priority," Keans said. "But you just deal with it the best you can. It's tough on your wife and whoever is taking care of your kid. So there are a lot of things that go into it. But at the same time, you have to be a professional and try to separate those things." Tribe skipper Manny Acta, who managed Kearns in Washington and encouraged the Indians to sign him, watched him struggle with that separation. "It affected him big-time," Acta said. "He has so much pride. He didn't want this to come out and be public. This is his private life. He doesn't like to make excuses, but he is human. And this hit him really hard." Millions of parents know the feeling. And the difficulties that come with the diagnosis are rivaled only by the controversies over its causes. Some have attempted to draw a link to autism from vaccines or environmental factors. But while Austin and Abby would, of course, like to know why this happened to their son, they are more focused on getting him the care and attention he needs on a daily basis. They found that care at the Cleveland Clinic. When Austin initially signed with the Indians in the winter before the 2010 season, head athletic trainer Lonnie Soloff pointed him to the Center for Autism. Brady was placed on a long waiting list, but the family happened to tour the facility on the day the clinic got the go-ahead to expand its program. Brady began attending the center last July, and in a matter of a couple weeks, his parents began to see results. Keep in mind, though, that all results are relative. Parents of autistic children celebrate what other parents might regard as only the most minor developments. In Brady's case, merely sitting in one place for a short period of time to take part in a simple activity was considered monumental progress. Pulling up your pants, tying your shoes, buttoning your jacket ... these are skills that come naturally to most of us as we develop. But for autistic children, they can be a daunting challenge. "Just him using some words is a big deal," Austin said of Brady. "You feel like he's not just saying it to say it, because he's heard it. He's saying it because he recognizes you. Like when you're leaving and he says, 'Bye bye.' Using a word in the right context, you sense that he knows it. That's stuff you might take for granted [otherwise]. When it's this situation, though, the little things can make your day." They can take your day in the other direction, too. As Abby termed it, the learning process can, at times, be "excruciatingly slow," and, even with the best care available, the child will have setbacks and obstacles. "It's absolutely mandatory that you're patient and still completely accepting and sensitive to the child's needs," Abby said. "Every morning you wake up, you have to prepare yourself to be patient." Brady attends school at the Center for Autism six hours a day, five days a week, and his curriculum includes not only one-on-one behavioral and speech therapy sessions by trained professionals but also important time for interaction with his peers. Abby, who hopes to generate increased awareness of autism and the need for more funding for special-education students, raved about the staff at the school, which includes director Allison Newman and preschool teacher Megan Schoenholz, calling them "angels" watching over her son. Austin and Abby know their son will live with the effects of autism for the rest of his life. But at this critical stage of his early development, they have committed themselves to Cleveland, renting a home in a west-side suburb, to get him the care he needs. Thankfully, the Indians had a need for a veteran right-handed bat, allowing Kearns, who is sharing the club's left-field duties with Travis Buck until Grady Sizemore comes off the disabled list, to be with his wife and kids this season. Abby called it "God's plan," and Indians general manager Chris Antonetti called it "a good alignment." "It made too much sense," Austin said. "To see Brady taking steps and getting a little bit better and a little bit better every day, it's just reassuring that you're in the right spot."
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.