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One tough customer

For the first time ever, Chris Thorburn opens up about raising a child with autism

by Chris Pinkert / St. Louis Blues

There's no question Chris Thorburn is tough - he has more than 115 fights and nearly 1,000 career penalty minutes in the NHL to prove it - but he might not even be the toughest member of his own family.

That distinction probably belongs to his 7-year-old son, Bennett, who puts up a fight every day against the challenges that come with being autistic.

Chris' wife, Sara, also has a case for being the toughest Thorburn. She's the stay-at-home mom who cares for their autistic son while her husband travels across North America playing the game he loves.

Of course, with Bennett, there are good days and bad days.

The good days often highlight that he's an incredibly smart kid with a great memory - Chris finds himself amazed at how Bennett remembers specific aisles at the grocery store or how he always seems to know where he's going, what he wants and shows an unbreakable resolve to get it.

The bad days happen when he gets away from his daily routine. Something as simple as the calendar turning to Saturday - a day he doesn't have to go to school - could cause him to wrestle with anxiety.

Those characteristics are common among people that have been diagnosed with the disorder. Autistic children have difficulty communicating - both verbally and non-verbally - and struggle with simple everyday social interactions like making eye contact with others.

Bennett struggles with those things, too.

"We had a doctor's appointment for his one-year check up," Chris recalls. "The doctor was asking us - Does he respond when being spoken to? Does he maintain eye contact with you? - It seemed like a lot of the answers to those questions was no."

After that initial checkup, the Thorburns began to research autism on the internet. They found that autistic children, in addition to their struggles to communicate, are prone to other issues such as seizures, attention deficit disorders and anxiety. According to autismspeaks.org, more than 200,000 cases are diagnosed in children in the United States each year.

Bennett showed many symptoms of being autistic, but for years, Chris and Sara tried to convince themselves that he wasn't.

He's just young, they thought. He's a slow-developer. He'll be fine, eventually.

"My wife was with him all the time while I was playing hockey, and she couldn't understand why he wasn't progressing. Not seeing him improve kind of hurt her," Chris told stlouisblues.com. "And I'm a worrier, so I knew it was a possibility that he was autistic and I even had a lot of time to come to grips with the idea. Still, when the diagnosis came when he was three or four years old, it was tough. We couldn't lie to ourselves anymore."

Raising a child with autism hasn't been particularly easy. Bennett needs a structured routine and a lot of consistency to feel comfortable, and his dad's career as a hockey player is anything but consistent.

Last summer, after six years in Winnipeg, Chris moved his entire family to St. Louis after signing a two-year contract with the Blues. It was a challenging decision for the Thorburns, one made more difficult by the debate about whether to move Bennett to a new school in a new city just so Chris could keep the hockey thing going.

"All those guilty thoughts went through my head, like 'am I being selfish for moving him?'" Chris said. "Taking Bennett from a place in Winnipeg where he was super comfortable and his school setting was great - we just didn't know what the right decision was. But he's been a trooper. He's moved houses, he's moved cities, he's moved countries. And he's excelled everywhere he's been, which gives me the chance to excel at what I do, knowing he's surviving and progressing so well."

Chris hasn't shared this story publicly until now, even though plenty of opportunities to do so presented themselves over the last few years. The Players' Tribune came calling once, but he wasn't ready to open up. Now, Chris finds himself wondering why he's kept it quiet for so long. He thinks sharing his story could potentially help other parents who have learned that their child might be autistic or have special needs.

Chris credits a special school district teacher at Flynn Park Elementary, Ms. Weber, for helping Bennett get acclimated and comfortable in his new surroundings in St. Louis. Sometimes, Ms. Weber purchases school supplies for her students using her own money to ensure they get what they need.

To help, the Thorburns have organized a fundraiser during the April 4 game between the St. Louis Blues and Chicago Blackhawks to raise money to support her classroom.

"Ms. Weber, she's an angel and she's a saint," Chris said. "I've gotten to know a lot of her students and they deserve nothing but the best. We want to help her achieve that… Bennett has progressed leaps and bounds, and we owe her a lot for that. Seeing her is the highlight of his morning."

For now, Chris seems to be hitting his stride in his first season with the Blues. After being in and out of the lineup for the first half of the year, the 34-year-old veteran of 12 NHL seasons is one of the most popular players in the locker room amongst his teammates, and he's played in nine consecutive games to help the team achieve their longest winning streak of the season.

Bennett seems to be doing well in St. Louis, too. He'll be at the game on Wednesday, watching his dad play in what promises to be a pivotal game against the Blackhawks in the race to reach the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Bennett will be cheering for his dad from the stands with his younger sister, Mary, his new friends from school and Ms. Weber, who will be right there beside him.

"We're learning with Bennett every day, and every day is different," Chris said. "Some days are a struggle, some are great, but we're not perfect by any means. When our daughter came along, we didn't know what Bennett was going to think, but I can tell you he couldn't be a better big brother. He loves his sister."

The older he gets, the harder it becomes for Chris to walk out the door to board a plane to another NHL city.

"It's funny, because I know my son needs consistency in his life, but I can't even be a consistent part of it. Not because I don't want to be, but because the hockey schedule doesn't allow me to be," Chris said. "I love what I do, and my family loves what I do and they support it. As Bennett gets older, he is having a harder time with me being gone. He battles through it just like our whole family does. It's hard for me to tell him why I'm leaving home so often, but hopefully when my career is done, it will be all worth it where I can spend every day with him and we can be best buds."

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