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When autism hit, Tampa Bay Lightning's Olie Kolzig answered

Christin Kolzig was trying to hold a conversation when son Carson climbed into her lap and whispered in her ear. "Can we do it now?" he asked. "I can't now," Christin said. But Carson, who turns 8 on Jan. 1, was persistent in his quest for help setting up a favorite video game on his laptop. Christin laughed like she was being tickled and called husband, Olie, to get their son settled. "You learn to appreciate these moments," Christin said. "You just realize what a miracle it is to have happy kids. In our world, you forget about that stuff."

The Kolzigs' world changed forever when Carson, at 15 months, was diagnosed with autism. It was devastating, said Olie, the Lightning's backup goaltender. And it took time for the family, which now includes daughters Kendall, 6, and Ashlyn, 5, to realize what it faced.

But instead of closing ranks, Olie and Christin reached out to help other families cope with the demands the neurological disorder makes, especially those which cannot afford treatments and therapies.

Kolzig, with friends and former NHLers Byron Dafoe and Scott Mellanby, who also have autistic children, founded Athletes Against Autism, which Olie estimates has raised about $1.2-million.

The Carson Kolzig Foundation, in Kennewick, Wash., the family's offseason home, has raised about $800,000.

In June 2006, Kolzig, then with the Capitals, received the King Clancy Memorial Trophy, given annually to the NHL player making a noteworthy humanitarian contribution to his community.

"There's enough money being thrown around for clinical research. I don't know if there's enough for support," Kolzig said. "We're fortunate in that aspect. Not a lot of families are. We know as parents how hard and difficult it is, so we're trying to make a difference for other couples."

"You want to try," Christin said, "to turn it into something good."

Autism's symptoms can vary but generally affect the ability to communicate and socially interact and can be characterized by repetitive behavior and emotional outbursts. No principle cause has been determined and symptoms generally do not show up in the first year.

That was the case with Carson, whom Kolzig said was "a typical baby" who "loved to be tickled."

Over time, though, Carson became withdrawn. He wouldn't respond to his name, didn't want to be cuddled, occasionally banged his head.

"I know Olie used to come home from the road, 'Hey, buddy,' and he didn't even look up," Christin said. "He didn't want anything to do with Olie. When we walked in the room, nothing."

The diagnosis of pervasive developmental disorder, a relatively mild form of autism, came after Carson went for a routine immunization. Kolzig said the doctor observed the tendencies and suggested a specialist.

Kolzig, then one of the league's top goalies, was on the road with the Capitals when Christin called with the news.

"It was tough," Kolzig said. "He was our only child at the time. When you're a dad and have a little boy, you have all these dreams and visions with what you're going to do with your son. Is he going to play hockey? Is he going to golf? If he going to be a piano player? Whatever. One phone call and everything got dashed."

That is why moments like the one at the Kolzigs' St. Petersburg home are so special.

Christin said Carson did not speak until age 4.

"Now, he's a chatterbox."

The boy who ignored his father now runs to him and kisses his cheek.

He also is adamant he wants a Wii Boom Blox for Christmas.

Carson, who attends Hope Academy in Tampa, a school for special needs kids, still has his moments, Kolzig said.

"Hate to say it but he's got his dad's temper, and for a kid with autism, it's even worse because they don't know how to rationalize things."

So there are meltdowns.

"When he has his temper tantrums it's tough," Kolzig said. "But everything he achieves and how affectionate he is, there's a special bond between me and my son. I'm happy he is in my life.

"I never, ever give it a second thought."

Damian Cristodero can be reached at [email protected]

On the Web

To learn more about autism or to donate to one of Lightning
goaltender Olie Kolzig's foundations, go to carsonkolzigfoundation.org or athletesagainstautism.org.

When autism hit, Tampa Bay Lightning's Olie Kolzig answered 12/23/08 [Last modified: Friday, December 26, 2008 8:47pm]
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