PLEASANTON -- The kitchen cabinet confirmed Cindy Everson's intuition that her youngest son, Joe, was autistic.
The then-14-month-old was in his high chair, waiting to eat, when Everson opened the cabinet. It sent Joe screaming.
Already having one son, Shane, with autism, Everson said she and her husband, Eric, had watched Joe "like a hawk," looking for signs. He hadn't crawled or talked at that point, but the Pleasanton couple hoped Joe was just delayed and not autistic.
"When I opened the cabinet, I said, 'I am going to know if he truly is autistic if I close it and he is fine,' " said Cindy about that day 11 years ago. "I closed it, and he stopped screaming. I called Eric and said, 'We have a problem.' "
A decade later, the Eversons have become fixtures in the autism community. They've raised awareness and more than $1 million for research and support programs through their annual golf tournament and benefits.
Providing Autism Research (PAR) For Kids' Sake, the couple's nonprofit founded in 2002, originally donated all proceeds to the UC Davis Medical Investigation of Neurodevelopmental Disorders (MIND) Institute, one of the world leaders in autism treatment and research.
Since the tournament's inception, the Eversons have seen a growing need for support services and programs for families with autistic children and have expanded their scope.
PAR For Kids' Sake now also donates to the Exceptional Needs Network and the Special Education Teacher Grant Program. It also is the largest financial supporter of the School of Imagination and Happy Talkers' annual free autism and developmental screening, at which children can be screened by medical specialists in one day, instead of a process that often can take months.
"They are an amazing lifeline for our families," said Mitch Sigman, who with his wife, Charlene, co-founded the School of Imagination in Dublin.
"They give financial support and provide scholarships for families that can't afford (tuition)," he said. "They are role models for parents on how they have handled everything."
Autism affects one in every 110 children in the United States, with boys four times more likely than girls to develop the disorder, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The disorder impairs social, communication and behavioral skills and can be mild to severe.
Signs of autism can range from children not responding to their names by 12 months to avoiding eye contact, delayed speech and language skills, obsessive interests or the flapping of hands, rocking of bodies or spinning in circles. Symptoms usually surface at 18 to 24 months, and autistic children can stop gaining new skills or regress with the skills they have.
"There are all kinds of therapy for autism, and the one that is tried and tested is that getting early intervention is key," said Eric Everson, who co-founded IT and business services company MatchPoint Solutions. "The earlier they get tested, the earlier treatment can begin."
The Eversons were living in El Dorado Hills when their oldest son, Shane, now 14, was diagnosed with autism at age 2. They learned about the disorder and have been involved with the MIND Institute since it began in 1998.
After relocating to Pleasanton, and less than two years after Shane was diagnosed, Joe was showing signs of autism. Six months after the cabinet episode, he was diagnosed at age 2. He's now 12.
Before having a second child, the Eversons had consulted with doctors who told them the odds of having another child with autism was low, in the range of 3 to 5 percent.
"We were definitely devastated," Cindy said about Joe's diagnosis. "We were in the throes of raising Shane and the challenges of having one. Trying to wrap our head around a second one and not knowing the levels was tough."
The couple struggled for years about possible causes. Was it something they ate or drank? Although some have pointed a finger at childhood vaccinations, the Eversons knew that was not the cause. Shane was vaccinated on schedule, but Joe was not. The disorder is just as mysterious, affecting Shane in one way and Joe in another.
Shane didn't say "da-da" until he was 4. Joe has yet to have a full conversation with Eric.
For a while, Shane had issues with escaping from the house, forcing the Eversons to put keyed locks on all windows and doors. He stopped that at age 6, For Joe, escaping is still an issue.
"The hardest thing is not knowing what the future holds," Eric said. "You think about the rest of their lives. What happens when we die? Will they have friends? I lose a lot of sleep thinking about that."
The nonprofit has been the Eversons' therapeutic release. Cindy had doubts when Eric pitched the idea of a nonprofit, but for the past eight years the two have spent long hours preparing for the tournaments. They have developed a network of people who have helped.
An 18-member committee meets every two weeks from January until May, the month of the tournament.
"We jumped right in," Cindy said about their fundraising efforts. "It has been therapeutic. (Autism) is not curable, but there is so much potential for them to do well."
Contact Robert Jordan at 925-847-2184. Follow him at Twitter.com/robjordan127.
Ages: 46 and 49
Occupation: Eric is the cofounder of MatchPoint Solutions, an IT and business services company. Cindy and Eric founded PAR For Kids' Sake, which raises funds and awareness for autism
Family: Sons Shane, 14, Joe, 12
Details: For information on PAR For Kids' Sake, go to www.par4kidssake.org.
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