Ballplayer now autism activist
When baseball great B.J. Surhoff’s son Mason was a year old, B.J. and his wife, Polly, started to notice that something was off. Mason didn’t seem to hear well and wasn’t as engaged as his brothers.
“He was developing just as quickly, if not quicker. And then he wasn’t,” B.J., now 57, remembered.
So he took his son to a neurologist, who diagnosed Mason with “classic autism.”
B.J. and Polly felt lost. “We had no idea what it was,” Polly said. “We had no idea what to do.”
This was in the early 1990s, when there was less awareness of autism. “At that point, we didn’t have the luxury of having the internet,” B.J. said in an interview with the Beacon.
By a stroke of luck, Polly found an autism specialist at the couple’s alma mater, UNC-Chapel Hill, and flew therapists up to Wisconsin, where the family lived while B.J. played for the Milwaukee Brewers.
Mason started an in-home therapy program 40 hours a week, which the Surhoffs paid for out-of-pocket.
“It was a game changer,” Polly said. “If we didn’t have the [financial] resources, none of this would have happened, and it shouldn’t be like that.”
The Surhoffs’ quest to find help for their son led them to Baltimore — home of the Kennedy-Krieger Institute and its cutting-edge programs for children with developmental disabilities.
Their journey also led the couple and fellow parents of autistic children to start a nonprofit, Pathfinders for Autism, which celebrated its 20th anniversary last year.
Based in Hunt Valley, Pathfinders for Autism helps families with autistic kids find the help they need — from basic information to special training.
“There was not one particular moment when we said we needed to start Pathfinders. It kind of evolved over time. We started more of a support group of parents,” Polly explained. “These kids deserve more, and so do the families.”
Maryland’s high autism rate
Autism spectrum disorder affects 1 out of 54 American children on average, most often boys. It usually appears before age three.
If a child doesn’t speak, doesn’t make eye contact, lacks social skills or makes repetitive physical movements, they may have the disorder. Although treatments and therapies exist, there is no cure.
Autism is on the rise: according to the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, the autism prevalence rate has nearly tripled since 2000, from 0.67% to 1.85%. In Maryland 1 in 52 kids is diagnosed with autism — one of the country’s highest rates.
That means more parents are finding themselves in the same situation as the Surhoffs. Pathfinders for Autism tries to provide a clear path for them, the path that the Surhoffs had to forge alone.
“That’s why we started [Pathfinders]. Our founding members wanted better resources,” said Rebecca Rienzi, Pathfinders for Autism’s executive director.
The nonprofit has a website with monthly articles, a free help hotline, and free educational sessions for parents taught by financial advisors, attorneys and behavioral therapists.
Over the years, its staff of eight has formed strong relationships with Maryland parents.
“We work with families from the day [their children] were diagnosed,” said Rienzi, who has been with the organization for 15 years. “We see their progress, and they come out for all our events.”
Free events for kids with autism
Pathfinders also organizes events just for autistic kids, who might struggle in typical social situations. The group has rented out the Maryland Science Center, Ladew Gardens and Earth Treks Climbing and Fitness Center, as well as other venues for the programs.
In February 2020, Pathfinders hosted a free “night out” at the National Aquarium, and more than 1,700 people attended.
“It was raining, but everyone was sticking it out,” Polly said. “I was like, ‘Wow, all these people showed up.’ It was really a validation of what the need was for this community.”
The popular events are “an opportunity for the whole family to get out and have some fun,” Rienzi said. “They’re focused on breaking the isolation that many families feel when they’re dealing with [an autism] diagnosis.”
After venturing out at such events, parents might feel more confident about taking their autistic kids on other outings or vacations.
“It’s a good place to go practice in a safe way, supported by communities that understand you, so you feel comfortable visiting…in any setting,” Rienzi said.
Staffers train police, teachers
Pathfinders for Autism’s staff also offers training sessions for Secret Service officers, Baltimore County police officers, firefighters, medical school students, teachers — anyone who may interact with autistic people.
And that’s most people, said B.J., president of the Hunt Valley-based nonprofit.
“It’s not an if; it’s a when — just because of the numbers — that you will encounter someone on the [autism] spectrum. You may not know it, but there’s a good chance you will,” he said.
That’s why these training programs are so important, he added, so first responders will “get a better understanding of what their actions might mean [to someone with autism].
“We don’t expect everyone to become an expert overnight, but there is a need. There’s a mandate as well for many police, fire and first responders to deal with people with intellectual disabilities.”
Colorful bus tours as fundraiser
This summer, as part of its annual fundraiser, Pathfinder for Autism’s colorful buses traveled throughout Maryland to raise awareness and funding for its programs. So far, the “2021 Dip Challenge” has raised more than $200,000 of its $1 million goal.
“The bus is just incredible looking. It’s big, and people are drawn to it whether they know who we are or not. We’ve gotten a lot of attention that way,” Rienzi said.
Of course, the group gets attention from Orioles fans and others who remember B.J., who retired in 2005.
The Surhoffs remain extremely committed to the organization, Rienzi said. “He’s the president, but he’s hands-on. Polly will come in and answer phones if that’s the kind of work that needs to be done.”
The couple, parents of four grown children, work hard to light the way for Maryland families and “to fill a niche,” B.J. said.
“We helped build this, and we do it because we feel like it’s necessary. Do we get some satisfaction out of it? Yeah, but that’s not why we do it,” he said.
They’re also committed parents to Mason, who is now 29 and lives with them. Before the pandemic, Mason had four volunteer jobs, a personal trainer and plenty of swimming workouts. Although he’s stable today, there’s no cure for autism spectrum disorder.
“Things are day-to-day. When he’s busy doing stuff, he’s great,” B.J. said.
Who will care for autistic adults?
Many aging parents worry about what will happen to their grown autistic children when they’re gone. So far, the Surhoffs haven’t found a housing solution or program that provides both support and independence to people like Mason.
“I hope someone comes up with a [housing] model that can be replicated and taken around the country,” B.J. said. Perhaps one day soon “a foundation catches on and says this is really an epidemic, and it’s a large issue.”
Autism has become more well known since Mason was diagnosed, partly due to its increased prevalence and partly because of the media.
For instance, the 2017 television show “The Good Doctor” starred an autistic surgeon, and that same year “Sesame Street” introduced a Muppet with autism.
Would B.J. appear on the program to chat with Elmo’s friend Julia?
“I don’t think so,” he said with a smile. “I haven’t heard from them yet, so I don’t think I’ll be on ‘Sesame Street.’ I might be a little old for that.”
For more information about Pathfinders for Autism, call its Help Line at (443) 330-5341. To donate to the organization, visit pathfindersforautism.org or call (443) 330-5370.