Feature Written By: Zachary Dooley
Specialty jersey nights tend to be exactly what their name would entail, special, because of the connections that they share with the players on the ice.
For Autism Awareness Day this Sunday, that connection is formed with defenseman Ryan Constant.
Ryan and his wife Ashley Haines have two children, five-year old Landon and three-year old Kadin. Kadin is diagnosed as mild to moderate on the autism spectrum. If you met Kadin today, you might not think twice about it. Kadin interacts with other kids after Thunder home games and runs into the Thunder locker room to see his dad after games, often wearing a hockey jersey three sizes too big, like most kids his age at a hockey game.
When Kadin was first diagnosed, however, that was not the case. Kadin’s story begins just about a year ago, nearly 3,000 miles from Upstate New York in Stockton, CA. Kadin was first diagnosed with Autism on April 10, 2015, while Constant was playing with the Stockton Thunder, where he spent the majority of the last six years of his hockey career. Although Constant and Haines saw early signs in Kadin that may have suggested he was autistic, the diagnosis was still one that hit the family hard.
“We little shocked but at the same time we were ready for it,” Constant said. “We knew there were some signs and we did a little research ourselves, but even after all that it was still a bit of a surprise. We were a little sad at the same time because he’s our son and to have that weighing on him, knowing that he’s a happy kid, there were a lot of mixed emotions.”
Haines had a bit of the same reaction, as she had seen some characteristics that fit a child with Autism prior to the diagnosis. Kadin showed signs from as early as a year and a half, when he was enrolled in speech and infant services at a local hospital after a close family friend with expertise in the area picked up on potential signs of Autism.
“Already having Kadin in services, we kind of set ourselves up for the diagnosis, we already saw some signs and were prepared and never in denial,” Haines said.” But when the diagnosis came, it was definitely still a heartbreak.”
Things weren’t easy for the family at first. One of the biggest challenges off the bat for Kadin was an overreaction and a sensitivity to sound, even with something as ordinary as noise from a dryer vent. Kadin would especially struggle at hockey games, when the loud noises would overwhelm him at times, a difficult challenge when his father plays hockey for a living.
Kadin also struggled to communicate with his parents and he didn’t speak at a stage when most children his age would be able to.
“I was afraid I might never hear my child say ‘mama’ or ‘I Love You’” Haines admitted. “Some people never do.”
The communication issues persisted to the point where Kadin was unable to communicate to his parents the simplest of things, including what he would want to eat that night and the frustration for the child became clear. Kadin knew what he wanted, but was unable to tell anyone, which resulted in outbursts because he didn’t know how to communicate in any other way. Constant and Haines took a proactive approach by creating a picture board with different foods to communicate what he wanted.
Speech challenges led to what both Constant and Haines described as the most beneficial thing for Kadin, therapy known in California as “ABA Therapy”. The basis of ABA Therapy is that it offers rewards for proper communication. As Haines put it, “you do for me and I do for you.” Kadin underwent six months of ABA Therapy in one-on-one sessions with a private teacher and the results couldn’t have provided more optimism and success.
“[Before we began the therapy] Kadin’s language wasn’t quite there yet, we could see him getting incredibly frustrated,” Constant said. “It’s one of those things where we couldn’t tell you what’s going on with him or why he’s angry, it was a little frightening. We got him the ABA Therapy and that did wonders for him, he’s come a long way since then.”
Just as Kadin appeared to be making the biggest steps and the most progress, outside circumstances forced a big decision for his parents. As the American Hockey League began its Western movement to form the Pacific Division, Stockton became one of the cities that swapped its ECHL team for an AHL team, forcing Constant and Haines to find a new home after six years of consistency.
Constant was a mainstay with the Stockton Thunder for nearly six consecutive seasons, leaving the franchise as the all-time leader in assists and second all-time in games played as one of just two players to break the 200 game, let alone 300 game mark. After a training camp tryout with the new Stockton tenant, the Stockton Heat, Constant was faced with making the decision that had been looming all summer.
“The main goal for me was that my family was going to be comfortable wherever I went and Kadin’s well-being was at the top of our priority list,” Constant said. “We wanted to go to a state that had the benefits for Kadin and I think we made the right choice.”
Haines experienced the same thoughts, knowing that many states across the country do not pay for Autism services, which limited the options right off the bat. After conversations locally, she landed on Adirondack Enrichment in Glens Falls, which helped to ease the transition from a coast-to-coast movement.
“I was worried at first that Kadin may not receive the same kind of services or uprooting his entire house might be a really bad thing, but it hasn’t been.” Haines said about a potential move.
Adirondack Enrichment gave Kadin the best of both worlds. With the progress he made in California, Kadin is able to be “mainstreamed”, meaning able to attend preschool without any special services at the forefront. The strength at Adirondack Enrichment is that he’s able to attend like any other kid would, but under the watchful eye of the professionals, offering a safety net if any problems arise.
With a nearly a full season under their belts in Upstate New York, Constant and Haines are looking forward to Sunday’s game, adding an extra level of importance to what is already a massive game, given the playoff implications it’s sure to have for the Thunder.
“It’s going to be a special night for sure,” Constant said. “Just knowing that I can relate to a lot of the people that are involved in the game and seeing everyone who came out to support the night, it’s something we can really relate to. We had an Autism Night in Stockton before but I’ve never worn the Autism jersey and that’s pretty exciting.”
As the Thunder take the ice on Sunday, with Constant on the ice looking to lock up a position in the Kelly Cup Playoffs, his white jersey will don an Autism themed trim, carrying the puzzle pieces that Autism has come to be recognized for. With Ashley, Landon and Kadin in the stands watching, Sunday’s game will certainly have a different aura to it than most, because of the personal connection it holds. Haines is hopeful that her personal experience and the game on Sunday will urge families in similar situations to seek help as soon as they can.
“People need to not be afraid to seek help for their children,” she said. “It doesn't hurt the child to seek help, it only benefits them and the sooner the better. Kadin was the same sweet boy before the diagnosis that he is after the diagnosis and what got us through hearing his diagnosis was that Kadin is Kadin.”