John Schneider's fight to help others impacted by autism

John and Traci Schneider have used their platform to raise money for autism after their son Ben (second from left) was diagnosed with the disorder. Courtesy of the Schneider family

BELLEVUE, Washington -- Seahawks general manager John Schneider and his wife, Traci, stand on a balcony, overlooking the hundreds of people dining at the El Gaucho Steakhouse. They just delivered a speech welcoming guests to this dinner, a fundraising event with cameos from head coach Pete Carroll and nearly all of the Seahawks players.

They look out over the crowd together, quietly soaking in years of hard work coming to fruition, especially grateful for how they made it this far.

A MONTH BEFORE THE DINNER, at the Seahawks' practice facility in Renton, Washington, John sits beside his wife as they look back at the past 13 years. Their world has changed so much since their son Ben was born in 2002.

Back then, they had settled into life in Green Bay, Wisconsin, where John was working his way up the NFL management ladder as an advisor to the Packers. They began building their family with two children: Ben came first, then Jack two years later.

"We started questioning if there was something wrong with Ben when he was about 14 to 16 months old," Traci said. "He wasn't doing the things that the other kids were doing. We spent the next 18 months on that seesaw. Is he fine? Is he not fine? Is there something wrong? Just not knowing but thinking that there might be something wrong with your child is a horrible feeling, and that lasted too long."

Children can be diagnosed under the autism spectrum as early as 18 months old, and pediatricians initially suspected autism was the reason behind Ben's behavior. Hospitals in Wisconsin, however, did not have the resources to examine Ben until he turned 3 years old, forcing the Schneider family to wait for answers.

And as they waited, Ben's behavior became increasingly challenging.

"He'd have meltdowns, he'd have tantrums," Traci said. "We'd be at a park, and something would happen, and you wouldn't know what would set him off. He'd lose it, and you'd go to the car, and you go home, and the temper tantrum could last an hour -- it could last two hours."

John adds: "We had to have some hard conversations about, OK, do I keep working [in the NFL], or is this going to change our life? Do I get a different job? Do I go on a different career path?"

Difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication and repetitive behaviors are all characteristics of autism and autism spectrum disorder (ASD), which are complex disorders of brain development.

Just after Ben's third birthday, doctors confirmed it: Ben was autistic.

"It was hard," John said. "Especially as a father, it just kind of rocks your world in terms of what you think is going to happen or what your hopes and your dreams [for your child] are. I think we just really focused on getting over that grief period and trying to figure out both of our worlds.

"It clearly tests your patience. I think on a daily basis it tested our marriage early on because you have to work together."

John and Traci did just that, patiently and tirelessly working as a team to find the best possible treatment for Ben, which also enabled John to continue to succeed in his career. As Ben's condition improved, John's career flourished. He was hired as general manager of the Seahawks in January 2010.

The Schneider family, however, wasn't finished.

In 2012, they established Ben's Fund, a subdivision of Families for Effective Autism Treatment of Washington (FEAT). Its goal is to not only provide grants to families with children on the spectrum but also connect them to a larger community to receive ongoing guidance and assistance.

"We wanted to do something for parents because we knew what that looked like," Traci said. "We knew what that felt like. It's hard enough to sit and wait for a diagnosis, but then to know that there's something wrong with your child and not be able to do anything about it ..." Traci trails off and looks at John, who completes her thought.

"Waiting for the assistance is really the toughest thing," he said. "For us, it was all about really just trying to figure out a way that we could give back."

BACK AT EL GAUCHO, Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson is introducing himself to a table of guests. "You see these right here?" He points to the oversized bills in his left hand. "These are Ben Bucks. Each one is worth $12. And all of it is for autism."

Said Traci: "We have fake money -- Ben Bucks -- that the people who attend the dinner can purchase. They'll then use them to pay the players for various things: phone calls, pictures, autographs, selfies."

With the help of Ben Bucks, and three other dinners just like this one, the Schneiders have helped raise more than $1.4 million for Ben's Fund.

"We're really fortunate with how far Ben has come," Traci said. "A big part of who he is today is getting him the support and the services that he needed early."

Said John: "One of the reasons why we want to talk about autism is, to not only support the families that are going through the same thing or something similar that we did, but also try to bring light to it, help that awareness, and get these kids the support they need as fast as they can get it."

Michelle Beisner contributed to this story.

Tory Zawacki is an associate producer for "Sunday NFL Countdown" on ESPN.