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Article updated: 4/29/2013 9:44 PM

Mazzie using 'platform' for more than softball

By Joshua Welge

Tom Mazzie wears his heart on his hat.

Pinned on the Lake Park softball coach's hat is the ribbon for autism awareness, the same ribbon his team puts on its uniforms. Spray-painted on the Lake Park dugout are puzzle pieces, a symbol of the struggle against Autism.

It's a fight that hits close to home.

Mazzie's 5-year-old son Everett has been diagnosed with autism, among the 1 in 88 children in the United States identified as having an autism spectrum disorder, according to a 2012 study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It is almost five times more common among boys than girls.

On Thursday, and again on May 17, as part of Lake Park's games with Bartlett the schools are hosting a "Competing for Autism" event. Shirts worn by each team will be sold for $10, with proceeds being donated to Autism Speaks, one of the leading organizations in raising awareness and money for Autism research.

Between the two schools, 500 shirts have been sold. Mazzie targets raising close to $3,000.

But really 50 cents would satisfy him. Raising awareness, that's the ultimate goal.

"Being the parent of an autistic child, the only thing I wish for is equality and that he is treated the same way," Mazzie said. "He will not get equality if people do not understand what autism is."

Mazzie's journey to awareness started when Everett was a year old.

Tom and his wife, Michelle, noticed that Everett was not communicating with them in the manner older daughter Estella, now 7, was. When he began to walk it was always on his tip toes. Everett had an infatuation with spinning and spinning objects, another sign of autism at an early age.

The Mazzies moved to Naperville, in large part because of their schools' work with special needs. Everett, now in preschool, attends Ann Reid Early Childhood Center.

Mazzie acknowledges the extra challenges, the need for a patient wife and patient family.

He feels lucky to have a daughter in Estella who is "amazing" with Everett.

"She's like a second mom," Mazzie said. "It's awesome to see her mature because of his difficulties. She looks out for him whether it's playing with him, doing speech therapy, and she does it without us asking. She just loves him."

There is a wide range of symptoms, skills and levels of impairment that children with ASDs can have. Everett, for one, is able to function with most day-to-day tasks on his own.

He is able to get food for himself, use the bathroom on his own and take showers. He can play video games on the Wii or iPad. He gets on the bus to go to school and can play with children and adults he is comfortable with. He receives a variety of therapies with focus on speech and occupational therapies.

"We are blessed that he is fairly high functioning," Mazzie said. "We diagnosed him early, and we were lucky."

Mazzie's softball girls, his "second family," can feel the love coach has for his wife and children.

Lancers senior Stephanie Starr said Mazzie talks about them all the time, smiles when the team looks at family photos, calls Everett "his little guy." Sunday is family day, the one day a week set aside to get away from softball.

When Lake Park drove back from a tournament in Ohio last week, Mazzie cut short the stops so he could get back by 9 p.m. to put his kids to bed.

"It's so obvious how much he genuinely loves his family," Starr said.

Springs are undoubtedly exhausting for Mazzie. Everett needs him, but so too does his team.

Starr marveled at how Mazzie won't hesitate to get to school by 5:15 in the morning for workouts or extra hitting, then leave school at 7 that night.

"He's the most willing coach that all of us have ever had," Starr said.

Mazzie himself feels fortunate, and fortunate to have the opportunity to raise the visibility of autism awareness.

"I cannot tell you how blessed I am to be coaching this program," Mazzie said, "and I am blessed to have the platform I do. If I can use this platform for some kind of good, why not do it?"

jwelge@dailyherald.com

Follow Josh on Twitter @jwelge96

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