April 15, 2024

Astros’ Autism Awareness Night has extra meaning for Joe Espada and his family

Viviana Espada empathizes with those around her. She is an aspiring artist who cares about everyone, sensing sadness or satisfaction when others aren’t able. Arrive home angry after a frustrating day of work and this soon-to-be 9-year-old will notice.

“She can feel my moods,” her father, Joe, said this winter while remembering a story. Sometime during the past six seasons, the Houston Astros were mired in such a slump that he stopped smiling so much at home. Out of nowhere, Viviana asked him why.

“She cares so much about the small stuff,” Joe said this week. “It kind of keeps me in check how she responds to the smallest things. I’m like, ‘Man, this is nothing.’ The game, the grind on the baseball fields is nothing (compared) to what she has to go through.”

Perspective gets lost in the life of a baseball season. Joe Espada receives it each time he enters his home. A blown call, a bad stretch or a string of second-place finishes in managerial searches pale in comparison to the difficulties his daughter encounters.

Doctors diagnosed Viviana with autism shortly after the Espadas moved to Houston in 2018, offering finality after a few years of developmental delays and uncertainty over what caused them.

“She makes me be a better person,” Joe said. “She makes me work harder on communication, listening and knowing that things are not easy. You’ve got to be patient and sit down and take time to understand what people are going through. She really helped me realize a lot of things in life.”

On Tuesday night, Joe will squat behind home plate to catch Viviana’s ceremonial first pitch before Autism Awareness Night at Minute Maid Park, a game to celebrate people living with autism and bring recognition to the challenges they face.

(Photo courtesy of the Espadas)

Three sections at Minute Maid Park — 156, 305 and 405 — will feature lower volume from the public address system, while another will feature a sensory room for those who require one. Awareness groups will be present, too.

“I think it opens your mind to people and just the different challenges we all face, whether you have any diagnosis at all,” Joe’s wife, Pam, said. “‘It makes people think about maybe how you treat somebody or telling your children to be kind to people.”

The Espadas’ older daughter, Eliana, spoke in full sentences by the time she turned 18 months old. Viviana didn’t hit the same benchmarks as her sister, but since children develop at different paces, the delay didn’t immediately worry Pam or Joe.

Other children Viviana’s age continued to hit benchmarks she had not. Joe noticed her struggling to communicate with children her age at parks or get-togethers while the family still lived in New York. Viviana — whom the family calls “Vivi” — started to speak, and had what her mother called “a pretty decent vocabulary.” But a subsequent visit to the pediatrician produced a particular question: Could Vivi string two words together? Pam said she couldn’t, so doctors suggested an early intervention program for toddlers with suspected developmental disabilities.

“At that point, she was so little they couldn’t even diagnose her with autism,” Pam said. “Usually between 3 and 4 would be the earliest point.”

Early intervention programs provide various therapies for children who could be on the spectrum. Psychologists, speech and occupational therapists all saw Viviana, who started attending a smaller school alongside other children with developmental disabilities to kickstart her socialization.

After Joe accepted the Astros’ bench coach job in 2018, the family relocated to Houston and found THINK, a Texas-based neurology center specializing in treating children. Pam sought clarity on a still undiagnosed condition and brought Vivi in. At the end of a 45-minute appointment, doctors told Pam and Joe their daughter is on the autism spectrum.

“It’s hard to hear even though it’s something you thought might be, just because it’s a challenge,” Pam said. “For her, she’s grown so much and she works so hard and I think it shows her resilience. I hope one day, in a way, I hope she appreciates that she’s a little bit different. But there are definitely hard days and things.”

On the day of Vivi’s diagnosis, doctors told Pam, “If 100 is severely autistic, Viviana is like an 8.” To hear her mother describe it, Vivi is “on the spectrum, but very low on the spectrum.” Noises or lights don’t affect her and she’s able to navigate crowds at Minute Maid Park with little issue. She even spent Friday night on the field for a postgame fireworks show, soaking in her father’s second game as a major-league manager.

Some sensory issues arise now and then — things as simple as sometimes not wanting to wear a backpack at school. An overflow crowd at Joe’s introductory news conference overwhelmed Vivi a bit, but not enough to stop her from a heartfelt interview into a bevy of cameras.

“Watching how hard she’s worked, that’s what I’m really proud of the most,” Joe said. “How hard she works trying to learn skills that she knows she needs to work on.  It’s been incredible to watch her and how far she’s come.”

“She’ll tell me, ‘My mind just gets stuck,’” said Pam. “She can’t move past something, so she’ll have a little meltdown.”

Therapy is helping Vivi better verbalize her feelings. She attends regular school, where she’s become smitten with science and art. Getting involved in more extracurriculars is a goal, but sometimes her competitiveness creates too much anxiety.

As she approaches nine years old, Vivi is becoming more aware of her diagnosis, but only in the realization that “my friends don’t go to therapy.” Whether she grasps her exact diagnosis isn’t a concern for her family.

“Who really wants to be defined by that? It’s not who you are,” Pam said. “But I think by me telling people all these things, it puts a different face to it for some people.

“As a parent, no matter if you have a neurotypical child or somebody that has any sort of disability, nobody gives you a book. You try to do your best and to help them have the best life that they can have — be happy.”

Concerns about Vivi’s future loom, but what parents don’t worry? Pam prefers to quote her husband, who often reminds her, “God doesn’t give you more than He thinks you can handle.” Joe has always loved children, Pam said, and empathizes with them in ways other adults may not. He now has a perfect child to complement him.

“People see autism like a condition,” Joe said. “I see her as a special kid that has skills. She’s a great artist. She is super caring, super lovable and I just could not imagine her being any different than how she is.”

(Top photo: Courtesy of the Espadas)