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Flying Overseas In Search Of Victory

It was 1 a.m. on February 5 as Bram Hendriks settled in to watch the live kickoff for Super Bowl LII. Hendriks cheered for the Eagles from his home in Haarlem, Netherlands - a coastal town that is a 10-minute train ride from Amsterdam.

No, Hendriks is not a transplant from Philadelphia. He hasn't watched much American football over the years, as most games are not televised in his country.

A year and a half ago, Hendriks was hired by Kessler Topaz Meltzer & Check, a law firm based in Radnor, Pennsylvania. Knowing that his co-workers are huge Eagles fans, he followed the scores of the "matches," as he calls them, and watched games whenever possible. He didn't want to miss the Super Bowl "because this event was the one that my colleagues were going to talk about for years to come."

Hendriks' has a deeper connection to the Eagles that expands beyond the action on the field. Shortly after the team announced the Eagles Autism Challenge in September, Kessler Topaz Meltzer & Check wanted to support the cause. Team KTMC has raised close to $65,000 for the inaugural cycling, running, and walking event. Hendriks and his wife, Kim, have three children. The oldest, Thijmen (pronounced Taimen), is 8 years old and has autism.

Thijmen will travel with his father to Philadelphia and both will run in the five Below 5K this Saturday. It will be Thijmen's first trip to the United States and offers Bram a chance to experience the city as a tourist instead of visiting just for business.

"I want to give him a positive experience with autism," Hendriks said. "He's a very high-functioning kid but he finds it very difficult to talk about autism and the challenges that he faces as a result of that."

When Thijmen started school a few years ago, he struggled with the transition to the new environment. He was unable to effectively communicate with others and his frustration was increasing by the day. He would often cry himself to sleep. His parents didn't know what to do.

"You want to see your kid make friends and know that he is extremely happy," Hendriks said. "This was our first child. For us, this was a very frustrating time."

Autism never crossed their mind. Hendriks thought that everything would eventually work itself out over time. 

"I underestimated it," he admitted. "I never thought that the outcome would be the autism spectrum disorder. I had the tendency to downplay it somewhat. My wife, she was more on top of it. She was the one who said we need to get him tested to have more clarity about what's wrong with him. I thought, 'Why should he have the label? Why is it necessary to have him tested?'

"In hindsight, that was a terrific move by her because as a result of this label it was possible to look for the most adequate treatment."

Fortunately, the Hendriks family was able to get the proper testing and therapy all within a couple of months. The same process can take up to a year or more in the United States. Thijmen continues to attend a regular school and meets with a specialist once a week for about an hour to learn and develop social skills such as how to interact with others and interpret non-verbal cues. Thijmen's younger brother, 7-year-old Pepijn, has also participated in sessions to understand how to communicate with his brother.

"It has made life easier for him in the sense he is better equipped to make friends. He has a bunch of friends who he plays with on a regular basis. He's very much loved at school and school is going well. He is now able to participate in a team sport like rugby. That would not have been possible, I think, without the adequate therapy," Hendriks said.

"This has proven that therapy can be a useful, helpful tool for kids with autism spectrum disorder and more research is needed to get a better understanding of it."

Hendriks is also looking forward to this trip because Philadelphia is the center for groundbreaking research on autism. He also hopes to meet other families who have high-functioning children like Thijmen. He admitted that it is difficult to find support groups in the Netherlands. While Thijmen is thriving, Hendriks knows that as his son grows there will likely be new obstacles to overcome.

"There are still uncertainties ahead of us so I don't want to downplay the challenges that we may face going forward," Hendriks said.

To help support Bram and Thijmen Hendriks, you can donate to their page here.

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