Netherlands boy joins Eagles to raise funds for autism

The Eagles’ newest long-distance fan arrived in Philadelphia for the first time Wednesday evening. By Thursday, Thijmen Hendriks, 8, from the Netherlands, had already scored a team jersey. And that was just the beginning of his souvenir list.

“I think it’s going to be an expensive weekend,” said his father, Bram.

Thijmen (pronounced like “diamond” without the final D) and his dad came all the way from the Dutch city of Haarlem to join the NFL champions in the organization’s first Eagles Autism Challenge. The goal of the fundraiser, which began last September, is to support research for autism spectrum disorder, a disability that encompasses a wide range of social, communication, and behavioral challenges. The campaign culminates in a cycling and walk/run event Saturday at Lincoln Financial Field.

Autism is believed to affect about 70 million people worldwide. One of them is Thijmen.

The Eagles organization has vowed to donate 100 percent of participant-raised funds to autism research being conducted at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, Drexel University, and Thomas Jefferson University.

“Autism is one of the fastest-growing developmental disorders in our country, yet we are still at a point where the cause is not fully understood,” said Jeffrey Lurie, Eagles chairman and CEO, who has a brother on the spectrum. “It’s a lifelong condition without a cure. Just in the last month, new studies revealed the autism prevalence has risen from one in 68 children to one in 59 – a 15 percent increase.”

Scheduled to start at 7 a.m., the event includes three cycling rides – 15, 30, and 50 miles – and a 5K walk/run.  Among the expected Eagles participants are Lurie, head coach Doug Pederson, wide receiver Mack Hollins, linebacker Kamu Grugier-Hill, center Jason Kelce, and kicker Jake Elliott.

Thijmen and his dad who join the 5K.

“He wants to run,” Bram said of his son.

The Hendrikses heard about the challenge through Bram’s job as a European client service manager for the Radnor-based law firm Kessler Topaz Meltzer & Check. As of Friday, the firm’s 50-plus-person team already had raised more than $66,000 for the Eagles challenge — about $1,100 came from Team Hendrik.

Thijmen was diagnosed with autism three years ago, after he began primary school.

“He found it quite difficult to make friends,” Bram said. “He felt frustrated at times.”

At school, the teachers complained about his behavior. Outside of school, he wasn’t invited to classmates’ birthday parties.

Bram said that at his wife’s insistence, they had Thijmen tested for autism.

The diagnosis was a shock at first, but proved to be a godsend. Since then, Thijmen has received therapy to help him cope with his social challenges.

Camera icon YONG KIM / Staff Photographer
Thijmen Hendriks, 8, runs up the stairs inside Lincoln Financial Field.

“The last couple years, he has done extremely well both at school and in social interactions with kids, and that is actually due to the diagnosis we received,” Bram said.

Now, Thijmen plays rugby. Without the therapy, Bram doubts his son would have been able to participate in a team sport.

This summer, Thijmen is looking forward to a week away with the Scouts. Last year was his first camping trip, but Bram said he went to pick up Thijmen after three days, thinking longer would be pushing it.

“He was actually angry with me,” Bram said. “He enjoyed it so much, he didn’t want to go home.”

And now he’s enjoying his first trip to Philadelphia.

“I am very much looking forward to going to the stadium of the Eagles,” said Thijmen, his father translating from Dutch, “and maybe meeting some players of the Eagles.”

American football isn’t played in the Netherlands, but Bram said Thijmen has been watching clips of Eagles games online.

They’re also enjoying the Philly food.

“We just enjoyed a hot dog and a burger at Franklin Square, outside in the rain,” Bram said Thursday. “He’s very much enjoying the American cuisine. We will most certainly have a cheesesteak.”

Bram hopes Thijmen will get to meet other children on the spectrum at Saturday’s event.

“What I’m hoping for is, he will have a positive connection to autism as a result of this event,” he said.

That and a whole lot of sports gear for his sons, including Thijmen’s little brother, who did not make the trip but is expecting his cut of the bounty.

“Apart from the fact I need to bring him some Eagles sports gear, I also have to bring him some Phillies stuff,” said Bram. Baseball, it so happens, is played in the Netherlands.

And of course, Thijmen’s Eagles swag: the football, the pennant, the poster –.

“I think,” Bram said, “I should have brought an empty suitcase.”