Dads with autistic children get a place to learn, brag and vent

Husband noticed that no men showed up at an awareness group started by his wife

By Rex W. Huppke

Chicago Tribune reporter

September 15, 2008

James Harlan quickly saw good coming from the autism awareness program his wife started in west suburban Proviso Township. But as the group—aptly named The Answer Inc.—grew larger, Harlan noticed something missing at its meetings.

"Where are the men?" he asked his wife, Debra Vines. "Where are the fathers? It was all women."

He thought back on his own experience raising Jason, his now 20-year-old son with autism. He remembered battling feelings of shame, drifting away from longtime friends when they began telling tales of their boys catching touchdown passes and going on first dates.

"How was I supposed to chime in on that?" Harlan said. "I could say Jason learned how to tie his shoes. But they'd ask, 'What? Isn't he 16?' "

He never had another man to talk to about this kind of life. So this year, Harlan started The Answer's "Just for Men" program, a support group for dads to gather and talk, celebrate the small advances and spout off about the endless frustrations that autism can present.

Each month, about a dozen fathers come together and swap stories in the basement of a Bellwood library. Between meetings, they talk by phone, go on outings with their kids and pass along tips and advice on navigating the state's complex health-care and educational systems.

Chantal Sicile-Kira, who has written several books on autism, said The Answer's program for men is part of nationwide awakening to the fact that the fathers of children with the disorder have specific emotional issues that aren't always addressed.

"Some of the national conferences now actually have an evening for the men, or they'll have special sessions during the day for fathers," she said. "You have a lot more men taking an active role in their children's lives and education."

Sicile-Kira also noted that autism occurs more in boys than in girls.

"How do guys connect with their boys usually? It's often through sports and stuff like that. It's playing with them, rough-housing with them," she said. "So when your kid is incapable of doing sports, you don't have that kind of bonding thing and that can be hard on the fathers."

Autism is a baffling disorder diagnosed in about 1 of every 150 children. It is different in each individual, but generally it inhibits communication and socialization, often making it difficult for children to show affection or engage even with those closest to them.

During one of Harlan's recent "Just for Men" meetings, Frank Patterson of Oak Park recalled when his now-33-year-old son, Frank Jr., spent time over the summer with relatives in South Carolina. Patterson drove down to pick up his son, got out of the car and knelt to give a hug to his son, who was running toward him.

"But he just blew right past me and jumped into the car and started playing with the steering wheel," Patterson said. "Like I wasn't even there. That was a hurtful feeling."

Vines recalls how hard their son's diagnosis was for Harlan to accept.

"Men tend to be fixers," Vines said. "So he wanted to find a way to fix Jason. He went into denial for a while, saying, 'Well, he'll grow out of it.' "

"I'd take him out to play ball," Harlan said, "and I'd give him the ball and he'd just drop it. And I'd get mad. 'C'mon, you can throw that ball!' "

But over time, Harlan not only came to accept Jason's disability, he recognized it as a blessing.

"These kids, all they know is love," Harlan said. "They don't know hate. They don't know violence. Jason came along, and he taught me unconditional love. He loves us just because he loves us. That's all."

Harlan's perspective, and the life experiences of others in the group, have made a difference for Anthony Smith, a Westchester dad who has a 17-year-old son with autism.

"It allows me to see that there are other people experiencing the same things as I am, and that I'm not alone," Smith said. "I know that as bad as it gets, I've got somebody now that I can talk to. And they'll understand exactly what I'm going through without me giving them 5,000 explanations of what I mean."