Husband noticed that no men showed up at an awareness group started by his wife
This article originally appeared in the Chicago Tribune
By Rex W Huppke
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.