021 – Sports radio legend Dan McNeil on raising his Autistic son and best friend, Patrick.
In this Special Fathers Network Podcast, Host David Hirsch talks to Chicago Sports radio legend, Dan McNeil. Dan has been broadcasting all across the radio dial throughout his 30 plus year career in Chicago.
Currently he’s broadcasting at his old home, Sports Radio 670, The Score.
Dan tells us about being a Dad – a special father to three boys – Van, Patrick and Jack. It’s his second son, Patrick who’s Autistic.
The bond between Dan and Patrick is very special. Patrick regards his Dad as his best friend. We’ll hear the story of the McNeil family, Dan’s kids, his wife, Sherri and how he’s adjusted along the way. That’s all in this Special Fathers Network Podcast.
Dad To Dad 21 – Sports radio legend Dan McNeil on raising his Autistic son and best friend, Patrick.
Tom Couch: This is the Special Fathers Network podcast. The Special Fathers Network is a dad to dad mentoring program for fathers raising children with special needs through our personalized matching process. New fathers with special needs children connect with mentor fathers in a similar situation. It’s a great way for fathers to support fathers.
Sometimes the mentor father is just there to answer a few questions. Sometimes they become good friends. It’s a proven support system for new fathers with special needs kids. If you’re a father looking for support or if you’re a dad who’d like to offer support, go to 21stcenturydads.org that’s 21stcenturydads.org.
David Hirsch: Hi, I’m David Hirsch.
This is the Special Fathers Network podcast stories of fathers helping fathers.
Tom Couch: And I’m Tom Couch. Today David talks to Chicago sports radio legend. Dan McNeil. I love the national football league and all of its problems. Dan’s been broadcasting all across the radio dial throughout his 30 plus year career in Chicago.
Dan McNeil: I have some news for you.
David Hirsch: Currently he’s broadcasting at his old home sports radio, 670 the score, all of us were watching Sammy Sosa through kids’ eyes, but today Dan’s going to talk about being a dad, a special father to three boys, van Patrick, and Jack. It’s his second son, Patrick, who’s autistic.
Dan McNeil: And it took me about four years to understand that there were things I could do and only I could do to turn it into a positive way. Most importantly, for Patrick.
Tom Couch: The bond between Dan and Patrick is very special.
Dan McNeil: He regards being his best friend.
David Hirsch: That’s pretty powerful.
Dan McNeil: And that’s been the greatest joy in my life for the last 15 years. Taking him to musicals downtown.
Tom Couch: We’ll hear the story of the McNeil family, Dan’s kids, his wife, Sherry, and how he’s adjusted along the way for those positives because they are there.
That’s all in this Special Fathers Network podcast. Here’s your host, David Hirsch.
David Hirsch: Being a father is very important to me. Being a good father means being a successful role model for your child, helping them be happier, more fulfilled and productive members of society. I’ve started a number of charitable organizations designed to increase the role of fathers.
One of them, the Special Fathers Network. As a dad to dad mentoring program for fathers, raising children with special needs. We’ve been interviewing some exceptional fathers of special needs kids, and we want to share their stories with you.
Tom Couch: And now let’s hear David’s conversation with special father Dan McNeil.
David Hirsch: I’m thrilled to be talking today with my friend Dan McNeil of dire Indiana, a father of three boys and an afternoon drive host at am six 70 the score here in Chicago. Dan, thank you for taking the time to do a podcast interview for the special fathers network.
Dan McNeil: David, it’s my pleasure. Thank you for having me.
David Hirsch: You and your wife, Sherry, who, who’ve been married for 12 years are the proud parents of three boys. From your first marriage with Jill van, who is 27. Patrick, who has autism and is 24 and Jack the youngest is 23 let’s get started with some background. Where did you grow up? Tell me something about your family and your siblings.
Dan McNeil: I grew up in Northwest Indiana, a town called Highland, 30 miles South of Chicago. And uh. I, uh, I have an older sister, Tammy, and a younger brother, 10 years, my junior, the accident, baby little Mikey. And, uh, I grew up loving sports and loving, talking about sports and writing about sports. And I’m very lucky in that I knew what I wanted to do at a very early age.
I wanted to be on the radio or writing for a newspaper at the age of nine. And that’s when I began starting my career. I would, uh. I got a little tape recorder for my birthday one summer and I would turn the sound down on the television, the Blackhawks games, and do the play by play myself. Oh my gosh. Go back and review the tape and what can I get better at?
And when Kenny Holtzman pitched this first, no hitter for the Cubs. I went into my mom’s office and grabbed her old Smith Corona and did the old hunting pack and wrote the 10 inch game story and Kenny’s no hitter and made up quotes as though I was talking to him. Oh my gosh. But I was smart enough to know I wasn’t going to be good at sports to make a living at it.
So I began crafting a career outside of it at an early age.
David Hirsch: At age nine
Dan McNeil: At age nine. Yeah. First byline at the age of 14, and as soon as I got to ball state in 1981, the headphones went on and I went to work. Wow.
David Hirsch: That’s amazing that you found your calling that early in life.
Dan McNeil: I’m lucky that way because I have no other skills, so it’s a good thing I started owning the few skills I do have at an early age.
David Hirsch: Okay, so you have an older sister, Tammy?
Dan McNeil: Yes. Tammy. I’m three years older than I am. Um. Not necessarily a joy to grow up with. She was a troubled kid and, uh, you know, a few years older than I am, she caught the tail end of the Jimi Hendrix purple AEs experience. And as a result of that, she put my parents through a lot of hell and little Mikey 10 years.
My junior remains, uh, remains a good friend. He lives in Arizona now and I see him on a regular basis. I see him as often as I can.
David Hirsch: What are your siblings do?
Dan McNeil: My, uh. My sister does as little as possible, and my brother is in high end furniture sales.
David Hirsch: Oh, that’s cool. So, uh, how would you describe the relationship with your dad?
Dan McNeil: My dad did the best he could, um, with very little modeling. His father was an absentee father. His stepfather was an abusive father who kicked him out of the house at the age of 15, because he wanted to run track. I, um, I say people think I’m kidding when I say it, that I come from unadulterated white trash, but it’s actually very, very true.
And, uh, my dad with very little modeling did the very best he could. And he was dealing with a number of things on his most important relationship that with his wife, my mother, who had severe mental illness and was a raging alcoholic, was an early Guinea pig, um, in the whole lithium thing and mental health and mental health.
Still, when you think about it, it’s in its infancy and you go back to the 1960s when electroshock therapy was something that was commonplace. Uh, it was pretty scary. My dad had that to deal with and he had my sister who was a troubled kid. So here I am. And then having to play the role to some degree of surrogate dad to a newborn when I was 10 or 11 when Mike was born was an interesting experience.
But it made me better. It truly made me better.
David Hirsch: So, uh, your relationship with your dad has evolved over time. How has it changed from when you were growing up as a young person to today?
Dan McNeil: I think he, uh, has a little bit more respect for me now than he used to. He had to work at an early age. He didn’t have the opportunity to go to college.
And he resented me for having privileges. And I remember when I was two weeks away from concluding my internship at WGN radio and still living in his house. He says, I’m looking forward to this internship’s conclusion so you can get a real job like the rest of us. But I think my success has opened his eyes to the fact that I wasn’t just trying to become a professional student or slide by.
And I think, uh, I think that’s helped our relationship. And I think he’s mellowed and, uh, he’ll be 84, uh, in the summer later this summer. And, uh, I’m not, we’re not as close as I’d like us to be, but I think it’s evolved to a point where we’re both very content.
David Hirsch: So you talked a little bit about your dad’s dad.
Um, I’m thinking about grandpa’s now on the influence they may or may not have had on your life. Um, did you have a relationship with your mom’s dad?
Dan McNeil: I did. My grandpa George was a, was a good man. My maternal uncle and his family, my mom’s brother, my uncle Dick and his wife and Gail and my cousins, Lisa and Richie and elk Grove village.
The only really. The only really I have family I have left through my parents is my cousin Richie and his and his sister. My, my cousin Lisa. That’s, that’s it. So it’s a very small web.
David Hirsch: Are there any other father figures growing up other than your dad and your grandpas?
Dan McNeil: I was lucky enough to have great coaches and teachers.
You know, the town I grew up in, 30,000 people. I’m still in touch with my high school football coaches. And, uh, my high school coach, Dave Shelburne, who, um, was a quarterback at Northwestern in the late sixties, he grabbed me by the shirt collar when I was leaning toward the other side of the tracks when I was a junior in high school.
And he said, you’ve got all the talent in the world, but I’m not going to put up with, with nonsense. I mean, getting kicked out of chemistry class. And wearing your hair as long as you are with a rolling stones tee shirt doesn’t represent our programs. What does I’d like you to, I listened to him and that was a good thing because I learned a lot of valuable lessons by continuing to play for Dave Shelbourne.
David Hirsch: It sounds like he had a, a positive influence. He was a positive adult male role model in your life.
Dan McNeil: Yes, he was. And because of my dad’s struggles, I didn’t have as meaningful of a relationship as I probably needed with my dad.
David Hirsch: So those coaches helped fill that void. Anybody other than Dave?
Dan McNeil: Uh, everybody on that staff. I remember with five minutes, Al hall, LOC, uh, Dan Miller, Pete hedges, uh, Jerry Fleener and baseball. Those were great influences. And I had several people who were, um, who were people I admired in, in sports casting who were generous enough to spend time with me. People like Jack Brickhouse and Harry Carey.
David Hirsch: Those are really positive. Heartwarming memories.
Excellent. So you went to school at Highland high school in Highland, Indiana, and then ball state university where you studied radio, television, and journalism. If you were to think back on your education, particularly at ball state, what were the big takeaways?
Dan McNeil: I was trained to do what I do. At a state school where the annual tuition is less than $20,000 I had some great mentoring by the staff. I learned how to write for broadcast what the difference is. Writing for broadcast versus for print. Ball state has an excellent journalism program. I dove into both.
Wrote for the school paper, wrote a column on anything I wanted to call. Participant observer. Also covered the men’s football team, basketball team for both the paper and the radio station. Plus I lived at the radio station and the newspaper. I was working 40 hours a week, probably almost the entire four years I was there.
In addition to trying to maintain a 2.7 grade point average. And I had time to let that rock and roll off that hippy flag, fly a little and cover music as well. So I kind of ran the, again, I toggled, I didn’t know whether I wanted to work at WXR T radio the rest of my life. Um, you know, seeing cool things, like if you only have enough change in the sofa cushions for one Bob Marley album.
The one you buy is live, and it’s because of songs like this. Here’s Trenchtown rock. Um, I didn’t know whether I wanted to do that or sports. Which is why three, four years ago I flipped the sports casting thing and try to gig at 97 one FM, the drive 97 one FM drive. Here we are today at the crown jewel of Chicago radio stations driving in today, listening to a station that plays bitch by the rolling stones from sticky fingers.
David Hirsch: well, it sounds like you’ve got a lot of hands on work experience. Well, you are getting your education, which is unusual, you know? And by today’s standards,
Dan McNeil: that’s the only way to get better at it. It’s not something you can read in a book. It’s not something you can gain much value from a lecture. You have to put those headphones on and speak.
You have to get behind that keyboard and write. Otherwise you’re never going to develop those skills.
David Hirsch: It sounds like the Malcolm Gladwell 10,000 hours you have experience.
Dan McNeil: Yeah. That’s exactly what it is. And you have to accept the fact that you’re not going to be paid for a long, long time. Fortunately, I’ve been lucky enough to, uh, to see some cash along the way.
David Hirsch: Cash is good.
Dan McNeil: Cash is King. Some people would say so. Uh, from a work experience, you’ve done radio and newspaper in Chicago since 1985. Including gigs at the Northwest Indiana times, Chicago sun times the Chicago Tribune, ESPN 1000 you mentioned 97.1 FM. The drive. And then two other times at ham, six 70 this school,
Jen McNeil, Jenny Parkin,
Fred Musburger joins us now on the score. How’s it going, Brett? How are you guys were outstanding friends? Do I remember smoking a cigar with you once upon a time? Yeah. We got thrown out of a bar in Seattle. I ever spoke. Dan gave it up because I’m a white Sox fan inherently, but I was swept up in the Cubs.
Fabulous season of 98 several of the bullpen members were regulars on our show right here on the score. It was a, it was a really fun summer. Kerry wood became a regular Neil and bores. Nice. And it was just a great summer. It was a wonderful experience because it was the first time under the lights. The Cubs were contending for something.
It felt special for that reason as much as any for me.
David Hirsch: so what is your favorite sport?
Dan McNeil: I willed the national forest and all of its problems. And, uh, Sundays in my, uh, I hate the word man cave, but I’ll use it because that’s the best description of it. With four televisions in my recliner and my NFL Sunday ticket through direct TV. I am in sports heaven for 17 consecutive Sundays, and then I get football on Saturday and Sundays, once the wild card weekend start.
So I love pro football and it doesn’t have to be local. People complain about, uh, the bad Thursday night games, color rush. Thursday, I’ll watch the dolphins and Jaguars. I’ll watch the chargers and chiefs. I don’t need it to be the best because I can find wonderful players doing wonderful things. And it gained my watch at that level.
David Hirsch: So you grew up here in Northwest Indiana. The local team would likely be the bears pick one bear. And uh, there’s about 10 of them that have been involved with the Illinois fatherhood initiative. Dick, uh, McMahon Peyton Tillman trust, men dent, do or sin. All these guys are past honoree dads with the all my father’s initiative.
Dan McNeil: So I’ve gotten to know each of them a little bit over the last 10 or 20 years. Uh, pick a name, not necessarily from that group, but just pick a bear, uh, that you, you admire or that was a special.
They do, or some was one of those guys when I watched the movie concussion several years ago, I had to stop it because I got very upset.
Dave was a great guy. Mmm. Ron Rivera, head coach of the Carolina Panthers is a very good man. He’s done a lot of charitable work with me. Visiting kids in hospitals, helped him back with the national Hispanic scholarship fund outings. He used the host. He’s a good man, a terrific father, and he’s a really a credit to Charlotte.
David Hirsch: Uh, one of my closest friends, uh, and a former Chicago bear, part of the 85 team is, uh, Mike Singletary. Did you have much interaction with him?
Dan McNeil: I did from time to time. Mike was really, really intense.
David Hirsch: He was not past tense by the way. He is just,
Dan McNeil: yeah, I, I, we still have the, uh, the soundbites from him on the 49 or sideline.
Come on son, this NFL now
you gotta be kidding me. Look here. Look here. Settle down. You get the ball a hundred times to practice. Okay. Shiloh, look here. I’m to ask you a very honest question. If you can’t play it, let me know if I can get somebody in there. These guys are busting their tail. These guys are working.
Are you going to play or not? You got to come into that thing and now you got number love for you. Hey, good job. Good job guys. Wow. He’s incredible. Mike might be one of the. Those polarizing bears in the people have really strong opinions on him, whether he’s everything he was painted to be in terms of his wonderful skills, or whether he’s overrated. You get a lot of arguments on both sides of that argument, but clearly that 85 team definitely looked to him for leadership, and it didn’t matter to anybody more than it mattered to Singletary.
David Hirsch: Yeah. Well, I admire him. Not so much for his on-field accomplishments, but for the person that he is, the husband, that he is the father. That is the believer that he is. And I think what you see is what you get. He doesn’t mince his words. He’s speaking from the heart, and it just, you either love him or you hate him, I guess.
Dan McNeil: I think most people choose the form, right. I think most people love him.
David Hirsch: Yep. So you’ve written a book. The greatest book of Chicago sports lists. Tell me something about that.
Dan McNeil: Well, uh, it’s sold almost 6,000 copies. That’s not much. Uh, ed Sherman from the Tribune approached me 10 years or so ago about putting together the Chicago book of sports lists and it seemed like a very easy project would be a good foray into first foray into publishing a book.
It’s toilet reading, you know, the 10 best bulls draft picks and franchise history, 10 Cubs who are better than you thought they were, things like that. It’s, it’s, it’s not rocket science by any stretch, but, uh, it was, it was a good experience. And, uh. I think I figured out an hourly rate. It was, it was very nice.
I mean, we get any bonuses on the back end, but if I looked at it financially from, uh, from that standpoint, it was a, it was a fine hourly rate.
David Hirsch: Well, it sounds like it was a fun project to work on.
Dan McNeil: Yeah, it really was. And uh, I will stand by it, my contribution, which ed rejected and said he wanted that to be defined only as my list in the book, in bold letters, capital letters.
And that is 10 Chicago athletes who never got teased in the shower. I might have been my favorite book.
David Hirsch: It’s too funny. Uh, you’re working on another book?
Dan McNeil: Yeah. This, uh, this might be my Magnum Opus. David. I’m working on a book. I’m halfway home on it, been on it for four years. It’s a book that I have to put away for lengthy periods of time because I get so emotionally drained.
Writing it, a working title right now is tickle me daddy. It’s about my relationship with my 24 year old son, Patrick. Michael. Who is the Apple of my eye. And it’s about what his autism did to change me and changes brothers and reshape his mother’s world and give her a life that she otherwise never would have had in a positive way.
And, uh, it’s, uh, it’s something that I need to complete. And I need to finish it to be complete and share my message with other fathers who are going through similar things.
David Hirsch: That’s awesome. I can’t wait to learn more about that. And maybe we’ll do a followup interview years down the road after the book is complete and we’ll revisit the topic.
So let’s, uh, let’s talk about special needs, your connection to the special needs community on a personal level, and then beyond. So you made reference to the fact that Patrick. Who is 24 has autism. What were your connections, your and Joel’s connection to the special needs community? Before that,
Dan McNeil: before Patrick’s diagnosis, we did not know much about autism.
Autism was not in 1996 when he was diagnosed. Very few people really understood what autism meant. Um, when we put up as our town to put up signs in the neighborhood, caution autistic child at play, whatever the wording was going to be, they, they thought it was a better idea to put death child at play because autism in that era was not understood.
Uh, now everybody knows because it’s an epidemic, one and 88 now being diagnosed with autism. And it’s, the incidence is even higher in boys. So we dove in and, uh, began working with an organization. My ex wife, Jo, founded in feet, Indiana. Families for the effect of autism treatments. What’s that
David Hirsch: organization again
Dan McNeil: in feet?
- N. F. E. A. T. I did a bunch of fundraising. It took me several years to get more invested emotionally. I had a microphone and a following, so I thought it would be ridiculously irresponsible and. Almost immoral not to use those resources to raise awareness and raise funds.
David Hirsch: So go back to when you first learned that Patrick was diagnosed.
What, what was your reaction? What was Joe’s reaction?
Dan McNeil: Our reactions were quite different. She rolled up her sleeves and went to work. And, um, I felt sorry for myself. She immediately began immersing yourself in ABA therapy, one-to-one treatment, pecs, communication systems, picture exchange, communication systems.
She got trained to make a difference immediately. And we hired a staff of people to work with Patrick one-on-one because the public school systems, even private systems in the nineties weren’t capable of making a difference. Um, I felt sorry for myself. I felt sorry for my family. Why him? Why us? Why me? I self-medicated.
I was angry and it took me about four years to understand that there were things I could do and only I could do to turn it into a positive way. For my family and for myself, but more importantly, most importantly for Patrick.
David Hirsch: Yeah. Well, thanks for being so authentic about that. People often talk about being in denial and dealing with the grief and the anxiety, the uncertainty in a lot of different ways and not all healthy ways.
And uh, it’s important to understand that, put it in perspective and then with whatever period of time. Try to be part of the solution. And that’s what I heard you saying is most importantly on your son’s behalf.
Dan McNeil: Yeah. I mean, he didn’t choose it. It chose him. And there are a lot of things people say to you when you share the news with them on something that’s as potentially injurious to a family, uh, you know, just a ton of heartache and autism and try to come for you.
Say things like, well, things happen for a reason, or God only gives those big challenges to those with broad show, you don’t want to hear that when your child is hitting his head on a hard ceramic tile floor because he can’t communicate what he wants from the refrigerator to his parents. There is no God anywhere near that, so you don’t want to hear about God.
You don’t want to hear about. How you’re going to be better because you’re just so fricking upset that your child is in such pain. It’s horrible.
David Hirsch: Plus you don’t have any control over the situation, which I think troubles dads more than a troubles moms.
Dan McNeil: It certainly does. You know, especially those of us who are baby boomers, our fathers were that providers and women never went to college way back when we were growing up.
We’re close in age. I’m 56. That was changing, but it changed very slowly. Dads still were socialized to be the fixers. Lawnmower broke. Dad will fix it. We got a leaky pipe. Dad’s going to fix it. Dad’s gonna, you know, get rid of all your nightmares for you. Dad has to be solution oriented, but with autism, with this, there’s, there’s no advantage I had by being Patrick’s father.
None. I didn’t have an inside edge on making a difference. I was completely powerless and it terrified me. Did
David Hirsch: you give any advice? What type of advice did you get early on to help put this in perspective?
Dan McNeil: Early on, I didn’t get a lot of advice and I think I found a great deal of comfort in spending time with other families who were dealing with the same sort of thing we did.
We. We got very connected with a few families near us geographically. We had common interests in and we would talk and that’s what people had to do. We had to share ideas on what was working in, at the time, it was casein free, gluten free diets, which made no difference for Patrick. You swap ideas and you realize you’re in it together and only through.
Forming that big support group. Can you, can you manage to maintain some sanity? Sometimes support groups are enormously valuable for people who have needs that go beyond what’s typical.
David Hirsch: Yeah. Well, what I hear you saying is that you need to be part of a larger community so you’re not isolated because it can be overwhelming and understand that there’s other people going through the same thing and try this, try that.
There is no silver bullet. It’s not one size fits all as far as solutions are concerned. And you know, you lean on one another and that’s another life lesson, right?
Dan McNeil: Yeah. And, uh, you know, you can, uh, as I did initially, I, I can be mad that this is my Sunday afternoon with special needs baseball. Instead of going to watch little league baseball, I can choose to be mad about that.
Or I can choose to recognize that. Patrick’s, Patrick’s issues aren’t as bad as some others. I mean, you seem very here and autism is so wildly, the pendulum swings so crazily, um, on different symptoms and behaviors, but I think that’s when I started turning a corner right around 2004 years after his diagnosis.
When I saw that there were some dads who had it way more challenging than I did. One kid who was probably in his early teens would stand in the outfield and just wail, just so upset that he even had to be there, and I watched his father
sweating, holding that poise, and.
It wasn’t easy. It made me feel real lucky that while Patrick couldn’t care less about the baseball, at least he was content to be there.
David Hirsch: Everything’s relative. Thanks for sharing, Dan. So looking back on it, what were some of the more important decisions that you and Joe made. Raising these three boys, um, including
Dan McNeil: Patrick. Jill knew that I was having, um, issues with some of the time demands, not because of lack of interest, but because of reality of a very busy schedule and two other sons who we didn’t want to be ignored. Jill said, why don’t you back off on the therapy, let me handle the behavioral issues. You’ll be his social director.
You make sure that there are plenty of things on his calendar because he’s very calendar obsessive that he can look forward to, whether it’s the movies or go cards or whatever activities you’re going to do. Make sure you have a lot of things on the schedule for him to anticipate eagerly. And that’s been the greatest joy of my life for the last 15 years.
Taking him to musicals downtown cause. He still loves all the old Disney stuff. He still loves lion King. He’s 24 and he has some problem solving intelligence that are 24 ish, but he still has the spirit and the heart of a five year old. And that’s kind of cool cause I like the lion King as well. I like a Latin also.
We’ve seen both of those musicals several times.
David Hirsch: So it sounds like you took, if I can describe it as such a divide and conquer strategy. So focus more on the therapy and things that were more medical oriented. You focused on the things that you know were more social oriented. Is that
Dan McNeil: fair? Yeah, that’s fair.
That’s fair. She knew it was going to be easier on him and she was willing to play the role of bad cop while I had, you know, the easy job of making him laugh, which isn’t hard. And you know, and Patrick doesn’t have typical friends. He isn’t interested in most people his age. He likes girls, but he doesn’t take much of an interest in typical friends.
So I’m his best friend. He regards me. It’s his best bread.
David Hirsch: That’s pretty powerful.
Dan McNeil: Yeah, it is. It is. I’m lucky that way, you know, and I think back of how immature I was, how petulant I acted, you know, 20 some years ago. I am lucky. And I’m luckier than people who don’t have kids who are autistic.
David Hirsch: That’s amazing.
So what were some of the biggest challenges that you’ve encountered along the way?
Dan McNeil: Patrick has an incredible phobia of death, and when he sees it, even in film, he talks about it repeatedly. And. You try to get him to understand concepts that are abstract to him. Why a doctor can’t fix somebody. And I’ve said to him before, uh, everybody dies.
You know, dad’s gonna die. And he immediately got in my face, frantic. This is three or four years ago. No, no, no. So that. You know someone’s going to have to explain that someday. Just it keeps me awake at night. That’s the biggest challenge. It’s not a here and now. Who’s going to take him downtown with him?
Oh, okay. His brothers will cause he’s lucky that way too.
David Hirsch: What impact has Patrick situation had on van and Jack and the rest of your family for that matter?
Dan McNeil: He has been terrific about it. Van, uh, Van’s been a compassionate, protective big brother from jump street on this Jack because he’s third and the third child in a family without special needs kids gets less attention than one and two dead.
So it’s easier
David Hirsch: videos for your pictures.
Dan McNeil: Yeah. Yeah. You know, they say the more kids you have, the closer you get to letting them juggle minds. Jack resented Patrick. I’ve talked at length with Jack about resenting Patrick. I had him write about it for my book and some things were incredibly revealed. I was unaware of some of it just because I hadn’t spent a lot of time thinking about that.
But he’s warmed up to the idea that while a little brother, he’s a big brother and spends a lot of time with Patrick now, so
David Hirsch: they’re only a year apart. Right,
Dan McNeil: right, right. With experience comes wisdom. I’d like to think, and, um, Jack’s experience is, uh, has been challenging, but it’s taught him a lot about the potential he has to make a difference.
Just like I had to go through a process to learn the same thing.
David Hirsch: So what have you been injecting now?
Dan McNeil: My oldest boy is van is working for jewels, organization behavior and learning solutions. Uh, he does a little bit of everything there. He’s sort of the it guy. He deals with employee health insurance things.
He’s, he does a lot. Um, Jack is doing an apprenticeship as a bricklayer now as a tremendous amount of musical and math talent. But was it a little bit too bashful to pursue it? The music part, I tried to send him to Boston to, uh, go to a two year music school where he wouldn’t ever be asked to read a book or write a theme.
And he was intimidated by the idea of a move. But, uh, he’s only 23, so I’m not done pestering him about that.
David Hirsch: That’s awesome. So what role does spirituality play in your life?
Dan McNeil: Uh, boy, I’ve, uh, I’ve run the gamut on spirituality and there’s a big difference between that and religion. I was raised a Methodist, but my parents weren’t too strict on it as a teen.
I went through the born again thing in college. I attended a few Buddhist, you know, gatherings. There’s parts of all religions. I like, there’s parts of it I don’t like, but the bottom line is you asked about spirituality. I’m talking about religion. Um, I vacillate, um, my comfort level with my spirituality.
I believe in a higher power, but I also question it. I, I believe the strength of the family and, and the power of meaningful friendships is the most spiritually. Rewarding thing in my life.
David Hirsch: Well, you think about these things and it’s had an influence and maybe at different points in your life, and it’s a evolutionary experience.
That’s what I think of when I think of spirituality. So what you’re thinking today might be different than what you might be thinking a year or three or five or 10 years from now?
Dan McNeil: No question. No question. It is always changing. Always evolving.
David Hirsch: So let’s talk about, uh, Jill’s therapeutic clinic. Um, this has the behavior and learning solutions organization.
Tell me something about that.
Dan McNeil: She employs a 50 to 60. Um, mostly young women who are, uh, certified or degreed in behavioral therapy. Uh, it’s a clinical environment. The clients get a lot of, one to one time. I think there are 50 to 60 students there, clients, patients, whatever you want. She doesn’t like the term students.
She likes to regard it as a clinic, um, because it is therapeutic. Um,
David Hirsch: what’s the age range of those that are, uh, the clients or the
Dan McNeil: patients? Between five and 21 I like to consider Patrick a graduate assistant. He had his own office for a little while there, but, uh. He wound up not using it because there was never anything social going on in there.
While he doesn’t necessarily. Engage people. He likes to be in the mix. So he rejected his office after the first year, but a
David Hirsch: cubicle now, not an office,
Dan McNeil: he’s, he’s still getting the treatment every day. He gets one to one therapy for half of his day, and the other half of this day, he, uh, is assigned tasks where he gets a minimum wage to empty garbage cans and things like that, and he looks forward to it and he doesn’t.
Do it for money. He doesn’t really get the concept of money. He does it because he can. He does it cause it’s a break. It’s something different and it’s a checklist. He’s very obsessive compulsive about
David Hirsch: lists. That’s awesome. Let’s switch over to advice. Um, what are the most important takeaways that come to mind when you think about raising a child with differences?
Dan McNeil: I think what I learned that was most important to me. Is that guy in the mirror is not as important as he always has appeared to be. What we do for others means a lot more than what we do for ourselves. There’s a greater good out there that we can serve if we’re not as selfish as I was inclined to be.
If we’re not as brooding, if we’re not as angry, find comfort in the fraternity. The community of autism. Recognize you’re not alone. Try different treatments. If something isn’t working over a period of time, I would strongly encourage anybody with a child with autism to try different things. Fortunately with the internet and because of autism’s status is an epidemic.
There are better places to go than there were 20 years ago. I think the best advice I can I can offer would be to look for those positives because they are there takes a while sometimes for them to completely unveil themselves. But after a while, we start to, we start to warm it up. The idea that we can find joy from things we never dreamed about, never, never knew were possible.
The idea of spending an afternoon with a group of autistic kids and finding the joy on their faces as they go horseback riding or to a ball game or to a play. Those are rewards that we never thought about. Never gave the time of day two until we had a child with autism. And, uh, that’s been a huge part of very meaningful part of my life, but it wasn’t that way initially.
It does get better. But it only gets better if we work at it. So
David Hirsch: looking for the smaller moments as opposed to sort of the things we typically think about, which are the highlights in life. You know, the big things in life.
Dan McNeil: We taught Patrick to say, I’m thinking about when he was 11 or 12 because he’s verbal, but he’s not communicative.
And one of the greatest victories. At any point in my life, in any arena of life was I remember where I was on the highway when he said it out of nowhere three or four years ago, he looks over to me and he taps me on the forearm and I look at him and he says, I’m thinking about Cheez-Its. And I had to pull off with, so then he wanted to share that little nugget with little old me just meant everything to me.
I’m thinking about cheeses. Maybe that should be the name of the book. So
David Hirsch: have there been other, I’m thinking about moments along the way.
Dan McNeil: They’re not as often as you’d like, but celebrating those little victories. Sure. I’m thinking about, and his sentences slowly but surely are getting longer. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to play guitar.
I don’t have the finger dexterity for it. But I could make the notes, but they never sound seamless. They always are clunky. That’s, I don’t have the wiring for it, and I can only think of few notes at a time. That’s kind of how it is with his speech. It’s clunky, it’s choppy, and he struggles to get past those first four or five words to make a long sentence.
But that’s, that’s improving. And hopefully that will continue to improve. I’m sure we’ll.
David Hirsch: So, uh, that has to do with this speech. Um, out of curiosity, can he write?
Dan McNeil: He can print or use good laptop skills too. Yeah, he can write and he has some reading skills.
David Hirsch: Okay. Maybe that’s an Avenue for communicating that is typing things out, you know.
Dan McNeil: They do a lot of that at, uh, at behavior and learning solutions with him. I’ve been told to worry about his social calendar, so don’t, don’t get, don’t worry. He puts in a nine hour day usually. So when I get him either on a weeknight or on the weekends, he’s ready to take a break from being told what to do.
He’s ready to tell me about Jesus and move fossa.
David Hirsch: Okay, so you have to stay in your lane? Yes. I’m thinking still thinking about takeaways. Any takeaways for dads who have a child with a physical or intellectual disability?
Dan McNeil: The only person, I’m the only person you’re hurting is yourself. When you get so angry and upset about it, I still wrestle with it from time to time.
No, you’re not alone and know that if you don’t make it about yourself, it can be a positive thing.
David Hirsch: It’s good advice. What other advice can you share with. Dads or parents for that matter about helping a child with disabilities reach their full potential.
Dan McNeil: I think it’s important to recognize what we have instead of what we want.
Don’t get locked into comparisons to other children either whether your child is below another child’s aptitudes or above it because it’s easy to. To get angry that way. Um,
David Hirsch: it’s like a trap.
Dan McNeil: Yeah. I mean, uh, one of the families we, uh, we got close two years ago. The DSX Andrew was incorrigible. Just three or four years went by and he was tortured every time I saw him.
And now he’s one of the most gregarious, outgoing, social creatures ever, right? He participates in special Olympics as a powerlifter. Uh, we took him to a Sox game with Patrick last year, and, uh. His verbal skills are, are tremendous. And if you would have seen him at four, you would’ve never thought he’d get to this level.
But he’s incredible
David Hirsch: and maybe it goes along with the never give up. Never say never. Right? This is an evolutionary experience. Life has an evolutionary experience. And Randy Lewis, who’s one of my close, longtime friends who has an autistic son who’s now 28 said, Austin, who’s a son. It’s not the same person who was a year ago, let alone three years ago or five years ago.
Things keep getting better. Not in every situation, but you know, our minds sort of think about the worst case scenario oftentimes, and you know, you need to be optimistic and proactive and intentional about helping them reach their full potential. That’s not just Patrick. That’s bam. It’s Jack as well.
Dan McNeil: No question.
David Hirsch: So why did you agree to be a mentor father, as part of this Special Father’s Network?
Dan McNeil: So I can then do what I can to help anybody avoid going down the same path I did. And being full of Fitch, Ryall and self pity, denial S you know, seclusion, isolationism. It’s so easy to fall into those things. And I could have used somebody who had been through the experience of it, hit me upside the head and say, Hey, we told you life was all about you.
You know it’s not. But if you look at this as making a difference from him, you’re going to find some things that are going to make you really like yourself. Because what it looks like, just the most daunting challenge in the world can wind up providing some of the most authentic joy as you’ll ever, ever experienced.
David Hirsch: Yeah. Well-spoken. Is there anything else you’d like to say before we wrap up?
Dan McNeil: Get involved? Um, involvement is a good thing at any level, in anything. Anytime there is a group of people. Who have needs that extenuate what’s normal? It’s good to be involved.
David Hirsch: If somebody Wants to get a copy of your book or to contact you, how would they go about doing that?
Dan McNeil: The great book of Chicago sports list is available probably for 99 cents. You’ll pay more for the shipping than you will on Amazon, Amazon. Sure. And uh, you know, I don’t know if it’s going to be a tickle me daddy or I’m thinking about Jesus, but there will be a book within the next 18 months public.
David Hirsch: Okay, well, I’m going to hold you to that.
I’ll be a constant reminder. And if you tell enough people that you’re going to do something. Hopefully that means you got to do it. We’ll need to keep you accountable.
Dan McNeil: Yes, that’s right. Thank you, David. I’ve enjoyed it.
David Hirsch: Dan. Thank you for taking the time and many insights. As a reminder, Dan is just one of the dads who has agreed to be a mentor.
Father has part of the Special Fathers Network, a mentoring program for fathers, raising a child with special needs. If you’d like to be a mentor father or are seeking advice from a mentor father with the same or similar situation to your own, please go to 21stcenturydads.org.
Thanks again, Dan.
Dan McNeil: Thank you.
Tom Couch: The Special Fathers Network is a dad to dad mentoring program for fathers raising children with special needs through our personalized matching process. New fathers with special needs children connect with mentor fathers in a similar situation. It’s a great way for fathers to support fathers.
Sometimes the mentor father is just there to answer a few questions. Sometimes they become good friends. It’s a proven support system for new fathers with special needs kids. If you’re a father looking for. Port. Or if you’re a dad who’d like to offer support, go to 21stcenturydads.org that’s 21stcenturydads.org.
David Hirsch: And thank you for listening to this special fathers network podcast stories of fathers helping fathers.
Tom Couch: The Special Fathers Network podcast was produced for 21st Century Dads by Couch Audio, and again, to find out more about the Special Fathers Network, go to 21stcenturydads.org.