Movie, television and Broadway star Joe Mantenga and his wife Arlene discovered that daughter Mia — at two and a half years old — was autistic. Joe shares his journey with listeners of raising an autistic child: finding the right schools and searching for needed resources. He also talks about the special relationship between Mia and her younger sister Gia.
Dad To Dad 5 – Actor Joe Mantegna’s journey with his daughter Mia, who has Autism
David Hirsch: Hi, I’m David Hirsch. This is the Special Fathers Network podcast stories of fathers helping fathers.
Joe Mantegna: People say to me, “what’s it like to have a daughter with autism?” I said, I don’t know what it’s like not to. I can’t explain that it is what it is.
David Hirsch: That’s our guest today. He starred on Broadway in the movies and on television.
Joe Mantegna. Joe is the father of two daughters, Gia and her older sister Mia, who has autism.
Mia Mantegna: Joe Mantegna is more than just a movie and television actor. He is a special person helping special people with autism, and I’m the luckiest reporter on earth because he’s my dad.
David Hirsch: That’s Mia Mantegna from a video interview with her father, Joe.
Mia Mantegna: What is your proudest achievement in dealing with autism?
Joe Mantegna: Today’s certainly one of them. I mean, this was going to come right up there. I mean, the fact that I could sit here and be interviewed by you and be part of the seclusion news interview is a very proud moment for me.
Tom Couch: For 21st Century Dads. This is the Special Father’s Network podcast stories of fathers helping fathers. Our host is the founder of 21st Century Dads. A man who’s devoted his life to increasing awareness of the importance of being a father and has helped dads to better fulfill their paternal responsibilities. Here’s 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 is 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.
Joe Mantegna is a special person and special father, and I’m thrilled that he’s our guest on the Special Fathers Network podcast.
Joe. Thank you for taking the time to be a podcast interview or the Special Fathers Network.
We’ve been friends for more than a decade. You and your wife Arlene, have two daughters, Gia and her older sister, Mia, who has autism.
So let’s start with some background.
You grew up in the west side of Illinois was it?
Joe Mantegna: I wasn’t, well, I’d say I grew up in the West side of the city, West side of Chicago. Which would be the Garfield park area, but then, right, right, right around high school age for eighth grade.
So I was about 12, 13 because we moved to Cicero. So that’s where I went to, you know, finished eighth grade and then also with high school, junior college. So it was kind of split time between the Chicago, the West side of Chicago, near the Thomas Rowe, which, you know, boys,
David Hirsch: Tell me something about your family and growing up on the West side of Chicago then.
Joe Mantegna: Well, I mean, I don’t think it was so typical of, at least it seemed so to me. I mean, it was, it is. It is what it is. I mean, everybody knew who your neighbors were people from all different walks of life. My dad was a, was in the insurance business, but he was, he was, he was fairly disabled. He had contracted tuberculosis as a young man and was hospitalized during the entire World War II in a Sanitarium and only had one lung.
And so he was kind of limited in what he can do. And because of that, had to retire early, like in the fifties. My mother was a rep, packages, at Sears. But their main store was in Homeland, in Arlington, here in Chicago, and it was like that. So the neighborhood was just like a lot of just regular working, you know, I guess you could call it just middle class people.
We never, we never owned a home. We always put it in a, an apartment. Uh, initially in a very big apartment building. When after that we moved to, we had a building, my grandparents owned and we lived upstairs. With my grandparents, which is why I became very close to them. I know my dad passed away. My mother actually moved in with my grandparents, so I mean, it was, you know, everybody’s got a story.
I don’t think my story is, you know, it’s got its ups and its downs, but it’s good to aspects of bad aspects of growing up. But nothing, I don’t think anything unique or special or substantive aside and say, Oh, well that’s the reason for this or for that, or, you know what I mean? I mean, there was a, like I say, everybody’s got a story.
My dad, dad battled alcoholism. I mean, there was one thing and it was hospitalized when I was about 15. I think a lot of it came due to the fact because he was just so couldn’t handle the fact that he was in ill health all of his life with his family, his such from a very active background and grew up on a farm and all that.
I think it just bothered him, but he overcame that, uh, with the rehabilitation and stuff. That was the only kind of. Like, in other words, if I had to say what was the what, what, what, what’s the, what’s the little hidden thing in a closet that you’re growing up in your life that was maybe made it a little different than Beaver Cleaver’s life?
You know, I would say where I probably would have been that, but beyond that, that was pretty good. You know, I had no complaints about my growing up in Chicago.
David Hirsch: So you, you mentioned that there was a lot of diversity in your neighborhood. Was it an Italian neighborhood? You were an Italian family?
Joe Mantegna: Not, no, not predominantly.
There was just as many. There was Italian, Irish, there was a kid next door who was Mexican. There was couple Jewish friends. Um, but you got to remember that this was, uh, this was the era in Chicago to fifties. Ultimately, that’s when the neighborhood really changed it. They had to pay what they call blockbusting.
I mean, there was a, there was a pretty much of a racial divide and pretty much your African Americans all lived on the other side of Roosevelt road. In Chicago, and then there came this time when later on I remember it kind of came up. All of this was done. Illegally. In other words, if they call the blacklist, one of these, these realtors and a bunch of these realtors got together and realized that we can start moving some, you know, black families into these neighborhoods.
We can make scare. These people will be white flight, what they called it, and they’d sell their homes very cheaply. And then these realtors would tell them that we had a great profit to do a black family. And that’s kind of what happened on the West side. And, uh, we were like among the last to go, cause one thing I really give my father credit for, he knew he was not, he did not have like a prejudice bone in his body.
I mean he brought us up to feel like, you know, race has nothing to do with nothing. I think probably because he felt he identified with them because it was an insurance man. He sold a lot of policies in black neighborhoods and he just kind of. He felt they were working. You know, people too, you know. So we never had that prejudice to the point where the black family bought the building we were living in and we were paying rent to them.
And we were one of the last kind of families to leave. But you kind of had to at that point because it was, there was violence connected to it. Cause I wonder if the first black families moved into the neighborhood. There were little, I remember nights coming home on the weekend from visiting. Relatives, there’s smoke in the air.
And it was because they had burned, tried to burn this house down with some black family. We had bought like on the block, but little by little, the entire neighborhood changed. It became an all black neighborhood, which it is today pretty much over in the West side. And it is what it is. Um, so I mean, that was what was going on, but it was pretty diverse up to that point.
Uh, I would say, cause I looked at my grammar school pictures at the mishmash of all kinds of people.
David Hirsch: So thinking about those years, did you have any siblings when you were growing up?
Joe Mantegna: I have an older brother. He’s eight years older than I am. And, um, and because of my dad’s health, he was very influential in my life.
I mean, he really, probably because of the age difference, cause the times my dad did work, he traveled. I mean in other words, his job was, he was, he was an insurance business, but they would send him uh, to like local areas in the Midwest. So my memory of my dad was a strong one of picking them in the midway airport on Monday morning, and then he’d be gone for two weeks and I’m picking them up at midway airport.
Uh, they did that a lot, so I wouldn’t see my dad very much on every second weekend, like for the whole weekend. And of course he would give us vacation time and then when it became two wheel to really work, then he was home all the time. You know, that was kind of routine until, because of that, my brother filled in, my brother did a lot of my early education.
He’s got a, took me to the library and, well, you know, he was an avid reader and he kind of got me interested in, you know, you should read this. You should remember, he said, what? You should read this, Catcher In The Rye, you should read this Ray Bradbury. You shouldn’t read this. You know the Achilles, you know.
So he taught me how to tell time. I mean, these are things I remember about my brother.
David Hirsch: So, uh, one of the things we have in common, uh, sadly, is that, uh, our mom’s passed away earlier this year. They played a huge role my mom did in my life, and I suspected her mom because she lived as long as she did to age 101 was it?
Joe Mantegna: 101 she died at, yeah.
David Hirsch: Yeah. So how would you characterize your relationship with her mom, or maybe what’s your favorite memory of your mom?
Joe Mantegna: Well, my mom, I mean, I think that’s part of the reason she made it to 101 is that there was nothing really, like, there’s not a window, like one spectacular feature about my mother. She wasn’t the most educated person.
I knew her. She wasn’t the book, but she was. She was solid as a rock. The thing about my mother is she did not let stress come into her life. There was a dichotomy there between her and my father, especially if you’re from an Italian American family can relate to this more because my father was Sicilian and in my mother’s bodies, and then among Southern Italians, that’s almost like interracial marriage.
Uh, and my dad was very kind of a typical Sicilian guy. I mean, all my relatives and that side was fairly clean. They had a serious side to them and think about it. But even when they laughed and smiled and kind of wondered, is there some material thing behind this or something that always kind of dark thing there?
Well, my mother’s side of the family, they all thought they were Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, and there’s a more jovial kind of thing. And so sort of way was a ying and a yang, but it was a good balance between the two. And again, my brother and I are a result of it, but my mother was great about her is like. Let me give you an example. I mean, there’s a million examples, but it’s like just recently in the last few years at my mother’s wake, my brother hadn’t been mentioned. He said, here’s something my brother was probably not even aware of, but when he, when he started getting in doing this television series, Criminal Minds after a whole career of being a theater and mostly motion pictures, he said, our mother called him, called my brother.
She says, I need to talk to you about Joey. And he goes, what’s, what is it? She goes, I’m worried about him. And my brother goes, why? She says, because he’s only working an hour a week because she saw that I was on his TV show and she has no general concept of show business and I really believe for a long time she didn’t really know what I did for a living.
She kind of, it didn’t matter, and in a way that was a good thing because of the way it made me, it was hard for me to get to kind of wound up in what I do for a living with my own mother. Really. If I remember when I won a Tony award, she had no concept of what that was, of course of people would ask her like, she goes, yeah, he wasn’t like the Oscar, but for the play.
Um, so was that kind of thing. But it was a good thing. My mother was very, I want to say naive cause she wasn’t, she was very street smart. She was very simple in her pinch her lifestyle and in her everything was pretty cut and dry. It was either this or was that. There was no, she didn’t ponder over things was like, you know, that’d be like some other, you know, you hear about people O’Day as anxiety or have to take pills or they have to go to a psychiatrist.
David Hirsch: Thank you for sharing that insight about your mom. Um, all this might be a little bit more about fathers than the fathers have. I think we have to play a really important role in our lives and the lives of women as well.
So you’ve talked a little bit about your dad, and if you had to think back on your relationship with your dad when you were younger and then before he passed.
Joe Mantegna: Yeah. The thing I remember most is the respect he had from everybody else, because the one thing about my dad, he was, he was not that educated, but he educated himself. To the point when I was young, I used to almost make fun of it cause I’d have, my friends would come over when I was like in high school, freshman, sophomore in high school.
And my dad, he was already kind of disabled at that point. So he’d be home all the time. You know, he took care of the house, he cooked, he did everything. Could be just, no, he was just, he’d get winded just walking up a flight of stairs, but he’d often be laying, I have this image of him, he’d be laying on a sofa, but I’d come over with my friends and he’d be reading and I said, what are you reading?
And he’d be reading Shakespeare. And he read all the works of Shakespeare. And, and, and how my friends would look and I’d go and I’d look at my friends, like as if he, I don’t know, I think he’s crazy too, but I’m going to do, like, why would I, why would this guy in Chicago in the early sixties be reading Shakespeare?
You know, I wasn’t even reading Shakespeare. I was tending to kind of be an actor. I had an interest in, but that he was very educated. He would always read to read his digest and always play word games and this and that. And because of that. You know, the whole family like depended on him. There was never any crisis.
They would go to my dad. And I don’t think I appreciated that so many years later, you know, with the college, he, other than he never finished high school, but he really loved to learn and he always wanted to world travel and never had the opportunity to travel a lot in the Midwest because it was his job. He never had the money or the wherewithal, the ability to travel.
And I’ve done a ton of it. Part of the reason I do it or braced it when I did do it because I’m not, I’m not. I love going to places, but I hate the travel part of getting there and all that. But I, I embraced it because I feel so grateful to be able to visit the places my father only would talk about. I had a dream of his would have been to go to, you know, make a trip to Europe to go to the ancestors, had real hopes to do all that.
And I’ve done it. I’ve been to these places today, you know, and he grew up on a farm in Oklahoma. My grandfather came over from Sicily, the turn of the century along with a lot of other, I just went there just like two months ago. First time visiting my grandfather’s grave because they came over from this one town in Sicily and worked in the coal mines in Oklahoma for feed work for five years, save $500 on a 50 acre farm from the Indians.
My brother has the records and the bill of sale and boat tran tickets off the boat and all that stuff and bought this farm. And because there’s just one little pocket called Krebs, Oklahoma, when you drive through, Krebs is a sign that says Krebs, Oklahoma, Oklahoma is little Italy, and it’s based on the fact that all, for the most part, these Sicilian immigrants came over from this one part of Sicily and they must have heard from one of the guys, Hey, there’s these coal mines where you can work and if you work long enough, you can make money to buy your own farm, which was a dream come true cause in Sicily- I’ve been to the town of pistol my grandparents were from, it’s like at the top of a mountain to pick a rock.
The only thing you can grow there is old. Don’t forget about having a life as a farmer. So now there’s this 50 acre farm that’s still in my family. We still own that farm. The only reason we have the farm is because my grandfather died on the farm. He got appendicitis attack in 1928 and so when he passed away in 28 my grandmother picked up like the eight kids and her only connection was was relatives in Chicago and picked them all up and went to Chicago, but the farm was paid for.
So, I mean, so I, I have these very fond memories of my dad. I wish I’d gotten to know him better and I wish I’d gotten to spend more time with them as an adult because I was only like 20 I think I was 22 when he died and I was just starting to kind of, he got to see the first professional play I ever did.
Then that was, he died during while I was still doing it. So he never got to see any of my career or anything. But you know, Hey, look, half of my chromosomes are his. So I mean, I owe a lot to him and they have, I have my memory.
David Hirsch: Well, thanks for sharing. Um, so you made reference to the fact that your dad’s dad died in 1928. So you didn’t know him personally?
Joe Mantegna: No.
David Hirsch: I’m wondering if you got to know your other grandfather, your mom’s dad?
Joe Mantegna: I did. I was very close to my other grandfather. It’s like I said, we lived upstairs from them and they were very instrumental in raising me. So my grandparents, I mean, they were very important because like I said, when I would, I would go to school, my mother would be at work, my father would be out of town at work for the most part.
So I would come home for lunch, I’d walk home for lunch from grammar school, and my grandparents would always be there. Give me lunch and I spoke Italian, so I kind of picked it up. And it was later in life that when I became an actor and I was going to be in a year for the first time touring with this theater company out of Chicago, that my grandfather begged me to just go visit the relatives that were in Italy that we always had heard about.
But then, you know, they never came here and we never went there. And so it was almost, we knew they existed. So it was a favor to him. I went and did that. While I make a long story short, they’ve become, become closer to those relatives, and literally the Anthem was playing relatives here. So I’ve been going there on an off since 75 and they come here and I’ve explained, able to explore my roots that way, which has been great.
So I never knew my paternal grandfather certainly know you as much as possible about his life. And my maternal grandfather was very close to him and my grandmother, and luckily they lived to be well into their late eighties and like I said, having lived with them, that was as close as you can get. And he was interested, immigrated, came here, he worked for the railroad, worked for a CTA work then know he was an electrician.
It was like his first job and his last job, he applied for the job, you know, as an immigrant, I guess he knew a little about electricity and he called up for the CTA all his life, like 50 plus years. You know.
David Hirsch: It sounds like you’ve got some good genes that’s probably as longevity on your mom’s side.
Joe Mantegna: Oh, yeah.
Yeah. That has worked out. I mean, cause my dad, I think his death was kind of a fluke because of two of his brothers all died from the same thing. They think they can track it from a call on the farm or something. But outside of that, for the younger kids and the family lived to be you know much older age to their eighties.
David Hirsch: But let’s talk about, uh, you, uh. Went to the Goodman school of drama.
Joe Mantegna: It was, the Goodman school of drama at the time and now it’s, it’s called the theater school at DePaul university. So it was a 67 to 69 I was there.
David Hirsch: So you originally were in the music from when I remember, you know, part of
Joe Mantegna: Yeah I was in a band there was a band in the sixties and to this day, I’m very close to the band Chicago cause we used to tour with them when they were actually called the Missing Links and I stayed very close to them.
Uh, well, I’ve been friends with him for over 50 years now, and then I started doing musicals. Actually my theater, my initial theater work was professionally, was it doing musicals? I did the play here in Chicago for over a year. Then I did the national tour and I did Godspell in Chicago for about a year.
Then I went to Broadway with the play work that’s Turkle’s play working based on his book, and they have two songs actually. And on that album, Rick, I’m number nine. And my career just took a turn primarily through the work I did with David Bennett.
Much of life, you play the cards that are dealt, you know, you go where the heat is. And so my career took a turn in that direction and I just followed the turn and it worked out. I’ve got no complaints.
David Hirsch: Going back to the music part, what is it that you did? Were you a vocalist or did you play an instrument?
Joe Mantegna: I was doing, I was the lead singer and the bass player, um, for a band called The Apocryphal. So we were moderately. Success back then. I mean, there were a lot of local groups that went on to make it like the Buckinghams and the New Colony Fixed and the Ides of March and the flock and the shadows of the night.
And then there were groups like ours that, you know, we had a couple of records that did a little something, but not all that much. And. But we will, we’re popular. We worked a lot. I mean, it actually took me years as a, as an actor to kind of catch up to how I was doing as a musician, because we all, we played every weekend. We always had work.
David Hirsch: Well you’ve been very fortunate, career-wise. Uh, you’ve been in, um, someone neighborhood of a hundred movies and TV shows. Most people recognize you as the voice of Big Fat Tony and the symptoms.
Joe Mantegna: Where’s the money? When are you going to get the money? Why aren’t you getting the money now?
David Hirsch: Agent David Ross, as a part of the super successful TV series, Criminal Minds.
Joe Mantegna: afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. I am SSA David Rossi of the FBI. One man’s logic is another man’s crazy.
David Hirsch: 13th season or something, right?
Joe Mantegna: We’re going to 13 season right now.
David Hirsch: How have you been able to balance this sort of demanding career, taking you in all these different directions and your family at the same time.
Joe Mantegna: That’s all I know. But the other thing is there was never any exclusion there. In other words, we made the decision early on. My wife and I, we’ve been together a long time. We’ve been together. We both were in the play Hair. That was 1969 so we’ve been together 48 years. So we made the decision early on.
Cause we always did stuff together. In other words, I was working as an actor for a good amount of time before we even had a first child. And I was involved in a lot of travel. Well, my wife always traveled with me. She, she dabbled in different things. She never had anything like, it shouldn’t be like a career thing that kept her grounded.
She came with me and we would do this thing together and eventually we had all these locations I would go on. So when the kids were born that didn’t change. Well, in other words, I didn’t want to have the lifestyle kind of look at what my dad had to go through, or he’d be gone for a couple of weeks and wasn’t part of our life for that amount of time.
I knew what it would have to happen on occasion for short periods of time, but for the most part, we always traveled. You know, at first there were three of us. The second child was born, the four of us, and it wound up being of great benefit for a lot of reasons. Probably primarily for the reason for my oldest daughter who does have autism, the travel of the exposure to all kinds of different places and just the way different places, even different countries do things.
I think it was all in the end, beneficial for everybody. The way. That’s ultimately why I ultimately gravitate towards those like a television series, because as the kids got older, they got to give us, I think I could care less about taking them out of school when they were little for like a few weeks at a time because my feeling was looked into to learn the capital of Indiana some other time, they’re going to spend these two weeks with their father.
You know, you know, their father and her mother had it in Maine or in Rome or wherever. We have to rush it. I mean, it went all over the world. Australia, we’ve been all over the world, so I’m thinking, is there a better benefit for them staying in classes, a third grader, and you know, learning, uh. What’s an isosceles triangle or to be with us in Australia.
You know what I mean? So those are the decisions I made. We made, and I’m glad we did, but I think I’d only, it changes. They don’t, you know, they didn’t want to go. They’re getting to be teenagers and they’ve got their lives and it becomes more of a disruption. So that’s what I made the decision personally, that it’s not a good idea necessarily to change their lifestyle anymore.
But, so I have to change mine. And I was fine with that cause my, you know, my career, where is it today? And if they said, well, you’re never going to make another movie as long as you live. I could live with that. I’ve done, you know, I’m happy with what I’ve done. So finding a TV series that has legs, it’s something I enjoy doing and work with the same people, which is where similar to working at a theater company, it’s been great.
And I get to come home at night every night I sleep in my own bed and then they just still have three months hiatus. And that’s when we do our kind of traveling and doing. Other things that most people kind of do on a regular basis in terms of a schedule.
David Hirsch: Well, it’s great that you were able to take your family on location as you were traveling and expose them to as many things and in contra to your dad, right? We’ve only talked about or maybe dreamed about.
Joe Mantegna: Exactly right. And that was always, I would always be on my mind. It’s almost like a bucket list that was with data by self load. Here’s another place thing, event that, uh, you know, if my dad, if, if there’s anything to this stuff and you, you’re not aware of this.
I know you’ve got a smile on your face because this is all things you wish you could have done. And I’m going to do it and, you know, in your step.
David Hirsch: So let’s talk about the girls. You have two daughters. Mia is the older one, and Gia ise her younger sister, how old are they now?
Joe Mantegna: Mia is 30 and Gia is 27.
David Hirsch: When Mia was born, where were you at the time?
Joe Mantegna: You know when Mia was born, I was here in Los Angeles. I just finished shooting a movie. She was due to be born in August of that year, and this was June, it was the first week of June, and I’ll never forget it because I was supposed to have a bachelor party for my friend Richard Gillman that night on a Friday.
And Arlene had this premonition that something was wrong because the baby hadn’t moved for for a few days and it was just something bothering her and she says, I’m just going to go to the hospital, just feel something’s wrong. And she called the doctor because she felt that maybe I’m being silly then thank God the nurse said, look, it’s Friday.
If you don’t come now, they’re not going to be around on the weekend and you’re going to be nervous all weekend. It’s come to alleviate your anxiety. So she goes to the hospital and it’s checked her out and they’ve discovered all her amniotic fluid was gone and the baby was in terrible distress, and they said, if we don’t deliver this baby right now it’s not going to happen. So they did an emergency C-section and Mia was born at one pound, 13 ounces, 13 ounces, one pound, 13 ounces. She, she was one of the smallest babies delivered that year in California. So, I mean that became this whole, you know, I mean here we think it would have been where we had even started our one last class near the baby’s here, cause she was supposed to be born three months from now.
She was born down to 28 weeks out of 40. To make the long story short, we go through months and months, so she’s on a monitor. She’s this, that she had to have a couple of operation to call a Broviac X would have to kind of have tubes going in there through main arteries to keep her alive. And she was in an incubator, a special incubator for two months.
And finally, finally, when she got to be about four and a half pounds, they let her come home. But she was on a monitor for about a year, but she was a strong kid and she dodged every bullet because I saw kids in that neonatal intensive care unit, even at the transfer hospitals, because the hospital she was born in wasn’t equipped to handle her.
They sent her out, the Tarzan, the medical center, in a special ambulance. But when we brought her home, she was small, but she was, you know, she had nothing wrong. And she, she, she and I saw babies that are bigger, lot less, I should say, larger, greater, you know, one weight that died or were blind or had terrible lung problems and all kinds of problems.
And it looked like Mia had dodged every bullet. And it wasn’t on the pill. A few years later, it wouldn’t be discovered, you know, which perhaps was was more under occurrence at that time in terms of discovering when a person would have autism. She was about two and a half is when those tendencies started to really appear.
And then we realized that, well, we didn’t touch one bullet, and not even saying that her prematurity had anything to do with it, but there is a higher incidence of it. Among babies that are that small. So I, you know, at least we had that to point to. Whereas a lot of parents don’t even have that. In other words, because there’s no, to this day, they don’t really can’t think, well, this is the exact cause of why that happens.
But in our case, there was certainly, you know, definitely didn’t help.
David Hirsch: That’s remarkable that she was born that premature and that she made it for a couple, three years, you know, and sort of like, got to have more of a normal growth pattern. Uh, I can relate to that just a little bit. Our second child was part of a set of twins and because of the complications one, the second was not viable.
She was born prematurely, I think at 32 weeks. And she was in the neonatal intensive care unit for a couple of weeks with all the monitors and tubes and everything, and it was like a science fair project. And you know, you just learn that, you know, it doesn’t always happen, right? Like you might envision, right, that you have a baby, you know, mom and baby come home from the hospital and you know, you’re onto a greater thing.
Sometimes there’s pretty serious hurdles like the one you just described. It gives you a better appreciation for life. So, uh, going back to when she was two and a half, what was it that sort of, if you Arlene off, that might be something that,
Joe Mantegna: Qell, actually that’s when we were in New York where we spent, we spent that whole year in New York because I was doing these two projects.
So it’s pictured the God Father. What else would they’d leave for that? So we’ve basically relocated to New York for about a year. And so that was the year Gia was born because she was born in New York. So was actually. Her whole pregnancy up and while we were in New York. But it was during also that time that we realized, you know, Mia was just not making the same kind of icon.
We really realized a lot more when she was around other kids her same age. Cause you can just see that her development or development was done quite the same. She wasn’t talking, she wasn’t, her eye contact was a little bit off. She was a little sound sensitive touch. I mean these are all, as we learned later, were all. Pretty much markers for, you know, this kind of a thing.
So we realized that better. We took her to a regular doc. Then of course, if you said you usually goes to your specialist about this because it’s not like she’s got a disease or something, that there’s something going on here. And so when we did the, they basically said, look, I think your daughter has autism.
She’s got like, she’s got seven of the 10 you gotta remember this is 1990. I think doing a lot more about it today than they did then was a bit of a rarity then, uh, and of course, so it was kind of a devastating diagnosis to get it at that moment. Then you kind of get it sore, but you take it in and then you say, okay, now what?
Now what do we do? You know? And then it’s been that ever since, and now what do we do? You know? So you, you do. Do the things you do, you think you should be doing, which is, you know, explore the world out there and then try to get as much information as you can and make your choices and make your decisions and live your life.
David Hirsch: Oh, was she able to stay on a regular educational environment or, did you see?
Joe Mantegna: This was one of the good things I think that we learned by, due to my, my, my, our lifestyle and central to travel and this, that, and the other. In other words, she got to be, you know, school age. We took it. Well, okay. We obviously have special classes for this, and they did.
We had an early enrollment, like at 44 years old here in California, in Los Angeles, and it was, uh, in a, uh, uh. A special needs class. So all the kids in there had different kinds of issues and stuff. And we seem to think, well, okay, this is what we have to do. This is what the option is, and you do that.
But then when she was about six years old. Was doing a movie in Chicago, and while we’re in Chicago, of course, again, don’t try to find a place that you can go to school to kind of maybe have the right kind of special, you know, special ed class for her. But we went to this Kathryn Cooke school over there near old town in Chicago, and we’re talking to the principal and she says, you should meet the Karen Fendler. One of my teachers, the teachers, the first grade class. Which was the age it was for first grade.
So we go to the first grade class. is a normal first clay class crank grade class. So we thought we were just going to go to her for advice, like, well, maybe, you know, since your first grade teacher, where do you think we should, which special class. Should we put her in and it turned out they didn’t have a special class because it’s a private school. It wasn’t like a public school that has to have these classes. She goes, no, we don’t have a special class because she doesn’t need that. She goes, I have a, I have a sister with autism. I know what this is about.
She, she’ll do fine just right here and then she stands up in front of the class. Section rolls and says, this little girl’s name is Mia. She has a thing called autism. She’s a little different. She may start to talk to herself or she may stand up and walk around the room and she may do this. She may do that.
We’re all going to help her out, right. Kids, and they’re all like, yeah, okay. So she says, Oh, well we’ll be fine. He is going to be fine. Why don’t you guys just, you know, she’ll spend the day with us. It will be, and we’ll let my wife’s, when I look at where our jaws are dropping, like what? And that’s how we learned about inclusion.
And so Mia did that. It was in that class for that whole semester while I did the movie and it changed our lives into this Davis, Karen Fendler, but a big person in her life. She used to fly out here every Christmas until her knees got too bad. But, uh, anyway. To make a long story short, we came back to LA, we couldn’t quite immediately do what we, in other words, even though we did that, we had to stay in the public school system because that was the only way to get the resources, because what they call the IEP and they get all this stuff.
So could, in other words, you have to be able to protect your child with all this, you know, get in the system. Cause. Cause you never know what you’re going to need. You know, in terms of that. And thank God that, uh, they’ve made these, there are these laws that says, you know, look, every kid has to have an equal education because of that, it gave us the freedom to be able to check all these different public schools out and find the ones that would get it and understand it’d be best for her as opposed to just because you don’t have to go to the school. It’s right around the corner, cause it might be the worst possible place for her.
So she was in different schools here in Los Angeles from grammar school on through high school, but there were always schools that were perfectly fit for her. And it wasn’t until the fifth grade, we were really able to totally include her. To go to her class was like just a regular class and what we learned, just what we learned from Karen feminine was the way to do it was to walk into that classroom.
You know on the first page and just tell those foods, whether they’re fifth grade, sixth grade, freshman high school, this is our daughter Mia. We actually wouldn’t have me there initially just because she wouldn’t quite understand why we’re doing that anyway, but we would tell the other kids, look, our daughter’s going to be this kind of a person.
She’s going to have these little quirks and tendencies, but you call it be of great help to her if you’ll just understand that and, and that’s all the kids want to know. They just, you know, they don’t want to be like surprised with why is this kid talking to herself? Why is she. You know why? Why would a loud noise happen she screams or, you know what I mean?
So this is what we learned to do and it couldn’t have made it very successful at a time when school kids love her. And I think they profited by it. Just like my daughter, Gia did the sense that they matured by it because they learned what it was like to, like when I grew up in grammar school, there weren’t those special needs classes.
When you saw those kids, you went, Oh, those girls kids, those are the, the, you know, the kids in that. No special class. When those kids are in your own class, there’s none of that bias. All of a sudden it’s like, Oh, that’s me. And she has autism. That’s why she likes it that way. But that’s fine. You know? Uh, so I think it’s a two way street.
I think Mia profited by being around just regular kids. So her peer group is not the, other kids with different kinds of disabilities, which really doesn’t help anybody. And the kids profited by it because they understand that everybody’s different and not every kid is going to be a cookie cutter of in terms of what’s going on with them, you know.
David Hirsch: That’s a great point about acceptance and aknowledging the fact that people do have differences at a young age.
Joe Mantegna: That’s a good outlook on life with this that the world is not going to, adopt to Mia. Mias got to adapt to the world. And so, you know, I can’t change the world, but I can change how I taught her. You know, reacts to accept and adapt to it. That’s not always easy, but you know, that’s all we know. You do what you do.
David Hirsch: So were the girls able to go to the same schools or not?
Joe Mantegna: Initially, yes. But after that, no. I mean, cause that’s when we realized we could do better for being, you know, we thought it would be cute, they would be at the same school.
But then we realized, well first of all, Gia shouldn’t necessarily have to be, we had to keep Mia in a public school. Uh, because like I said, it was just better in every aspect because of the resources available to us for Gia we thought we could do better, you know, uh, only because of the area we live here in Los Angeles public school that would have been convenient for her. Just, we could do better. And so Gia wound up spending from first grade through high school. Uh, it was a Episcopalian school called Campbell Hall, which is a wonderful school. Was not a public school, but it’s a private school with the Cambridge great education.
And, uh, but you know, I probably, if I had to do it all over again, I probably would have maybe weighing everything cause all I ever had was a public school education and I never finished. I’d be two years of junior college acting school, and I know things are a little different now than, but I’m not quite, I think I’ve learned to be not quite, so you have to take every school on its own merit.
If you find the right kind of school, whether it’s a public school, private school, it doesn’t matter if you get the right faculty and the right people in charge, the right environment. That makes all the difference. You know, you don’t have the money to spend on tuition is going to have nothing to do with it. There’s no gauge of how good it is.
David Hirsch: Or you can get a great education when a public school or a private school, right. It’s like anything.
Even though the girls didn’t go to the same schools, uh, did they develop a close relationship?
Joe Mantegna: Oh, we have a lot of questions and that’s what’s been great about Gia and she relates to me in a whole other way that we can’t cover even because we’re parents. We’re always going to feel like that will be, it was the first time. Baby with, and she had this thing as autism or Gia Gia is almost less tolerant of all that, which is a good thing. In other words, she, she, she doesn’t give me the same breaks we do because it’s, for her, it’s like, Hey, this is my older sister, but I’ve had to be like the oldest sister for all her life.
And she gets it especially gets it now. But there were periods, there were, you could see the Gia almost resented the fact that being had this autism, it was like, you know, why the hell is this kid act like this? You know, and why are we accommodating it? Why are we letting her get away with it type of thing.
But all it’s done is been able to mature Gia into being a young woman now at 27 who was so sympathetic to all kinds of people from all walks of life because she don’t sweat to fight, and so she knows what it’s like to be a sister who’s three years younger, but yet is really the older sister and she gets it at some point in our lives, you know, Arlene and I aren’t going to be around.
She understands that, and I’ve told her this. I said, look, I don’t expect you to be your sister’s caretaker. I’m not going to put that on you. I’m not going to say. You know, there’s just, there’s got to move in with you and do this or that, or the other places that you do don’t. You could have to be responsible for her and she gets it.
And actually she’s the first one to say, Hey, no, I would like nothing better, but to, you know, have a life where you know Mia, you know, it’ll be me, me and the cats. If I a, if I get married and my husband too, that’s great too, but they have a great relationship. And a unique and rare one and one that I can’t even relate to because I don’t know what it’s like to have a sister that’d be a woman in emphasis.
I mean, it is what it is. And, and being as autistic is just one aspect of it, but that’s not the core of it. That’s not what the box is, not the bond they have. So is that, that’s, that’s, that’s not a problem.
David Hirsch: And when you think back over there, growing up, right, there was probably a, a point at which, uh, Gia. Who is the younger biologilyc, younger but intellectually older.
Joe Mantegna: Right? Absolutely.
David Hirsch: Um, is there a story or two that comes to mind that really sort of split by you, that’s an important relationship that they have or maybe something that was funny or different.
Joe Mantegna: Oh boy. I guess I’d have to think about that, but I mean, like I see, I do remember the distinct shield a bit, the whole distinctive. It was over a time when when Gia would get frustrated and say, why does my sister have to be like this? Why does she have to have autism? And then you’ve been, and then that shift happens where she matures and gets it, and then you have to tell you have explained stuff. It’s hard to say, look, it’s just to start doing this because she wants to do it.
You know, introducing other people to it as well and get them involved in let Gia experience what Mia’s world is like, you know, I’ll bring her to her classes and see what it’s like and how she relates to people outside the family to me now as well. Very fond memories because it got us to the place we are now, which is, you know, it’s several people say to me, what’s it like to have a daughter with autism?
I said, I don’t know what it’s like not to, I can’t explain that. It’s a tough question. It is what it is. Like I said, everybody’s got a story.
David Hirsch: Yup. You talked about the support structure that the school provided, right? The public school system, or are there other support structures? Uh, special Olympics? Uh.
Joe Mantegna: No, the physical thing about me is she, I mean, it’s impacted her in that way a lot. I mean, she, she, her small motor skills are incredible. Like she, she worked at a computer and the following, like nobody’s business, but her larger motor skills are a little, uh. They were never quite fully developed. But then like in high school, she wanted to audition for the, there was, they had a special acting program at the Birmingham high school and she auditioned for it just like any kid.
And they accepted her. And she was the, uh, only the first. But the only time you ever had somebody with Autism. And she had her whole four years of high school. She was in the school within the school. So in other words, she’d spend her afternoons with the theater department or in plays and stuff like that.
And her audition case was she, she read Cher’s soliloquy to Sonny when he died, only because Mia had memorized it and she did it as Cher, as weird as that sounds. But she, she, that’s one thing she never lacks. Some people with autism, like they have that kind of almost antisocial behavior that they don’t like to interact with.
Direct opposite of Mia, tends to anything over overreact. She doesn’t have that, that edit button, you know, she’ll, she’ll walk right up to you. Hi, what’s your name? What’s your birthday? You know, I’m Mia you know there’ll be no matter who it is, where she is. You know, we’ve almost had to teach her some about boundaries.
I was like, Hey, there are certain environments, as best as you know, I think discreet. You don’t have to, you know, I mean, it’s great that you, you’re still friendly and all that, but sometimes depending on the environment, you gotta be, you know, a little more careful.
David Hirsch: I think I remember seeing something, I can’t remember where Joe. That she was like a reporter or doing some work.
Joe Mantegna: Yes, that’s right. Well, she interviewed me, I think it was after I got my, that’s right. When I got my star on the Hollywood walk of fame. Joey Travolta. This is John Travolta’s brother. Joey Travolta had this place. I still have it. It’s a group called inclusion films.
It’s this wonderful organization. What it does is they take kids in with different disabilities, autism among them, and they teach him aspects of the film business. And Leah took us to the school for a couple of years and it was just great. And so when I got my star on the walk of fame, Joey incorporation with one of the local.
TV stations here thought would be good idea cause that was part of their training that they would do with the school. Um, have Mia interview me as my daughter interviewing her dad who just kind of star in the Hollywood walk of fame,
Mia Mantegna: receiving a star on the Hollywood walk of famous, one of the highest honors given to an entertainer in show business.
Joe Mantegna will be honored with one later this week. Inclusion films went to catch up with the actor and talk about something very personal and dear to his heart, helping people with autism.
When did you learn I had autism?
Joe Mantegna: We were living in New York city. This was in 1990 we were just about to have your little sister.
We started to notice that your speech patterns were a little different than a lot of the kids that were your age. You were about two and a half at that time. We thought. We should probably look into this.
Mia Mantegna: How much did you know about autism before learning? I had autism.
Joe Mantegna: Well , I have to say I probably didn’t know very much about autism. Uh, I certainly got to know quite a bit about it from that point on.
Mia Mantegna: What is your proudest achievement in dealing with autism?
Joe Mantegna: Today’s certainly one of them. I mean, this was going to come right up there. I mean, the fact that I could sit here and be interviewed by you and be part of the seclusion news interview. Is a very proud moment for me.
Mia Mantegna: Joe Mantegna is more than just a movie and television actor. He is a special person helping special people with autism, and I’m the luckiest reporter on earth because he’s my dad. This is Mia Mantagena reporting from inclusion news.
Joe Mantegna: Yeah, that was, that was, that was pretty special. It was kind of a, very special for me. And you know, it was, it was, it was quite something.
David Hirsch: I thought it was very powerful.
Joe Mantegna: Yeah, I would watch that because it was like that’s what I would’ve thought to do but hadn’t done. I’m so glad we had that chance to do that.
David Hirsch: Well, it reminds me, one of the things we’ve been doing here in Illinois over the last 20 years is having kids write essays about their dad step-dads granddad and father figures, and we’ve had well over 400,000 kids do that.
Joe Mantegna: That’s great.
David Hirsch: The dads are really moved, right? Yeah. It’s really difficult to touch the heart of a father. I’m over into the words of his children. And in your case, it wasn’t just a written essay, but it was something that was closer to what is that you do, occupationally, right? It’s the interacting camera light, you know, everything going on.
So to pulling back a little bit. What are the most important takeaways that come to mind when you think about having a daughter with autism?
Joe Mantegna: Well, I think the most important thing, love it. For me, it’s just been. Partly, I mean, I’ve touched on a little bit where I keep saying, you know, everybody’s got a story.
Part of it is just that, you know, we don’t all live it to Beaver Cleaver world where you have us like the movies or the TV shows or just God, life is just perfect. Every once in a while there’s this little kind of problem that you can just kind of fix by talking in a way or having a little group meeting. We’ll solve it and move on.
Sometimes greater things happen and considered a low impact of your life, a little greater, but it’s okay. I mean, I’ve always kind of embraced the more of an Eastern philosophy on life in the sense that. There was no guarantees. It’s all going to be a box of chocolates and it goes from point a to point b and then a thought that it’s like a graph that goes from the bottom to the top of the curved line on 90 degrees up.
But no, it’s more like a rollercoaster. It’s more like a, it’s going to have tremendous highs and tremendous lows. The trick is to just kind of hang up, hang into the car, it’ll get thrown out of the car because he can get through the scary parts is going to be some also great parts coming up, you know?
But you can’t avoid the ride. You can’t avoid the bad parts of the ride or the good parts of the ride. And some people can get a better ride than others, you know, there’s no, you have no control over that. So it’s that, like that old saying, you control the things that you can control and accept the things you can’t.
So I’ve certainly learned that. Be accepting the things you can’t park by having. Cause look, somebody said to me today, if you could make a wish, we’ll grant you his one wish. What would it be? Instantly would be, yes, I would wish my daughter did not have this autism because if we remove that, there’s nothing else on the planet earth that I would want, need or care and I would give up everything I have for that.
Just take everything I own every week. You put me down to zero. I’ll start at zero cause I, I, cause I feel I’ve got the potential. And then whatever I’ll get by, I’ll get by with, just make her perfect, make it, I shouldn’t say perfect. That’s the wrong terminology for my, but let’s give her a, that even chance that we all had.
David Hirsch: So is there any advice that you would give to a parent or a father? Um, about tough situations?
Joe Mantegna: Well, again, it would almost have to be specific as to what, what advice they’re looking for, but at the end of the day, if I had to give that one general piece of advice, it’s just that, think of it that way. If somebody asks you, what’s it like to have an autistic child, your answer has to be, I don’t know what it’s like not to.
So this is my family. This is our life. So we will now go forward. Then you have to do it together. I think that’s a big thing. And I know there’s a lot of families that get broken up over this, you know? So one parent can’t handle it or whatever it may be, and I’ve seen it actually, I’ve been around it and I’ve seen it happen.
Families I know, and it’s terrible because then you’re basically putting the burden. Often I just one of the two, to kind of has to step up. And there were many cases, the mother, because it’s the father that will sometimes feel, well, a mom can handle this. I can’t. I mean, I don’t mean that as a blanket statement, but, uh, and that’s a thing that you can’t let, that, you can’t let that be a witch.
That if anything should be something that brings everybody tighter together. And don’t be afraid to reach out and you get as much information as you can. We tried all kinds of things. We did sound therapies, we did this and that. We, we traveled to different places. Like I said, because of my line of work, I was able to get exposed to stuff all over the world, but at the end of the day, there was no magic bullet.
There was no one thing that said, Oh yeah, this key initial stuff. Fix everything. No, but every bit of information, every everything you do, every little class that you maybe your son or daughter takes once you forward like right now with discovered me as it should be, she has a savant ability with art, so she’s had a couple art shows.
She had one of her paintings at Sacramento state capital here, and this just came out of my, my wife, God bless her. She would constantly pushing me to take all kinds of classes, whether it was piano, whether it was singing, whether it was arts, whether it was, you know, whatever it may be. And by taking the art classes, we discovered she has this incredible savant ability that’s looked at something and then painted it.
You know, her own take of it. It’s almost like friendship impressionistic. It’s, it’s amazing. And she’s done very well with it.
David Hirsch: Do you think, getting back to the issue about doing it together, you mentioned the importance of trying to perpetuate your relationship. Obviously divorced in society is at a pretty high level. One out of two marriages and then divorce, been with families with special needs kids estimated to be 75 80% or more that the added stress and pressure, maybe financial obligations for that matter. Do you think you and Arlene are closer as a result of it?
Joe Mantegna: Yeah, it’s hard to say because it can cause, what do you compare it to?
You know, but I, I, I’d like to think so because part of it I think is, I look at it now, I think, and I’ve said this, it’s funny, I was just saying this to somebody yesterday who’s also in a longterm relationship we came to the conclusion that things are better now. Better now than it was even 20 years ago.
30 it’d be was before he had kids. So I think there’s a natural growth that can happen. But also the fact that we did have children and had to have children with that one little kind of twist to it, that one of our children had to have, you know, had special needs that may have created a stronger bond with us because only the four of us know what it’s like to be the Mantegna family, and all of a sudden that makes us a very unique.
I know family in its own way, just like your family is here the only ones that don’t want to like to be a family or the guy next door, he knows what it’s like to be his family. So yeah, I mean, I guess there’s no avoiding the fact that it’s helped bring us closer together and stronger together because every day we’re together.
It’s just another, you know, it’s one less day. We’re all going to be on this planet. That’s the time spent. That’s what you’re doing to try to make it as best as possible.
David Hirsch: Good. So, um, I’m very thankful for your willingness to be involved with the Special Fathers Network and just be one of the dads that, you know.
Joe Mantegna: I think being a dad, it’s important. I mean, like I said, it’s, you know, there’s a reason to call moms and dads, you know what I mean? And boy, you look at this funny, even with the show, I do Criminal Minds, you know, we’re not a show. I’ve been on a show person 11 years, and I think a few, we get into the scripts about the crimes.
He started examining the cause, the route. Problems and causes so much of it, even as a fictitious show that’s still based on, you know, real incidences as often, or the writers are still basically those things are coming up with, you know, so, so often point to the fact, well, what were the parents like? What kind of upbringing did this kid have that they would turn into this?
You know what I mean? And that’s the way it is in life too. I mean, it’s, it happens at the perfect parents that people just, that dude was beautiful, wonderful people can turn out a kid that turns out to be Hitler. I mean, that can happen. Sure. But, but there’s certainly a correlation that, you know, the leaf doesn’t fall far from the tree, that the trees in pretty good shape at a better chance to drop it, a healthy leaf than one that’s not.
So being a dad is, you know, 50% of that person’s got half the chromosomes as each and it should see it doesn’t stop there. It’s got to continue to continue on as long as possible in a positive way. So that’s the way I look at it.
David Hirsch: And well part of its DNA, right? Your chromosomes
Joe Mantegna: And then part of it is what I mean, you contributed that, but it doesn’t stop there if you can’t just say, okay, that’s done by work.
See you later. Good luck. Uh, you know, there’s a reason that kids look, you know, tend to look like their parents sometimes are at the same time and sees himself. You have a responsibility, you and this other person that created the human being. Now it’s your choice to how involved you want to be with that, you know, caretaking of that.
David Hirsch: Good point.
So, was there anything else you’d like to add before we wrap up?
Joe Mantegna: No, that really just, you know, I’m glad you’re doing that. I’m glad you created this thing. The guy who gave, if it’s of any benefit to anyone, anybody out there, it’s a whole, it’s all worthwhile. So I hope I did something well,
David Hirsch: Joe, thank you again for your time and many insights as reminder Joe is just one of the dads who’s agreed to be a mentor father, as 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 seeking advice. From a mentor father with a similar situation to your own. You can go to the 21st Century Dads website, which is 21stcenturydads.org.
Okay Mr. Mantegna, thank you so much for
Joe Mantegna: You’re welcome and good luck with this. You know, I’m sure we’ll cross paths again over the coming months.
David Hirsch: And thank you for listening to this Special Father’s Network podcast. The Special Father’s Network is a dad to dad mentoring program for fathers, raising children with special needs.
Again, if you’d like to be a mentor father, or are seeking advice from a mentor father with a similar situation to your own, please go to 21stcenturydads.org I’m David Hirsch and thanks for listening to the Special Fathers Network podcast.
Tom Couch: The Special Fathers Network podcast was produced for 21st Century Dads by Couch Audio music provided by Purple Planet.
Find out more purple-planet.com and to find out more about 21st Century Dads, go to 21stcenturydads.org.