You may know him as David Rossi in the popular TV series “Criminal Minds” or the voice of Fat Tony on “The Simpsons,” but what you might not know is that actor Joe Mantegna is the parent of an autistic child. Twenty-four years ago he and his wife, Arlene, sat across from a doctor hearing the words no parent wants to hear: “I’m pretty sure your daughter is autistic.”
Due to an infection in the umbilical chord, their daughter Mia had to be delivered by an emergency C-section, saving her life. Weighing just 1 pound 13 ounces, she spent the first three months of her life in intensive care. “She was a very strong little girl,” says Mantegna. “I saw babies of much higher birth weight do much worse for some reason and not survive.”
While Mantegna was in New York City shooting Woody Allen’s “Alice” and “Godfather III,” the couple had the chance to observe the toddler interacting with other kids her age. They noticed her speech was not at the same level as the other kids and there were problems with attention span and focus. These differed from the cautionary signs of a preemie’s typical problems with lungs and eyesight. It was time to see a neurologist.
The autism diagnosis was a shocker. “I remember it hit my wife and me like a ton of bricks, because, first of all, it was just a word we had heard about,” he says. In 1990, autism wasn’t as prevalent as it is today — Mantegna likens the situation to the scare of polio when he was a kid. “You were afraid to walk in puddles and stuff because nobody even knew how you got it, and there was no cure for it. So it was a little like that.” They thought, Oh my God, our daughter has that mystery disease.
Once they overcame the initial shock, however, the couple set out to do whatever they could. Mantegna’s life couldn’t change all that much; as an actor he had to travel, and the family was used to traveling together. “We saw no reason to stop doing that. We thought if we were going to face this, let’s all face it together. Let’s do this as a family,” he says. He didn’t want to burden his wife caring alone for two children — one with autism — while he went off to make movies in Rome or Canada.
In Chicago, they met a teacher who had a sister with autism, and she convinced them that it was all right to put Mia in a regular first-grade class, as long as the kids and the teacher understood what was going on. “That made us realize that we don’t have to totally buy into [the thinking] that the child has to be in special ed and a protected environment her whole life.” He tells the story of Mia’s first day at the school, when the teacher walked in front of the class and said, “This is Mia. She’s going to be a little different than the rest of you kids. She might start singing to herself, she might walk up to the blackboard, she may talk to herself, she may say some inappropriate things. It doesn’t matter. She has autism. And we’re all going to help her.” He and his wife were in tears. It was the first time anybody had done something like that.
Back in L.A., aside from some special-education classes here and there, Mia attended regular classrooms from fifth grade through high school. Her parents followed the Chicago schoolteacher’s example every time. “Just let the kids know. Once you include them, once you make them part of the process, the accommodation, they get it. They’re very supportive. So you don’t put them in a position where they’re wondering, What’s with this girl? Why is she acting so weird?” he says. “Passing the information to others makes all the difference.”
These days Mia works every Wednesday at Mantegna’s wife’s restaurant, Taste Chicago. She does the bookkeeping, because she’s a whiz with the computer and numbers. The rest of the week she attends a group called Inclusion Films, which teaches young adults with all kinds of disabilities every aspect of the film business, and is run by Joey Travolta (brother of John), a former special-education teacher.
Although Mia did some acting in high school, her real love is makeup. With her sister, Gia, she took a nine-week makeup course at the Mudd School, a professional makeup school. Mia was the first autistic person to graduate, and now she is the makeup artist for Inclusion Films.
Mia has also attended programs offered by Help Group, an organization that helps young adults with socialization. “That’s the thing that needs to be worked on with many of these children,” her father says. “The ones with less severe autism just have a problem with socializing, breaking the ice, making friends, communicating.” The 11-week course was immensely helpful, he says. Although his daughter was always friendly, now she talks more comfortably on the phone.
Does Mantegna see the autism landscape improving in terms of perception, attention and treatment?
“Yes and no,” he says, noting that more attention is being paid because the number of cases has risen dramatically. (The prevalence of autism is about one to two per 1,000 people worldwide; however, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports approximately nine per 1,000 children in the United States are diagnosed with it.) Mantegna admires organizations such as Autism Speaks, which merged with Cure Autism Now in 2007.
While he hopes for earlier diagnosis or maybe a situation where they “twist a chromosome” to stop autism from occurring altogether, his focus these days is on the children who are young adults and older, like his daughter, who can never be totally independent. “These children only stay children for just so many years. In fact only about an eighth of their life. What do you do with these people for the other seven-eighths of their life? It doesn’t go away. When they cured polio, that’s fine. But how does it affect the guy who’s walking around with braces on his legs?”
Joe Mantegna admits he is a lucky man. He is grateful his daughter will be taken care of. That’s why he lends his celebrity voice to autism awareness and charities like the Barbara Sinatra Children’s Center, Easter Seals Chicago, Tutor/Mentor Connection, and ACT Today for Military Families. “Why shouldn’t I? Why wouldn’t I? The older you get, the more you realize we are a community. We’re talking about the world. We’re just this planet spinning around with people on it. Just try to get through it. Do what you can. Be nice to each other and hope for the best. It’s not a perfect world. It’s not like the movies where they live happily ever after and everything’s perfect all the time. But it’s okay. You just do the best you can and move forward. That’s what we live by, and that’s been fine.”