A Father’s Love: Actor Joe Mantegna on his Daughter’s Autism

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 “The Godfather Part 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 Los Angeles, 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.”

This article was originally published in the Spring 2012 issue of Brain World Magazine.

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  1. Well hello Joe I just wanted this the day that your daughter has autism what wonderful work you did with her my grandson was diagnosed at the age three with high function and autism yes he’s very highly intelligent but he has a hard time with making friends and sometimes he comes off his being a smart aleck but just wanted to say hi and keep up the good work I missed the show hope the reboot comes back and your daughters are gorgeous and I just love listening to Mia

  2. diffentley my son has autism hes 7 and cant be diagnosed cause he also has serve global learning delay hes put at a 2 to 3 year old learning wise I know when joe said about not understanding what autism was it hit home with me because we wouldn’t know why our son behaved why he behaved I remember when he started to walk he didn’t want to walk any where a normal 20 min to the shop took a hour and a half he would have so many melt downs I was in tears and wondering whats wrong with you just walk I was on calm pills b4 I would take him anywhere he would kick of if any doc would examin him doc saying hold him down I have to look in his ears and my son is strong as well as being strong willed hes better now but public toilets is a issue he hates the handdryer hes very sensitive to noise and the hoover and hairdryers lots of issues but you learn to deal you’ve got to see things from his point of view hes awesome and autism is fastening it says on the internet looking after a person with autism for a day stress wise is like doing a tour in Iraq which I don’t think so but iv got to used it

  3. Hi Joe, im really touched by how you both helped your daughter and what her teacher did was amazing. Myself and my son have dyspraxia and its been extremely hard getting the help that my son needs in a mainstream school. I wish you all well.
    Ps. I’m the UK’s number one fan of Criminal Minds. Best drama on television by a mile.
    Take care
    Diane Withnell from Lancashire, England.

  4. Have had very similar issues with a daughter. Years before it was talked about. This day she denies the diagnosis. Says she’s an introvert. Her issues have improved greatly, because, she works on her weaknesses and uses her strengths to live her life. We never labeled her and at that time, in the early 90’s, the wasn’t a place for her in public education. Worth well meaning teachers willing to find her a place, it was harmful for her in public education. Now, with more awareness, maybe things are different. I don’t really know. I do know that I wish I had homeschooled her. I regret it. Homeschooling was about religious reasons, back then. Now, resources have changed.

  5. I got a 16 year- old daughter with multiple disabilities. She has autism,and she is deaf-mute. she had been diagnosed when she was three years old. It took me months before I stopped crying over the reality. I thought I couldn’t handle it. My husband and I don’t have money to send her to a special ed school. We couldn’t even afford to handle all her needs especially food. She loves to eat. If she is hungry and you wouldn’t care, she will throw anything that she could touch.
    When she was 5 years old, I taught her how to write the alphabet. In one hour, she memorized all the letters in correct order. I never taught her about numbers, but she has written all the numbers from 1 to 99 in a grid. she even drew 2 wall clocks because we didn’t have a wall clock at home. She can draw anything what comes to her mind, and what she has seen on television. Names of commercial products are written on our wall in the bedroom. She is friendly and loving. she loves to have people in our house who gives time to talk to her though she couldn’t talk and hear. Every time she is hungry, she cries. My heart melts to see her hungry. How I wish God provides us with our daily needs. I hope God will somehow give us somebody to help us in our situation. We don’t have our own house. We live in a hand- to – mouth existence. I just turn to God for help. He is the One who knows the reason for giving us this girl. We love her so dearly.

  6. Ithink Joe Mantegna is a great actor.Criminal Minds is my favor show.Also to to be so active in his daughters life and her problem just proves what kind of a person he is.I have a niece with special needs.She is 46 years old with the miund of a 14 to 15 year old.At times if it very hard ro deal with,but you have to and go on.I think Joe Mantegna role is a very sexy,dangerous and bad boy attitude.All i can say is whoi ever gets to play a roll of being involved with him is very lucky.IU can only dream.

  7. This is a lovely article but the incidence is much, much higher. I can empathize a bit with Mr. Mantegna because my son was diagnosed when it was a rate of 1 in 10,000 (around 1995). Now it’s more like 1 in 68 (just checked the CDC website).
    My son was partially mainstreamed for elementary and Jr. High. I chose to pull him out of school when I felt they were not helping him enough. I wish now I had left him in. I sent him to a school for kids with autism which did well for him some years, not as well others, and finished with a year of online public school, where he did very well and graduated from High School. He hated school but enjoys working at a Walmart currently part time currently. I wish he could work at Inclusion Films, he is good at doing voices and dubbing videos, plus doing animation. We live in Ohio, though.

  8. My son Joseph is 11 he is on the autism spectrum, I thought your article on your daughters autism was very helpful. Joseph and I are big fans of Criminal Minds, We would do anything to meet everyone of you. Keep up the good work. Please say HI to all from Joseph and I.

    Your biggest fans in Pa Coleen and Joseph

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