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Bryan Dattilo Offers Advice to Parents of Children With Autism

07/15/2009 at 05:00 PM ET
Jen Lowery/Startraks

Bryan Dattilo‘s world revolves around his son Gabriel, so when the 9 ½-year-old was diagnosed with moderate autism as a toddler, that world was turned upside down. Bryan and his ex-wife Jessica Denay — founder of the Hot Moms Club — “were told right off the bat that he wouldn’t be able to do certain things, like have a real job, have a wife, be main-streamed,” Bryan explains. “There was a question of whether he could stay in a normal school.”

After the diagnosis, Bryan says he was left feeling angry “when the lady told us, and put all these labels on him and kind of limited him.” He admits he also felt “responsible” that his son wouldn’t “have the kind of life that he would enjoy.”

Living in a world of the “unknown,” Bryan set out to work closely with Gabe. “I would have to come up with games to break him of his repetitive behavior,” he explains, “because a lot of autistic children have repetitive behavior, whether it’s repeat[ing] something quite a bit or a physical gesture that they have to do to make themselves comfortable.”

There were hard times, especially when Gabe was younger and he was unable to make eye contact or express himself. “You found yourself giving and giving and you weren’t really getting much back compared to the normal way a child could share affection and show appreciation,” Bryan notes. After his experiences, the 37-year-old actor “totally feel[s]” for parents dealing with an autism diagnosis, and offers them some advice:

“Realize that you never know what the future is going to hold, so the more you work with a child, it might not seem like you’re getting a lot back at the time, but five or six years down the road, when your child is main-streamed and totally accepted as ‘normal,’ then that’s the rewarding part. As long as you catch it early and don’t give up, there is hope.”

Click below to read about Bryan’s thoughts on Gabe’s future.

Gabe “turned the corner” at age five, Bryan shares. “Luckily, the early intervention helped and working with him helped and he’s now main-streamed, and next year he’s going into fourth grade and he won’t need any special classes anymore,” the Days of Our Lives star reveals. Bryan also feels it was beneficial that Gabe never learned of his diagnosis. “I don’t want him to view himself as different,” he explains. “I think part of the thing that’s really working with him is the fact that he doesn’t know and doesn’t have that to fall back on as an excuse.” He adds,

“It’s such a hard thing to do because I don’t want to bring it to his attention until he’s ready to hear it.”

Bryan has high hopes for Gabe’s future, including love, marriage, children — and more! “I hope that he hits the game-winning home run for the Chicago Cubs against the New York Yankees in the World Series,” Bryan says. Whether or not Gabe will add “big brother” to his list of accomplishments remains to be seen, however. “I’m so bad with the marriage thing,” Bryan admits. “I’m still scared about that.” He appears to have some time to make up his mind, however, for Gabe “doesn’t really ask about” siblings.

“He’s chill with being the only child. He thinks the dogs are kids. He says, ‘Sal’s my brother? Seamus is my brother.’ But I definitely will have kids and he’ll be a great older brother.”

In the meantime, Bryan is enjoying the time that he spends with his son, whom he describes as a best friend. “I’m lucky,” he says. “I get to see him a lot and as soon as I get off work today, he’ll be there waiting for me.”

“I get to pick him up at school, so for me that’s the best. We love our time together.”

Source: Soap Opera Digest, June 23rd issue

– Angela

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Showing 30 comments

Lauren on

I love reading stories such as these on CCB.. It’s putting an unfortunate situation into a postive light and it puts a smile on my face :)

Thrifty Sisters Coupon Clipping Service on

Bryan seems like such a loving and amazing father.

Cheryl on

Wonderful!

Mimi on

The speech therapist who diagnosed my oldest son with autism (even though speech therapists aren’t qualified to diagnose autism) explained autism as a form of retardation. It’s ridiculous the way doctors put autistic people into boxes. There is no way to know how an autistic child will develop. Some become high functioning as they age, some don’t. Still doctors like to tell parents what their toddler will capable of as an adult. The autism spectrum is like a rainbow and each child will fall into their own color in their own time. I’m glad Bryan is not allowing specialists to label or limit his son. Good for him.

momto3 on

I don’t understand how doctors can label a kid with ‘moderate’ autism. If he has it, he has it. My son was diagnosed with Tourette’s Syndrome and to be honest, I’m not satisfied with that answer. I think there may be more. So yes, I think every parent needs to fight for their child: believe in them – even if doctors won’t. How inconsiderate for someone to tell a parent ‘oh by the way, he’s kind of retarded!’ or ‘he’ll never be normal’, ‘never marry’, etc. As parents we need to fight for our children’s rights and not give up. So good for Bryan!

michelle on

@ momto3: Autism is not a black and white disease. It’s not like cancer which you either have or you don’t have. Actually, it is incorrect to say that a child “has autism”. The correct way to phrase it is to say the child is “on the autistic spectrum”. There can be very sever cases and very mild cases. Some children grow out of it, some do not. Some show very little symptons and some will never be able to care for themselves as adults. It varies wildly with each child and depends significantly on the kinds of therapies they receive.

Julia on

Bryan seems like an amazing down-to-earth father.

I love him on Days Of Our Lives :)

Sara on

the concept of not telling the child about a diagnosis really appeals to me, i guess i hadn’t ever really thought about that before. but waiting until you feel they’re ready and not providing that fall back or ‘excuse’ for them is a nice idea. help them just deal with who they are and what works for them rather then a label.
sounds like a great dad :)

Tara on

Sara, that was the quote that jumped out to me too. My younger son has ADHD and sometimes when he is misbehaving he will say, “Oh, maybe we need to go get different medicine for me” or “You know I can’t do that Mom, I am too active!” It is easy to get in the trap of using his condition as an excuse. If I had it to do over I wouldn’t let him know that he has it.

I like Bryan a lot, used to watch him on Days before it got so ridiculous lol, and I can’t believe he is 37. He looks like a baby still. He sounds like a great dad.

Christine on

Mimi – I hope that speech path was fired.
When my son was dx’d our dr told us that he would learn and develop – just at a different rate than that of his typically developing peers. She gave us hope – and my son was dx’d with mod/severe ASD.
Momto3 – it isn’t black and white as Michelle said. Which is why it is a “spectrum” disorder.
Michelle, I disagree with you on one point. I think it’s fine to say a child has autism. I try to refrain from saying he is autistic. It’s something he has, not something he is.
And it’s never been a ticket for him to misbehave or act inappropriately. Our expectations are quite high for him. If expect nothing from him, that’s all we’ll get.

Glad to hear Brian share part of their journey!

noam on

autism is such a widely misunderstood disease, even by professionals. my brother has it, and was diagnosed in the 80s. he never spoke and would often rock and hum to himself. the doctor advised my parents to put him in a special home, because he would never be normal and they would never be able to care for him. they didn’t want to, but the doctors kind of pressured them into it. my mother never got over it. even though she went to visit weekly and was very present compared to many parents and families, she never forgave herself. finally, a few years ago, after my father died, my other brothers and i looked into moving thomas. he went to a new facility near my youngest brother. the therapists there are amazing, and after a few months, they called to tell us thomas had something to show us. when we got there, he had a computer and was typing out a message to us…he had known all along what was going on. he was actually reading the books we thought he was just holding. he remembers things we thought he missed because he was “off in his own little world.” he says that sounds are amplified beyond belief for him, and that’s why he rocks/hums…he says he doesn’t speak because words feel “heavy in his throat.” but by no means is he retarded or stupid or “half a man,” as one doctor described him. i wish my parents had lived to see thomas like this, but i know our family’s experience has inspired others. my brother’s wife is becoming an autism educator…if your child has autism, please don’t give up! advocate for your child, pay attention to your child (some autistic children, even those on the severe spectrum, have been known to try to create their own form of communication.) and don’t feel alone!

skeptic on

Like this article but I have some problems with the ‘not telling his son until he is ready’ part. So you are going to tell the world through an interview to the world before you tell the subject? just weird to me.

As mom to a wonderful son who “meets the criteria for autism” I can tell you that I am optimistic beyond belief and not embarrassed at all at his diagnosis. I hope that he can own it one day and appreciate that its gifts as well as its delays.

CelebBabyLover on

michelle- “Some children grow out of it, some do not.” That isn’t true. You cannot outgrow Autism. You have it for life. Some kids with Autism can improve quite a bit with therapy and such, but Autism isn’t something that can be cured 100 percent.

megan on

““I think part of the thing that’s really working with him is the fact that he doesn’t know”

Won’t his kid hear it eventually, though, since that’s out there with the media now ?

kai on

wow, noam, your story made me choke up. all the best to you and your family!

Sheri on

Noam (blogger 11) ~ your story touched my heart … I even have tears in my eyes right now. God bless you, your family and your brother – Thomas.

momto boys on

I disagree with not telling a child he/she has something. Like one of the comments above (which I love) “I hope my child can own it” and another one wrote ‘it’s not something he is, it’s something he has!” SO TRUE. My child is considered ‘special’ and my expectations are the same for him as my other boys. Hiding something from a child makes me feel the parent is embarassed by it. Be proud of your child and ‘own it’. Tell your child to ‘be proud, own it’. God does not give you anything you cannot handle. Kids are resiliant and strong.

traxie on

Congrats to Bryan, he sounds like a wonderful dad and wonderful advocate for his son. For those concerned about his reluctance to label Gabriel as being on the autism spectrum, I would just note that Bryan said ‘I don’t want to bring it to his attention til he’s ready to hear it’ – in other words, he’s meeting his son where he’s at. I have the utmost respect for that viewpoint.

Hello on

“so the more you work with a child, it might not seem like you’re getting a lot back at the time, but five or six years down the road, when your child is main-streamed and totally accepted as ‘normal,’ then that’s the rewarding part. As long as you catch it early and don’t give up, there is hope.” What about children who will not improve? What about children who will never be considered normal? Just because a child is “not normal” doesn’t mean parenting them in any less rewarding. I work with children with ASD and some will not ever be “normal” or be independent, or even speak. These children were caught early and their parents are not giving up hope, yet they will never be mainstreamed. There are still very rewarding parts about parenting and working with ASD children.

Daze on

There are different levels of autism, and from the looks of the picture, his son is at a higher functioning level, he photographs normal and has control of his facial muscles.

amee on

Not like I really want to defend the professionals who fail to take into consideration the parents’ feelings, but I have to point out that the different doctors, therapists, etc., have to fill out forms so that children with “special needs” get EVERYTHING they are entitled. The forms do not take into consideration the niceties of “just a little bit” and the language that they use ensure that the maximum amount of benefits are allocated can sound worse than what it is. Having worked with these professionals, they frequently have to defend to local/state authorities the worst case scenario that they present on those forms, but each one hopes for the best.

kim on

“He Photographs normal” Daze that is what makes any autism not so cut and dry. To appear normal is actually a cause of ridicule when people don’t understand the Spectrum of Autism. My son appears as normal as any 16 year old has Asperger’s. His body has matured while his mind is still delayed about 2.5-3 years. Now he can function with minimal redirection as we have worked with many therapists and doctors. One day he will be able to drive and carry on with adult responsibility, he will never be able to read body language or get the meaning of puns and he will take over others personal space. I have hopes that he will have a family and others won’t judge him for his slight difference.

michelle on

“michelle- “Some children grow out of it, some do not.” That isn’t true. You cannot outgrow Autism. You have it for life. Some kids with Autism can improve quite a bit with therapy and such, but Autism isn’t something that can be cured 100 percent.”

I didn’t mean to imply that it is cureable. Sorry, wrong choice of words. What I meant to say is that some children grow out of some symptoms and how they are displayed – or appear to control them better with age & therapy. I was trying to convey how variable it can be in simpler terms.

LucyMarie on

I have a son with high functioning autism(Asperger’s) and I love him to death. His best buddies are will be in the 5th and 2nd grades–my son will be in high school. His Dad refuses to acknowledge our son’s autism, but I have spent years getting him diagnosed so he can get help. Sadly because of my ex my son did not get help until the 5th grade and we lost a lot of time.

However, my concern with this article is the part how the little boy is a “best friend” I love my son and I understand his challenges, but I never would burden him with calling him a “best friend”

dearling on

As a teacher who has worked with students and tutees who are on both ends of the spectrum, I HIGHLY recommend the book “Look Me In The Eye: My Life with Asperger’s” by John Elder Robison. It’s his memoirs of his life and how he coped and developed with his Asperger’s. It’s an amazing story and I highly recommend it to both students (age appropriately, of course) and parents of my students.

Jacquie on

I have to say I think it is great that we have come so far that we don’t send children to a “special home” like noam’s brother when they are not typically developing in today’s society! That had to be heartbreaking for your mom and dad and then to discover that he can communicate and read and everything… that was a touching post! Like I said, the way we approach ASD and other things today I think is so much more beneficial for the children and their families rather than hiding them away somewhere.

Colleen on

Momto3 I agree with you….what is “moderate” autism? My son was diagnosed with “mild” autism, and it blows me away! Higher functioning, yes…but come on! I wish more celebs. would discuss his/her experiences with their children and autism! Jenny Mccarthy whether you like her or not has raised a lot of awareness and for that I will be thankful! I still CAN’T STAND Dennis Leary and what he said about parents and children with autism. It amazes me that it was OK……if nobody knows what I am talking about, google it.

CelebBabyLover on

Colleen- “Moderate” Autism is just another way of saying high-functioning Autism.

Chele on

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Dattilo’s article. My son was dx’d at 2.5y/o with PDD-NOS, which is mild autism. at 3y/o he has made tremendous strides. From saying nothing, flapping his arms and dazing at spinning wheels to having about 200 words to play with other children and less “stimming.” I know he will always be an awkward kid, but hubby and really have hope for him, and this article increased my hope.

Chele on

I’m sorry, our son had made tremendous strides at 4y/o

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