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OARacle Newsletter

Two fathers, both members of OAR’s RUN FOR AUTISM team, describe what is like to raise autistic children, from diagnosis to achievements to lessons learned and the bonds they have with their children.


The COVID-19 pandemic created a lot of challenges to navigate, but it also presented new opportunities. At the onset of the pandemic, my then 16-year-old son, Michael, was in his first year of a high school life skills program. As COVID-19 shut down in-person workplaces, I began working from home, which gave me more opportunities to do things with him.

I committed to getting out of the house at least once a day and going for a walk with Michael. Our daily walks started out at local parks. In August of 2020, our two parks were flooded during several heavy rainstorms and closed due to excessive damage, so we pivoted to the high school track to continue walking. Michael transitioned to a combination of running and walking laps, and soon he was going to the track six days a week to run laps. By November, he was getting ready to do his first 5K virtually with OAR’s RUN FOR AUTISM, the equivalent of 12.5 laps around the track.

When 50- or 100-meter runs were considered the limit for what special needs kids can do, running a 5k, or 5,000 meters, was going to be challenging. It seemed like the perfect opportunity for a kid with autism to exceed his limits. There were many days when Michael said, “Dad, I want to go do training,” and I did not feel like going for a run with him. But, if I didn’t take him to the track, he would lose a good opportunity to exercise and there was no denying his motivation. What worked for Michael was that he had someone in his corner who believed he could do things like run 5Ks.

Last September, he inspired four special needs friends to come out to run or walk in the local Travis Manion Foundation 9/11 Heroes Run. Three of his high school classmates also joined him for this 5K run in the rain. The foundation’s motto is “If not me, then who?” and that day he lived by that motto. For Autism Acceptance Month 2023, he captained his fourth 5K run event with the RUN FOR AUTISM.

Now 19, Michael has completed sixteen 5K runs since November of 2020, including four as the captain of Team Michael. Michael also ran a five-mile race, headed up the Garnet Valley High School Military Appreciation Club team of runners for the Travis Manion Foundation 9/11 Heroes Run in 2022, and ran a 2.5-mile segment with the Special Olympics of Pennsylvania Law Enforcement Torch Run in November of 2022.

Running has not come easy for Michael, but his Grandpa Joe, my father, paved a path for him to follow. Grandpa Joe was an avid runner completing 49 marathons and inspiring many to take up running. When he left us in 2013, things were set in motion for me to run a marathon like the many Grandpa Joe had done. Team Michael started in 2014 with the Marine Corps Marathon and has participated with OAR in six Marine Corps Marathons through 2019. In 2020, Team Michael transitioned to a 5K run and Michael has captained the team for four 5K runs. Grandpa Joe is proudly looking down from heaven on his grandson Michael and his accomplishments as a runner. His grandfather provided the inspiration for Michael to find his legs as a runner.

COVID-19  created an opening for Michael to take off as a runner, and his daily runs became a healthy means for him to get out of the house and socialize. It also provided a natural balance to the adverse effects of his medications. All this was possible because my son was able to turn the COVID-19 pandemic into an opportunity.

That experience taught me three things I am happy to pass on to other fathers:

  • You know your child best (except for Mom), so don’t be afraid to try something others would never imagine is possible for your child.
  • When afforded the time to try new things, don’t let those opportunities slip away without taking on a new challenge.
  • You’re a parent, which means you can provide unique support and encouragement for your child. Lean in and help facilitate opportunities for them.

David Cleary is father to four children: twins Beverly and James, John, and Michael, who is the youngest. He works as an engineer and previously served in the Navy as a flight officer. His wife, Patricia Tuggle, is a nursing instructor and a retired Army Reserve colonel. Although it’s never easy, Patricia and Dave work as a team to balance the challenges of autism with all the other aspects of family life.



He Makes Me Proud

My personal journey as the father of an autistic child has been amazing. And that could be the end of a very short story, but you probably want to know more. When my son Josh was born in 1997, autism was not on anyone’s radar. When he was diagnosed in 2001, there was hardly any information or awareness of what autism was. At that time one in 110 children were diagnosed. Let me explain how it went.

In 2001, Josh was missing some of the established milestones for development. His pediatrician mentioned autism. We thought the doctor was crazy and did not believe him. We did, however, agree to see a neurologist. I was so sure that everyone was wrong about Josh that I didn’t go with my wife to the appointment. My wife told me the neurologist took one look at Josh and diagnosed him immediately. With that news, even though I still didn’t believe it, I figured there must be some sort of “pill” or remedy, like there is for any other medical diagnosis. When we met with the pediatrician and asked about the cure, we were told there is no cure. Then we asked what causes autism and the pediatrician said we don’t know. Like many other parents, we were frustrated and confused.

This is the amazing part. I’m not the most religious guy, but the first thing that came to my mind is that God only gives us what he knows we can handle. For this simple reason I believed that I was blessed with Josh. That belief has made everything he and I have done together a positive experience.

We especially enjoy participating in sports together, from weightlifting to running. My participation in the RUN FOR AUTISM team has been good for Josh and me and has given me a platform to raise awareness. Josh ran the Shamrock Shuffle with me as part of the RUN FOR AUTISM team and getting him across the finish line was awesome. We were also featured in an ad for the Chicago Marathon when I ran as part of the RUN FOR AUTISM team.

We are lucky to live in a town that has the best special education system. It was apparent that Josh could not keep up in a mainstream classroom even with an aide. Our school system has a self-contained special education elementary/middle school. Initially, I felt that he would miss out on the social aspect of an inclusive school. However, after seeing the progress he was making, I was no longer concerned.

Josh was more than ready for high school. In fact, he was very popular. His teachers throughout his school years were most helpful. He was an active member of his high school football team, which I wanted for him and also to educate the other players and their families about autism. On his senior night, he played during the one play that resulted in a touchdown. This made ESPN.

Currently, Josh is employed at Leyden Resource Center for Adults (LRCA), a not-for-profit family-run organization that provides on-the-job training for people with developmental disabilities.

Throughout this journey with Josh, I have learned so much. Besides the support of Josh’s teachers, I have met and gotten to know many people who are parenting autistic children. Their support and our discussions have given me new insights and approaches to raising Josh. What has been most useful is learning patience and understanding. Everything we do with Josh is based on his time and feeling. At first, I didn’t believe that this could work but it has turned out to be the best for Josh and for us as his parents. Seeing him function like an adult, going to work every day, makes me proud.

Dan Padilla is a fair housing investigator/equal opportunity specialist at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. He has completed 11 Chicago Marathons as part of the RUN FOR AUTISM team. He is also an ambassador and lead fundraiser. He has always been involved with sports, serving as coach for local youth football, baseball, softball, and cheerleading programs. He lives in Northlake, Illinois, with his wife, Kimberly, and his children, Nick, Alyssa, and Josh.