When Shaun Doty’s son was 2 years old, he noticed that the toddler didn’t make eye contact and rarely smiled.
Whereas his son, Dante, once had a growing vocabulary, lately he seemed to be “losing words.”
Doty and his then-wife were assured by their son’s pediatrician that it was nothing to worry about. He said they would just monitor Dante’s progress.
“I didn’t have a good feeling about that,” said Doty.
It wasn’t until the family went to Oklahoma to visit Doty’s sister, who was a physical therapist, that alarm bells were sounded.
His sister suggested that they have Dante tested for autism. He fell within the autism spectrum.
In some ways it was a relief. At least now they knew.
“That really was the catalyst for my journey,” said Doty, a well-known chef and restaurateur whose ventures include The Federal, Bantam + Biddy and Chick-a-Biddy.
On Sept. 24, Doty will run the BMW Berlin Marathon to raise awareness and funds Autism Speaks, a nonprofit close to his heart. His goal is to raise $2,500.
Years ago, Doty helped start the Piedmont School for students with autism.
He has employed workers who have autism and he has made his restaurants welcoming for families.
“It’s critical to have community support, not just from the awareness aspect, but from the acceptance aspect,” said Kimberly Dick, executive director for field development at Autism Speaks/Georgia and Tennessee.
“Our families may not want to go to a restaurant because of their children’s behaviors,” said Dick. “He makes the families feel accepted, and he includes gluten-free foods because a lot of children with autism have food sensitivities.”
In recent years, more attention has been paid to the disorder.
One in 64 children in the United States have been diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum, according to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. Georgia is above the national average with one in 68 children with autism.
Dante is now 14, and Doty is awed by his son’s progress. Dante loves race cars and sports and spending time with his younger brother, Brick.
Doty’s fiancée, Natalie Samples, has been in Dante’s life since he was about 8 years old. “From that point of his life until now, there’s been tremendous progress,” she said. However, Dante can still be Dante, she said smiling. “He still has no filter. He still says what he says, but he’s so outgoing now.”
Doty agrees. “He’s like a miracle baby,” he said. “When he was diagnosed I had an expectation of what things would be like in the future. But every day I see what he does and it’s amazing to me.”
Take basketball, one of Dante’s favorite sports.
He’s a huge fan of Stephen Curry and LeBron James. That’s just fine with Doty, because while Dante is “obsessed” with basketball, it’s “in a normal sports kind of way.”
Often people with autism are hyperfocused to the point that they don’t pay attention to other important things in their lives.
For Dante, “it’s not about this person has this many rebounds,” said Doty. “It’s not about statistics. He just loves the game.”
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