Joe Mantegna has been a staple on Criminal Minds for over ten years, and in that time, we've grown to love him like a part of our family. He's always looking out for the team, acting as somewhat of a father figure for the entire BAU team.
But unlike many actors who are completely different from their on-screen characters, Mantegna is also a doting father in his everyday life. He and his wife, Arlene, have two daughters together, Gina and Mia. When their daughter Mia was born, they knew immediately she would be different and would have to fight.
Mia was born via emergency C-section because of an infection in the umbilical cord. Her premature birth left Mia weighing just 1lb 5oz.
"She was a very strong little girl,” recalled Mantegna. “I saw babies of much higher birth weight do much worse for some reason and not survive.”
As they watched their daughter grow, neither Joe nor Arlene noticed anything particularly off. However, while Joe was shooting Godfather III in New York, they had a chance to watch Mia interact with other kids. This is when they realized that something was off. Mia's speech wasn't at the same level as the other kids, and she had problems focusing. Of course, the couple had been warned that since Mia was a premie, she may have lung problems or poor eye sight, but this was different.
It was time to see a neurologist.
Mantegna recalls sitting across from across from the doctor with his wife, and hearing the one sentence that changed his life forever: "I'm pretty sure your daughter has autism."
“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 recalled. Mia was born in the 90s, and there was not as much information on autism back then as there is now. Mantegna likened it to the 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.”
But after the initial shock, Joe and Arlene chose to move on with the diagnosis and continue living life.
"No parent wants to hear that their child will have to deal with a disability in their life," Mantegna said in an interview. "But then after that initial thing, you get over that and realize we can’t change that, but how are we going to deal with it? How are we going to go forward and make her life as best as it can be; make all of our lives as best as possible? So it’s not something you wish for, but nobody gets a free ride in life. You play the cards you get in life and move forward."
Because of his busy acting schedule, Mantegna was always on the road. He knew that he needed to be with his family, so they traveled with him while he filmed. His second daughter, Gina, was born three years after Mia, and he didn't want to leave his wife alone with two kids under the age of four. Despite Mia's diagnosis, Mantegna says it never crossed his mind to stop bringing his family to work with him.
“We saw no reason to stop doing [traveling together.] We thought if we were going to face this, let’s all face it together. Let’s do this as a family,” he said.
The Mantegnas obviously had a tough road ahead of them, but it was one teacher in Chicago that really changed their lives, and Mia's.
Joe and Arlene met a teacher whose sister also had autism, and she ended up convincing the couple that Mia would thrive in a regular first-grade class. They just needed to make everyone aware of the situation at hand.
“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," Mantegna recalled.
On Mia's first day of school, her teacher walked to the front of the class and made an announcement.
“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.”
Her message brought Joe and Arlene to tears. They learned to follow that Chicago teacher's advice as Mia advanced in school.
“Just let the kids know," Mantegna said. "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? Passing the information to others makes all the difference.”
Mia continued in regular schooling through high school, and when asked what he's most proud of his daughters for, Mantegna says it's Mia's perseverance through school.
"And my daughter Mia, my daughter with autism, I would think when she graduated from high school with honors," Mantegna gushed. "For her to be able to graduate from high school with honors was a big achievement. And she worked very hard at that."
But Mantegna says that despite his daughter's progress, there's still a lot that needs to be done in the grand scheme of things for people with autism.
Mia, now 30 years old, has followed in her dad's footsteps of being in the entertainment industry. She did some acting in high school, but soon realized that her true love was makeup. She took a nine week course at the Mudd School, a professional makeup school. Mia holds the honor of being the first person person with autism to graduate from the program.
Mia has also attended classes to help with her socialization skills. An 11-week program offered through Help Group, an organization that helps young adults with socialization, helped her develop skills that may have been harder for her because of her autism. She can now talk comfortably on the phone, something that was hard for her before the program.
“That’s the thing that needs to be worked on with many of these children,” her father said. “The ones with less severe autism just have a problem with socializing, breaking the ice, making friends, communicating.”
Mia now holds down two jobs. She works on Wednesdays at the family restaurant, Taste Chicago, where she does the bookkeeping. Mia is a whiz with numbers and computers, so it's a perfect fit. She also works for Inclusion Films, which is a group that teaches young adults with disabilities all about the film industry. Inclusion Films is run by Joey Travolta, John Travolta's brother, who used to be a special education teacher.
Mantegna says there needs to be more programs dedicated to adults who have autism, because too often they are just outcast from society.
“These children only stay children for just so many years," he said in an interview. 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?”
Because of his personal connection to autism, Mantegna donates his talents and his money to different organizations who help those like Mia.
“Why shouldn’t I? Why wouldn’t I?" he asked. "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.”
Mantegna is so passionate about the cause, he even made sure his show addressed the topic.
Joe Mantegna did an interview with Carly Fleischmann, a blogger who has also been diagnosed with autism.
"My name is Carly Fleischmann and as long as I can remember I’ve been diagnosed with autism," her About Me section says. "I am not able to talk out of my mouth, however I have found another way to communicate by spelling on my computer."
Fleischmann asked Joe about the hardships of having a daughter with autism, as well as why he pushed to have autism represented on Criminal Minds.
"The hardships, it’s that whole thing of two steps forward and one step back," Mantegna told her. "And so those are the rewards and the hardships. In other words the wonderful things are when you make progress, you see progress, joy and happiness and learning and all those things. And the hardship is when you see discomfort, when there’s frustration, what you perceive as unhappiness. But there’s less and less of that. I think the autism is harder on those of us without it, harder for the people who love the person with autism than it is for the person with autism."
Fleischmann then asked about the episode of Criminal Minds where an autistic boy sees his parents get abducted. The boy has limited speech skills, and displays clear signs of autism.
"I pushed to have an episode that dealt with autism. It wasn’t as important to me that the actor really had autism as much as it was that it would be correctly portrayed. And I thought he did a wonderful job."
Even though he may be famous, it's clear that Joe Mantegna's main concern is his family, and we wouldn't have it any other way.