The Answer Inc. supports families of those with special needs

FOREST PARK, Ill. (WLS) -- Some say there is often a stigma attached to having a child with special needs and how parents cope with those needs.

These men gathered in Forest Park all have something in common; they all have a child or loved one living with autism or another developmental disability. And at one time they all went through similar emotions about that.

"In a lot of cases, a lot of shame, blame, disappointment came into play," said James Harlan, who has an autistic son.

That's especially the case with African American men, according to the agency that started this support group. It's part of a non-profit called The Answer, Inc., which provides all kinds of family services for special needs families.

Harlan and his wife Debra Vines came up the idea out of necessity because of their son Jason.

"The doctor, when he was diagnosed, he said 'your son has autism.' He gave us a brochure and we walked out of the hospital and we didn't know where to go," Harlan said.

At first, Harlan had a hard time dealing.

"He didn't even accept the fact that he had a child with a disability until Jason was maybe 9. So during that time I was all alone in this process," Vines said.

Their mutual frustration led them to seek answers, thus the name of their group, which today provides education, advocacy and recreation for special needs families.

But most importantly, they provide support and understanding.

"Instead of just ignoring that neighbor that has that child with a special need, embrace that neighbor and say 'You know what, if you need somebody to talk to or if you just want to sit on the porch and have a cup of coffee,' encourage that parent, because guess what? We feel alone," Vines said.

Just for Men, the men's support group, is targeted at fathers of those with special needs.

"It's ok to cry. It's ok to laugh and enjoy each other's company while we are sharing knowledge about what's going on with us or with our children," said Anthony Smith, a parent.

As a result, everyone's life is enriched.

"Jason was a gift, not a burden. He's not a burden," Harlan said. "Jason was a gift that God saw fit to give me to look over one of his angels. And he felt so highly of me that I could take care of this precious angel and not abuse him and make sure he is safe and to make sure he had everything that he needed to be the best he can be."

The men's group meets once a month on a Saturday. The organization's ultimate goal is to build a community center to help parents and caregivers as well has the special needs young people.

In May the group will host a walk-a-thon to raise money. To get more information on the event or The Answer, Inc., visit

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