By Sean Barron
If you meet 11-year-old Dakota Hafley, you’ll quickly notice that he loves model cars, gym, art and band classes, Lego toys and learning to play his recently acquired alto saxophone.
All of that is sweet music to his father‘s ears.
“He’s very mechanically inclined,” Duane Hafley said recently from his and Dakota’s North Road Northeast home. “He likes to build and is very creative.”
Those also are among the attributes Hafely hopes people will focus on regarding his youngest son, not the fact that the boy was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome when he was 2 or 3 and had speech, social and other delays.
Asperger’s syndrome is a pervasive developmental disorder on the autism spectrum that’s generally characterized by an inability to comprehend most social interactions. Features include an unusual focus on special interests, a preoccupation with repetitious rituals and routines, and nonverbal communication problems.
Most who spend time with Dakota, however, likely won’t need such a reminder: They would be hard pressed to realize what Dakota had dealt with because he’s made tremendous progress, his father says.
Hafley, a single father with two other sons with special needs, recalled how Dakota went from not wanting to meet and interact with people to shaking others’ hands and offering compliments without prompting.
“He’s come leaps and bounds. His Asperger’s syndrome shows very little,” Hafley added.
Dakota, an H.C. Mines Elementary School fifth-grader, ticked off a list of interests and passions: assembling his yellow model custom 1955 Chevrolet, watching The Weather Channel, helping to take care of the family’s five pet exotic birds, hoping to play his $1,700 saxophone in a rock ‘n’ roll band and listening to the Jon Bon Jovi song “Livin’ on a Prayer.”
“I read about custom cars and read storm books,” he added.
He also mentioned playing with several friends, a social situation that’s common for neurotypical children but very difficult for many on the autism spectrum.
Hafley recalled that a friend introduced him to Cindy Miller, who runs the Stephen Moore Memorial Foundation, which, in conjunction with Hubbard Music in Hubbard, donated the saxophone and related accessories to Dakota earlier this month.
Hafley explained in a letter to Miller his and Dakota’s situation, as well as why he was requesting the instrument for his son. It wasn’t long before Miller determined that Dakota was a prime candidate for the alto sax, his father continued, adding that Dakota was the first person to receive a donated saxophone from the foundation.
Miller, of North Jackson, started the foundation shortly after her 23-year-old son, Stephen, a 2000 Austintown Fitch High School graduate, was killed in a car accident Nov. 20, 2005.
Miller wanted the foundation to reflect her son’s love of music, she explained, adding that he played guitar and drums.
“He was multifaceted with his interests,” she said, explaining that they included sports and the arts.
The memorial foundation is set up mainly to provide musical instruments to qualified children who need them, Miller noted. She’s also working in the Jackson-Milton school district to make instruments more easily available to students age 8 to 12.
Establishing such a foundation also gave her another way to channel her grief and pain, as well as her love for Stephen, Miller explained, adding that she wished to thank Denise DeBartolo York for making a “substantial” contribution and helping to get the foundation off the ground.
Hafley said he reinforces to his sons that having special needs is no excuse for unacceptable behavior and failure to excel.
He also encouraged parents whose children receive a diagnosis on the autism spectrum to take advantage of available resources and interact with them the same as their neurotypical counterparts.
“Make use of those resources, but most of all, treat them like anyone else,” he said. “They’re just as loving, smart and caring.”