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The Marino family’s fight against autism

Football great Dan Marino and his wife, Claire, detail how they helped their child and how they're now helping others.
/ Source: TODAY

Former Miami Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino is one of the most successful football players in NFL history. He says his most rewarding experience has been his life with his family: His wife, Claire, and six children, two of whom are adopted from China. He also managed to turn a family struggle into a program that has helped thousands of children. “Today” host Katie Couric has the story of the Marino family’s struggle with autism.

Sixteen-year-old Michael Marino is a chip off the old block. The son of former Miami Dolphin quarterback Dan Marino, Michael is a junior at Broward Preparatory High School in Florida.

But his parents, Dan and Claire, were concerned early on when they noticed some delays in his development.

Dan Marino: At first we thought what an incredible baby we had, because we remember when he was 1-1/2 years old, we put him in his crib, and he wouldn't cry. 

Claire Marino: He never really started with the sounds to say "Mama, Dada," or "water, juice," anything.  I had actually talked to the doctor about it, the pediatrician, but he said, "Oh, you know, he's a boy, they're late bloomers. Don't worry about it."

But Claire and Dan decided to get Michael into a program for children with developmental delays. 

Couric: At 2 [years of age] Michael was diagnosed officially as autistic. Do you remember what that was like for the two of you?

Claire Marino: I didn't even know what it was. The doctor said "autism" and I said, "Oh, OK." I just sort of listened to him. You don't know what to expect in the future.  So it's very overwhelming. 

Dan Marino: Just to find out what it is, and the shock of [not knowing] what your son's going to be like.  Then you go right to, well, we're going to do whatever we can.

Couric: Michael, your Mom and Dad describe you as a toddler as somebody who had a hard time communicating, and not talking.  Do you remember wanting to talk and for whatever reason not being able to do it?

Michael Marino: It was kind of like I was frustrated. Like I really wanted to say something, like "cup," so I could get a drink, but I couldn't say it.

Couric: But you were thinking it.

Michael Marino: Yeah, I was thinking it.  Then I'd be like, "Mom, Mom … the cup.”

Michael began receiving intensive therapy from speech therapist Sue Cabbot.

Sue Cabbot: When I first met Michael, it was pretty clear to me that he had autism.  He was pretty socially unaware. He was not communicative. Very self absorbed.

We showed the video of Michael's early therapy to the Marinos.

Couric:  Does it bring back memories of what you were going through?

Dan Marino: Oh, well, it brings back for me how well he's doing now …

Claire Marino: That's right.

Dan Marino:  … and what a miracle it's been and how all of this has helped so much.

Four months later, Michael began speaking.

Michael Marino: I was having trouble getting the right little cups in the right thing.  Now, all of a sudden, I'm putting cards that have words on it and pictures on a line to make a story — it’s amazing.

Couric: How important was this early intervention, though, for Michael's development?  It must have been critical.

Claire Marino: I just think for any child, as soon as you notice something like that, you need to get in and get help.

Dan Marino: It's extremely important that people recognize that with the right proper care, and the proper therapies, that kids can definitely get better and have a great life.

That's why Dan and Claire decided to start a foundation which so far has raised more than $6 million for children's charities. 

In 1998, they built the Dan Marino Center at the Miami Children's Hospital in Florida. The center specializes in treating children with autism and other developmental disorders all under one roof.

Neurologist Roberto Tuchman helped the Marinos set up the center.

Dr. Roberto Tuchman: I think that what we need to realize is that autism is a disorder, a medical disorder in the way that cancer is. And we have to provide those children and those families with the kind of support that can make a difference.

But not every child with autism can make the same strides as Michael. Doctors still don't know why some children respond to early intervention and others do not. Michael is now in a special education program and is mainstreamed for classes like history and physical education.

Couric: I'm wondering if some families might look at the wonderful things that he's been able to accomplish, and have hope that might be slightly unrealistic.

Dan Marino: There's no doubt. But, on the other hand, there's hope. He's an example for a lot of families and a lot of people. He's one of the reasons we were able to start our foundation and make a difference, because we want to help other families and get opportunities for them, like Michael had.

As for Michael, he is hoping for a bright future.

Michael Marino: I just hope that I can be successful. So other parents can look up and see just because their son has a problem doesn't mean they still can't grow up and be as successful as any other person. 

Dan Marino: Doctors will tell you not to say it, but for me, he's cured. There's not a problem and he won't have a problem the rest of his life.