Becoming a Special Father For Special Kids, with David Hirsch | EDB 204


David Hirsch founder of 21st Century Dads, discusses fatherhood

(VIDEO – 22 minutes) David A. Hirsch is the founder and president of 21st Century Dads Foundation. 21CDF is a 501c3 created to address the issue of father absence, one of the root causes of what ails society. He is the host of the Special Fathers Network podcast Dad to Dad, and the author of the book 21st Century Dads: A Father’s Journey to Break the Cycle of Father Absence.

For more about David’s work, visit:

For the Dad to Dad podcast, visit:

For the episode of Dad to Dad where David interview Dr. Hackie Reitman, click here!




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Introducing David Hirsch

HACKIE REITMAN, M.D. (HR): Hi, I’m Dr. Hackie Reitman. Welcome to another episode of “Exploring Different Brains”. And today, we have a real-life dad advocate. We’ve got David Hirsch, who’s the founder of the 21st Century Dads Foundation. David welcome to “Exploring Different Brains”.    

DAVID HIRSCH (DH): Hackie, thank you for having me. Pleased to be a part of the program.    

HR: Well, why don’t you introduce yourself properly.    

DH: My name is David Hirsch. I’m a native Chicagoan. I’m the father of five adult children. They’re 23 to 30 years old and I’ve been an outspoken advocate for father involvement for about 23 years once our fifth child was born.    

What is 21st Century Dads?

HR: What is 21st Century Dads Foundation and Special Fathers Network, and how did this come into being?  

DH: Great question. I would just take you back, just a little bit to put it in the context, and I hope I answer your question. So, I started advocating for father involvement about 23 years ago and the initial charity which still exists today, is the Illinois Fatherhood Initiative, the country’s first statewide not-for-profit fatherhood organization. And the mission of IFI (Illinois Fatherhood Initiative), if I can call that, is to actively engage fathers in the educational lives of their children. We’ve learned that if you can only do one thing, it would be to get fathers involved in the educational lives of their kids. And then more recently about five years ago, not quite, I thought God was calling me to do something on a larger scale and that was the birth of the 21st Century Dad’s Foundation. It started out quite differently than what it is today. And I’ll just mention that the initial project or event was to do a cross-country bicycle ride from Santa Monica to Chicago, and it was a 21 day, 2300 + mile ride. I was the only person that road from start to finish. There were nine other riders that accompanied me for a day or days along the route, and it was a transformative experience. We were honoring dad’s in community by community from California back to Illinois and it was remarkable. First of all, that I actually lived to tell the story. I was then 54 years old and I rode. I’m not exaggerating or patting myself on the back, but 112 miles a day, every day, on average, for 21 days in a row. And it gave me a little bit more confidence to talk about this issue, father involvement. I ended up giving a TedX talk.

I ended up writing a book, and we did another couple of Dad’s Honor Rides, and we realized that what we had set out to do wasn’t happening. What I meant by that is that our objective was to get fatherhood organizations around the country to work together, and even though I’ve got relationships with men and women who are advocating for father involvement around the country, we just couldn’t seem to work together. So, we had to make a decision. What are we going to do with this little not-for-profit start up, the 21st Century Dads Foundation, and instead of closing it, we decided to pivot, and we started something called the Special Fathers Network. And the Special Father’s Network is a dad to dad mentoring program for fathers raising kids with special needs. We match the more seasoned dads with the dads that are close to the beginning of their journey. And in a perfect world, not only with the same special need and the same gender of the child, but all the other metrics you’d want to match up.    

Challenges of being a special needs father

HR: Well, what are some of the common challenges that a special needs dad runs into? That a regular dad doesn’t?    

DH: That’s a great question. I would say, first of all I’m not speaking from experience. My wife and I are blessed to have five children and what we’ve had some challenges with drug and alcohol abuse and anorexia and three different situations. I want to be upfront, my wife and I do not have a special needs child. My mom was a Special Ed teacher. My brother is special needs. But I don’t actually have a child with special needs myself. So, I don’t want to give the impression that I’m speaking from experience. I think that for purposes of our conversation, and use of the term, special needs, let’s just say that, for the most part, it’s something that a child is born with or develops as a result of their situation and the big ones that people think about and talk about the most are autism, which I know that you have a lot of experience with, with your show and the work that you do, cerebral palsy, down syndrome. There’s a lot of more rare genetic disorders and a special need could also come out as a result of an accident. A car accident, somebody slipped some balls and they hit their head, they have a traumatic brain injury, somebody who has PTSD. There’s a lot of different situations that might lead to physical challenge or intellectual challenge, or a combination of the above.

So, to your point, your question which is, “What are the common things that a father is raising a child with special needs has?” Well, he has all the other challenges that any father would have, trying to maintain a relationship with the mother of his child if they’re married, and if not, you know being a noncustodial dad in many situations. The pressures that go along with trying to be present in a child’s life, not just financially which is what the state cares about, but physically, emotionally and spiritually in a child’s life. And then, the additional challenge that goes along with the, “Wow, this isn’t something we would have asked for or something that I have familiarity with!”. So they have to bring themselves to speed. What is this special need all about? And at least historically, moms have been the greatest advocates for their kids, in a typical situation or special needs situation. So they’re the ones out there gathering information about health care, about education and bringing that information back into the house and a hope for the dads participating, but one of the things that I witnessed with the 300 or so dads that are involved with the network, The 80+ dads that I’ve interviewed for the Special Father’s Network Dad to Dad Podcast is that there’s first, a sense of denial. Like, “Oh, things will get better.” Let’s just give it a little bit more time, which, in some cases is the truth. But you know, if you let too much time go by and you’re not able to come to grips with the fact that there is a challenge or a delay of some type and you’re doing yourself, you’re more importantly doing your child a disservice because oftentimes, the earlier intervention being said, the issue has been addressed and you’re seeking out the right therapy whether it’s occupational therapy, physical therapy, speech therapy or whatever it might be.

So, I think that’s one thing that I witnessed that dads talk a lot about a lot, which is that they wish they would have engaged faster. They wish they would have been more intentional. And I think another challenge, but it’s not a challenge in the special needs community but it’s exacerbated by men, our gender which is, we’re fixers. If we’re lost, you know the old adage is if we’re lost in the car, we’re going to figure it out on her own and I jokingly say thank god for GPS. That’s probably saved a lot of relationships, a lot of marriages. But you know, in all truth, you know, we want to figure it out ourselves as rugged individualism and you know, that’s evolved overtime and I think it’s just part of being a guy and then if you’re a dad with a child with special needs and you take that, you know sort of I’m going to figure it out on my own approach, you know, you’re really putting yourself behind the eight-ball and your child behind the eight-ball. So, I think one of the things that dads who are raising a child with special needs need to focus on more than maybe just a typical dad, is that I need the air on the side of making myself more available maybe showing some vulnerability, maybe I don’t have it together and seeking out resources.    

Father absenteeism 

HR: So, are there additional reasons why you feel that they’re is so much more father absenteeism, versus mother absenteeism?    

DH: Yes, I think that might be stating the obvious, but I’ll throw some numbers out there. Back in 1970, the out-of-wedlock birth rate was known to be about 11%. Today, the out-of-wedlock birth rate sadly referred to as the pre-marriage birth rate, right. We have sort of candy-coated what we’re talking about which is more politically correct is at 41%. So, where it might have been closer to 1 out of 10 children back in 1970 being born out of marriage, outside of a marriage, today it’s 4 out of 10 and that statistic, that trend, is not likely to reverse itself. So, there is a lack of paternity being established at the time of birth and there’s usually one hundred percent certainty who the mother is when a child is born for obvious reasons. But there is the uncertainty about who the dad is right and if there’s not a dad’s name on a child’s birth certificate, that’s one issue. That’s not THE issue, but that’s one issue that’s created a higher level of father absence than we might’ve experienced decades ago. The second issue has to do with divorce. The divorce rate in our society has been at 50%. It’s estimated to be at a higher level. I can’t tell you what, I can’t prove that. A higher level in the world of special needs and if it’s for no other reason, there’s additional pressure that goes along with raising a child with special needs, the emotional trauma, the financial burden that goes along with having to seek out additional resources that might not be covered by, you know, somebody’s health care insurance and then there’s this issue of abandonment. So, dad’s abandoning the responsibility. So, in addition to paternity not being established and the divorce rate going up in father’s not living with their kids, we have men that are absent or not present emotionally, or physically, or spiritually in their kids lives. So, the deck is stacked against kids that are growing up in father absent homes. The incident of divorce, it certainly is a contributing factor but a child is 4 times more likely to grow up in poverty, 9 times more likely to drop out of high school, if his father is not present.    

HR: Well, we certainly see that in the Boys & Girls Club of Broward County here in Fort Lauderdale. For instance, if you go to the Hackie Reitman Boys & Girls Club which is in the word zip code in the world 33311.  

DH: Is there actually a Hackie Reitman Boys & Girls Club?    

HR: Yes there is.    

DH: How do you get a Boys & Girls club named after you?    

HR: You donate a building, so they put your name on it. (Laughs)     

DH: (Laughs.) Note to self.    

HR: (Laughs.) But I’ve been on the corporate board for about 30+ years and we’re very proud. We serve 12,000 kids and we have about a 90% High School graduation rate, but if you go in and ask and raise your hand if you have two parents at home, nobody raised their hand. If we ask one parent at home, you get maybe about a half and then a lot of being raised by grandparents, foster homes, everything else. In my Aspertools book on Asperger’s, Autism and Neurodiversity, I called the single moms the “angels with a pitbull mentality” because the husband’s have gone to the hills and they got to earn the living, they got to fight with the teachers, the doctors, the educational system, and the kids themselves, and Erma Bombeck wrote a beautiful poem about that, I wrote a blog article about how what angels they are, but it’s a sad commentary on our society and more, we need more 21st Century Dad’s Foundations and Special Father’s Network. Not just for the kids with special needs but for all the children although I will dare say that one of the reasons we started is that if you start adding up all the different silos of the mental health issues, and neurological issues, and then developmental, and learning differences issues, it’s the majority, it’s not a minority. It’s lots and lots of kids out there and of course, denial at least at the onset is a big, big factor. Another factor, also, is that the you know societies kind of one-size-fits-all, whether it’s education, employment, and everything, and all of our brains are different, so we’ve got a kind of treat everybody with a little bit, differently. Just like you do in your business or a good salesman does. You don’t treat every client the same way, because their brains are different. Their brains are different. What would you say to a new father out there?    

DH: It’s a journey of a lifetime of being a dad. It’s why we’re here and if you were to air on being present, not only physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually, but to be there, be engaged as much as you can. And it’s been often, so that the most important thing that a father can do is to show the love that he has for the mother of his child, if not his wife.    

The Special Fathers Network

HR: What kind of response have you been getting in the communities you serve?    

DH: Well, let’s talk about the Special Father’s Network, where I’ve been pouring my heart and soul the last couple of years. I think I’d mentioned earlier we have over 300 men who volunteer as mentors. It’s been a very warm embrace not every guy is not going to be involved with the network and certainly not all guys are willing to share their story publicly, needs to be doing an interview like we’re doing here today.

But fortunately, every one of the dads has told me that they wish there was something like this when they were a young dad, right. A resource, somebody who understood what they were going through, what a valuable thing it would be. And then some of them will add, “but I don’t know that I would have taken advantage of it”, which is a very revealing comment, right. It has something to do with our psychology as men which is, intellectually we understand that I would be better off, my child would be better off, if I could be learning from, drafting behind somebody who has already been there and done that. It is so logical. But there’s something about us as men that we are Neanderthals, right. That we are like, still doing things the same old way and that, I think has been one of the biggest hurdles because here we’ve got 300+ dads who are seasoned. Some have 10 years of experience and some have 20, some have more, but we’re trying to get in front of these young dads. The dads that have children that are zero to three, early age, or maybe they’re 3 to 5, 3 to 8 years old. So, they’re in the trust in the world of IEPs (Individualized Education Programs) and I don’t want to say it’s virtually impossible but it’s super difficult, right. To get in front of those dad’s in a systematic way and we really need people’s help, right. To help identify those young dads and logically if it’s difficult to reach the dad directly, what makes sense is to, you know, communicate with the moms, right.

Going back to the moms, the ones gathering information on education and health care for their children and oftentimes, I’ll just reflect on my own experience. My wife and I have been married for almost 37 years when our kids were a lot younger, my wife would say, “Oh I signed you up for something or you should look into this or here read this”. So, I think that you know we need to make sure that we are empowering the moms who no doubt in most cases, want a dad to be more involved. To get involved, and maybe that’s part of the solution as well.      

HR: Well, it’s interesting is you know as a physician. We know that the health care decision maker in the family is the mom. That’s who makes the decision and I don’t know, the older I’m getting, the older I’m getting David, the more I’m feeling that women are just far superior than men in many, many different ways. 

DH: Well, if you’ve been married for the length of time that I have or other, once you acknowledge that and embraced that, life is so much easier.      

HR: (Laughs.) Well said, well said. Is there anything we have not spoken about today that you would like to talk about?    

Special Fathers Network: Dad to Dad podcast

DH: Well, I think I made passing reference to the 21st Century Dad’s Foundation and the Special Father’s Network. We’ve created a podcast it’s called the Special Fathers Network: Dad to Dad podcast. I’m interviewing men, mostly men, some Grandpa’s, some siblings and to date, out of the first 80+ interviews, I interviewed one woman for the Dad to Dad podcast and these are very inspirational stories from men telling their stories about the challenges that they’ve experienced raising a child or in some cases, children with special needs. And in most cases, these are dads who, you know, learned either at the time of birth or as a result of a delay of some type, that they have a child with special needs. In a rare or situations, it’s a dad who may be married somebody, became a step-father to a child with special needs. And even in a more rare situation, a dad and a mom who have adopted a child with special needs so they went in eyes wide open for the challenge that lays ahead and anyway it’s the Dad to Dad podcast. It can be found in all the major podcast platforms.    

How can society support special needs dads?

HR: That’s great. What do you feel David, that society can do to encourage and support special needs dads?  

DH: You know, I think it’s not just special needs dads but just being more aware of what’s going on in those families that have children with differences and being vigilant in their own parenting or airing on the side of accepting and including families with special needs, and it’s like anybody with a disability for that matter. We’re talking about, for the most part, Dad’s and parents raising children with special needs. But I think it speaks to a broader community about disability and like the amazing work that Special Olympics has done over the last 51 years, to draw attention, to celebrate the fact that people have differences. You know, we’re all different, right. Some of us are tall, some of us are short, some of us are thin, some of us are fat, some of us have hair, you and I don’t. But, you know, we’re all different. Like you were saying earlier, people’s brains are different, it’s hard to tell what somebody’s brain is because you can’t see it. But a lot of things that you know we see in the visible world, you know, help differentiate us, and I think what we need to do is; celebrate those differences. As opposed to, compartmentalize people that have different abilities. And I’m super enthusiastic about helping bridge the gap between the broader community and the disability community or the special needs community with the work that we’re doing.    

HR: Well, David Hirsch, keep up the great work. Thank you so much for taking the time to be our guest here at    

DH: Well, thank you for the opportunity to share a message about the 21st Century Dad’s Foundation, the Special Fathers Network, which can all be viewed at as well.