Hope for the future

ERIC FRANCIS -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 10:31 AM ET

Jay McNeil remembers the wave of emotion that overcame him when reading the e-mail.

Although flooded with letters of support after revealing in the Sun last spring his four-year-old son was diagnosed with autism, it was a particularly powerful message from a 17-year-old Hamilton boy McNeil remembers the most.

"It really touched me -- brought tears to my eyes actually," said the Stamps o-lineman and captain.

"It was just so amazing for someone like that to send a letter of encouragement. Every time I think about that kind of stuff, it brings a tear to my eye."

While most of the feedback he and wife Tara received came in the form of support from parents of autistic children, the author of this particular e-mail, Dylan Atack, has lived his life with autism. And Dylan wanted to let a stranger twice his age know that young Cuyler McNeil would be just fine.

"I wanted to tell him I was thinking of him," said Dylan yesterday, possessing maturity and compassion beyond his years.

"I wanted to let Jay know he's not the only person out there affected by someone he knows and loves by autism and let him know it's really not that bad. Good things can come out of it, like look at me -- I'm volunteering with the Ticats, working at a restaurant and doing great."

Recognized by the City of Hamilton yesterday for his volunteer work with the AHL's Hamilton Bulldogs, Dylan's comforting e-mail started a relationship that has endured for months.

During the Stamps eastern swing early in the year, Dylan and his mom met McNeil at practice where the veteran gave the youngster a cap autographed by the team. It meant so much to him that tomorrow night, Dylan will cross the field to work the Stamps sideline.

"The Ticats don't know yet, but secretly they'll find me out," laughed Dylan, now 18.

"The Ticats are my friends, so I'm not sure how they'll feel -- we'll see. I hope they don't throw me out of the locker-room."

Not likely, given the exchange he had with Ticats lineman Nautyn McKay-Loescher during a 34-4 loss.

"When we were down the other night, he told me, 'You make me happy every day. Win or lose, I keep my head up because of you,' " said Dylan.

"Everyone is great to me in that locker-room. It's like a family, and I'm so happy to be part of it."

McNeil, like most who've come in contact with the outgoing teen, was impressed with Dylan's attitude.

"He's a really nice kid, and he's so positive, happy and upbeat, which is cool," said McNeil, whose son has also made tremendous strides over the last year.

"It's gotten easier for sure. I don't really consider Cuyler autistic anymore -- he's just a kid. He's done so well. We were nervous about him going to kindergarten, but the teacher says he's a pleasure to have in the class."

The outpouring of support the McNeils received prompted him to get involved as host of Sunday's run/walk for Allies for Autism. (see alliesforautism.com).

"For Dylan to reach out to Jay makes me so proud," said Kerry Atack of her inspirational son.

"We call Dylan our Forrest Gump because anywhere there's excitement and activity, he's there in the thick of things.

"We're very fortunate. For every heartache we've had, we've had 100 great experiences. Through this we've learned there are so many great people out there. He's happy and productive, and he reaches out to everybody. Autism doesn't have to be a devastating thing -- look how much joy Dylan brings."

Tomorrow night, the Stamps will see that first hand.

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DYLAN ATACK'S E-MAIL TO STAMP JAY McNEIL

Following Eric Francis' May 16 column on Stamp Jay McNeil and his autistic son Cuyler, Dylan Atack sent this e-mail to Francis:

Hi Eric, my name is Dylan and I'm 17 and I also have autism. Hopeyfully you can pass this story along to Jay who plays for the Stamps. I've come a long way. When I was little, I kept asking the same questions all over again. I liked turning on light switches a lot and had trouble with getting out the right words. My parents took me to the doctor when I was little and they diagnosed me with autism. I can't drive for the rest of my life, but being autistic can come a long way. I'll tell you I've met former Prime Minister Paul Martin five times and been on TV tons of times. I volunteer my time for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats as the equipment assistant and am going into my second year with the Ticats. I also volunteer for the Montreal Canadiens farm team called the Hamilton Bulldogs. And my parents thought I'd never get a job but I do now, I work at a restaurant here in Hamilton, Ont. I also forgot to mention I had a tour of the Toronto Maple Leafs dressing room earlier this season. So, I hope you can in some way pass my e-mail onto Jay and tell him I know what he's dealing with and when he's on our Ivor Wynne turf in Hamilton in the summer, I look foward to meeting him.


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