Former Triangle sports anchor shares family's journey with autism

Dwayne Ballen with his son and Katie Couric.
Dwayne Ballen with his son and Katie Couric. Disney-ABC

Since leaving his eight-year gig as a sports anchor and reporter for WTVD in 1993, Dwayne Ballen’s career path has included positions at CBS Sports, ESPN, The Golf Channel, Fox Sports and several other sports outlets. But for the first time ever, the focus of Ballen’s professional life doesn’t involve analyzing games or interviewing MVPs.

Not unless you count Ballen’s oldest son, Julian.

Julian Ballen, now 19, was diagnosed with autism in 1997 at age 4. He is the subject of his father’s new book, “Journey with Julian,” published in March by Simon & Schuster.

Ballen, whose family lives in Durham, didn’t start writing about Julian’s autism until 2010, when a friend encouraged him to put his thoughts down to help others dealing with the same issues. Ballen started writing blog entries then, but not before getting the OK from his son.

“It would mean exposing intimate details of our life with him as the centerpiece,” Ballen said. “And I had to make sure that he was comfortable. ... He told me it was all right with him.”

Not long after Ballen started blogging, another family friend – this one happened to be a book editor – suggested that the entries be published.

Each chapter of the book centers around an anecdote that often reveals a life lesson from Julian learned by Ballen; his wife, Martina, a chief financial officer for athletics at UNC Chapel Hill; and their younger son, Jared.

“Journey with Julian”’ leaves the reader with a strong impression of Julian’s personality and gifts.

Julian has what Ballen describes as “laser-like focus” on the three areas that interest him most: Disney animated movies, animals and drawing. Julian can sit in the middle of a Duke-Carolina basketball game, with crazed fans screaming all around, and tune it all out to concentrate on drawing “The Lion King’s” Simba, his all-time favorite Disney character.

Julian, who always has a sketch pad with him, recently accompanied his dad to New York City for an appearance on “Katie.” Ballen said while Katie Couric interviewed him about his book for an episode set to air Thursday at 3 p.m. on WTVD, Julian sat beside him sketching characters, unfazed by lights, cameras or celebrities.

“One of the things we talk about is trying to utilize the talents of people who can function at a fairly high level with autism,” said Ballen, who is active in the autism community. “Because they have an ability to focus on whatever it is they are doing and they can block everything else out. I’m sure a lot of employers would love to have a workforce like that!”

Julian’s artwork

Julian’s focus is matched with his talent. His sketches and paintings – all from memory, no tracing – are so striking that Ballen said people are constantly suggesting the family do a public show. “He’s got sketches and paintings and drawings stacked in his room,” Ballen said. “He certainly has an ability, and people are blown away by it.”

Three of Julian’s paintings are on display at the Mercury Studio in Durham, and he volunteers at a local youth art camp.

In addition to working on the book, Ballen travels the country speaking about autism. He gave the keynote address at a CDC Autism Awareness event a few weeks ago. Julian goes with him on trips, but doesn’t stay in the hall to hear his speeches. “It’s his choice,” Ballen said. “We recognize that’s not somewhere he wants to be, because it gets pretty personal, and it can get emotional. He lives it, and while he approves of me doing this and sharing our story in hopes that it helps others, he doesn’t want to delve into it but so much.”

Julian, who wants to be a Disney animator and work with animals, will graduate from the Durham School of the Arts, his base school, in a couple of weeks (he splits his days between DSA and the Lakeview Therapeutic Learning Center in Durham, which Ballen says has been “the perfect place for him.”) In the fall, he’ll enter a new program at UNC-Greensboro for people with developmental disabilities called Beyond Academics, a four-year certificate program in which students live on campus, attend classes and get the full college experience.

Lessons from Disney

Ballen’s talks are filled with examples of Julian’s growth and perception, particularly in relation to his beloved Disney movies.

Ballen said that Julian once told him that the films “teach me how to live my life.” For instance, Julian says “The Sword in the Stone” taught him about courage; “The Princess and the Frog” taught him you should always pursue your dreams; Baloo from “The Jungle Book” taught him it’s OK to have fun; “The Lion King” taught him about family; and “Lilo & Stitch” taught him that “no one is ever left behind or forgotten.”

“I thought that was so profound,” said Ballen. “It was pretty amazing that he draws that from the movies. ... But that’s the way his mind is. He views things differently. But the ‘Lilo & Stitch’ thing – ‘no one is forgotten and no one is left behind’ – especially considering he lives with autism. I just thought, wow.”