For a boy doctors said would never speak, Daniel Temons, of Loyalsock Township, sure has a lot to say. He’s a 26-year-old who loves his family, has a passion for entertaining, a lifelong love of Jim Henson’s The Muppets and dreams of working for Hollywood’s Henson Studios. Daniel also has autism.
“Honestly, I don’t know what would be happening to me if I wouldn’t be able to speak,” Daniel said. “Without the help of The Muppets and learning from my parents, I literally couldn’t be the kind of person I want to be right now.”
This love for The Muppets began when Daniel first watched the 1979 Muppet Movie as a little boy. He has always admired Jim Henson for the happiness his work brings others, and works to replicate this joy himself. “I definitely want to do something like that, to create new things and try to do what’s best for everybody in the world, for the love of the entertainment.”
Daniel is a social butterfly who instantly charms anyone he meets. Even at 4 years old he was giving the best hugs, his mom said. But there was one thing he wasn’t doing — speaking.
His parents, Mark and Pam Temons, made an appointment at Hershey Medical Center to get him tested for developmental delays. Now, 22 years later, they are some of the few who understand how far he has come.
‘Families don’t give up on children’
After going through an exhaustive battery of cognitive and psychological tests, the report looked grim: Daniel was deemed severely mentally retarded. Doctors said he would never be able to make eye contact, sequence events, or make any sort of emotional connection to another human being. They told Mark and Pam that as he grew older and bigger, they would not be able to take care of Daniel and would need to be prepared to put him in a home for the rest of his life.
“I started crying when the doctor said ‘autistic,’ Pam said. “She asked, ‘Are you surprised?’ I said, ‘No, I’ve known for a year and a half. But I’m still sad because he’s my son.’ ”
The parents walked with their little boy to the car in a state of zombie-like shock. They buckled Daniel in the backseat and put the keys in the ignition. Then, a strange thing happened. The Christian radio station, which they had been listening to on the drive up, suddenly turned on full-blast. The song playing was “The Measure of a Man,” by the band 4Him.
“The refrain says the measure of a man isn’t how tall he stands, how smart he is, or how much money he makes—it’s what’s in his heart,” Pam said, smiling.
Hearing this song’s message was a turning point for the Temons. They made up their minds that whatever it took, they would fight for their son to become the man they knew he could be.
“As we tried to come to grips with this diagnosis, we made a conscious decision very quickly that families don’t give up on children,” Mark said. “So regardless of what it took, Daniel stays with us forever.”
Lemonade out of lemons
The journey forward was not easy or linear. Young Daniel was taken for a second opinion at one of the top autism research centers in the country. The prognosis was the same — Daniel would never be capable of speaking or creating emotional bonds with others.
But this time, Mark and Pam refused to take the experts’ opinions lying down. While Daniel clearly had deficits in sensory processing, his mother observed steady progress in his problem solving skills at home. Pam wasn’t going to let anyone tell her what her son could, or couldn’t, do.
“(I said), let’s make lemonade out of lemons here. If there’s something that his (autism) benefits, let’s aim in that direction,” Pam recalled.
From signing to talking
Daniel was soon enrolled in speech therapy, but it didn’t seem to make much of a difference. After a year, he could only hold onto about five words. The therapist said it may be time to use picture cards–which meant that Daniel would likely never learn to talk. When Pam asked if there was anything else they could try, sign language was suggested. Within two weeks, 4-year-old Daniel finally started gaining and retaining words.
“It was immediate,” Pam said. “So we said, ‘Well, we’ve got to keep going like this!’ Because signing was working—that motor activity was making a connection in his brain that wasn’t there before.”
As he kept learning to speak, the idea of starting school became a reality. Daniel’s early classroom years were full of challenges, but his parents worked hard to give him as normal of an education as possible. Both teachers, Pam and Mark were well aware of the struggles a child with a disability would face in the school system.
“I know there were kids who picked on him because he was different,” Mark said. But he also knew Daniel was protected by a great group of friends.
These friends would stay with Daniel all through school and beyond, including him in their sports and activities and shielding him from the occasional bully. “He was never that kid outside (the circle), Pam said. “It was,‘This is our man Dan — he’s weird, but he’s one of us.’”
New world of opportunities
By high school, Daniel would metamorphose into the talkative guy he is today. Through working with his school speech therapist on language comprehension and social skills, he gradually improved his ability to make eye contact and maintain steady conversation.
This opened up a whole new world of opportunities. Daniel, now an honor roll student, became very involved in school extracurriculars. He played JV basketball all four years, participated in Loyalsock High School musicals, and even won first place in his junior year talent show with his rendition of Abbot and Costello’s classic “Who’s on First?” routine–complete, of course, with a puppet on his arm.
Now, over eight years after graduation, Temons continues his passion for puppeteering through creating online content on Youtube with The D.T. Channel Studio. He got the idea to start the channel after watching other videos and realized he could put his own spin on this popular form of entertainment.
Daniel’s content focuses on all things Muppet, including an “Ask a Puppet” series, Muppet impressions, and personal covers of classic Muppet jams. He is working harder than ever to achieve his dream of one day working for Henson Studios, a goal he’s now had for decades.
“In my teenage brain (I thought), ‘Someday in the future, I will definitely be working for the Henson Company,’ Daniel said. “I will make sure to make millions of people happy and do this for my idol and for everybody who grew up with The Muppets.”
Daniel admits that his disability can sometimes make life difficult. Though he has made leaps and bounds from the silent child he was in boyhood, he still speaks with a stutter, has trouble with large crowds, and finds maintaining eye contact challenging. However, he is quick to point out that the endless support from family and friends has made him the person he is proud to be today.
“Being an autistic man. . . let’s face it, it’s not easy,” Daniel said. “But with a little bit of help from my family, friends, and basically everybody else, there’s a lot of terrific hope–a lot of terrific support. I just truly am grateful.”