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Accomplished Musician, Guardian Celebrating Autism with TACT

  • Published
  • By 1st Lt. Kristine Frohreich

Danny Combs is on a mission to change public opinion of what individuals with autism are capable of.

An Air Force Reserve senior airman assigned to the 310th Space Wing’s Fourth Space Warning Squadron at Buckley Space Force Base, Colorado, Combs was a professional musician for more than a decade in Nashville, playing, touring and opening for several country and Christian artists. During that time, he won the Grammy’s Enterprise Award for developing a music program for Nashville’s school system.

It was a job he planned to do for the rest of his life until doctors at Vanderbilt University in Nashville diagnosed his son with autism.

“I went through a wide, wide range of emotions,” said Combs about his son’s diagnosis. “Everything from ‘Oh my God, my name isn’t going to live on’ to ‘I’m never going to be a grandfather’ to ‘I’m going to have a child who will be financially dependent on me for the rest of my life.’ They were all selfish thoughts, but honest ones. It took a while.”

Combs said the therapeutic treatment his son received was deficit based. It focused on what his son lacked instead of his strengths.

“All I kept hearing after sitting in waiting rooms was ‘your son needs to do this better, he needs to work on this, this needs to change,’” Combs said. “There was never any recognition of what was good or things he was successful at – all the amazing things that made him him. He was really talented in a lot of different things.”

Combs comes from a long line of tradesmen. His great grandfather helped start a company now known as Northrop Grumman, his grandfather worked on the Apollo missions and his father is a general contractor. Combs said he noticed his son had a knack for building things at an early age.

“He was about 6 or 6 ½ before he could say ‘hello dad, I love you,’” Combs said. “But at roughly 3 or 3 ½ he was putting together these amazing things.”

Combs would watch as his son would build moving things out of cardboard and tape and he realized he didn’t want his son to become another statistic. He wanted him to have his own fulfilling life.

“Time Magazine did an article saying the average lifetime cost of raising a neurodivergent child with autism is $2.2 million, opposed to a quarter million dollars for a neurotypical child,” Combs said. “Even though I did well with music and had some money to spend, I was spending a fortune on his services and I didn’t want that to be his future. I didn’t want that to be my future. I wanted him to have a life that he chose.”

He decided to do the opposite of what he’s seen in therapeutic treatments by creating a strength-based environment where his son, and others like him, could thrive and set them up for success in the future.

In 2016, he founded TACT, Teaching the Autism Community Trades, a nonprofit organization based out of Englewood, Colorado. TACT’s mission is to encourage and empower the full spectrum of individuals with autism through education and employment in the skilled trades. TACT offers career tracks in auto repair, carpentry, electrical services, welding and other select science, technology, engineering and mathematics trades.

“Thankfully, I had good lawyers back in New York to help get set up really quick,” he said. “It was seven years ago this April actually that I announced the idea. We had our corporation by June and our 5013-C status by October. We were already teaching classes and going at it. Then a year later, we secured our first half million dollar grant I wrote to get it going.”

Since starting TACT, Combs and his staff have helped hundreds of young adults get jobs.

“There are 5.4 million adults with autism and the unemployment rate for that group is 90%,” Combs said. “According to the Centers for Disease Control, one in four kids has autism … and they only measure 8-year-olds. It’s a big part of our population. Why is it not being talked about? It’s surprising to me that we as a society still overlook this entire demographic. It’s a big elephant in the room. It’s kind of sad.”

Combs hopes TACT can be a national framework for helping those with autism. He wants to show people that the autistic have talents like everyone else and they can be successful in their careers when given the opportunity.

TACT works with major companies in the automotive and technology industries, and they’ve helped place members of the program on their big projects. Combs is hoping to also partner with the different branches of the military.

“We’ve had people come through TACT who have since gone into service in the Army and Navy and that’s pretty amazing,” he said. “We’ve had a lot of service members who have stepped up and brought their kids out here, which has really been neat. I always like it when that happens.

“I know a lot of military families have children on the spectrum,” Combs said, pointing out that “autism services’ is option number one on Tricare’s telephone menu. “Just because service members have children being diagnosed with autism, or they themselves find out later in life they have autism, it doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing. It’s just part of being neurodivergent. It’s who they are. There is opportunity for success in life and TACT can be a vessel for that. To have that impact on families I think would be really cool.”

To learn more about TACT and its programs, visit