Wednesday, December 28, 2011

A Different Kind of Cool

Jack Gallagher
www.jackgallagher.info

I have been a professional comedian for 30 years. My resume includes appearances on the Tonight Show, Cheers, Late Night with Conan O’Brien, an ABC sitcom and appearances as an opening act for such diverse performers as Tony Bennett and Warren Zevon.

However, my most important role is that of a father to an autistic child.

In addition to the aforementioned credits, I have also written four one-man plays. The latest is entitled “A Different Kind Of Cool” and chronicles the relationship I have with my son Liam.

While I have been lucky enough to have all of my plays receive positive reviews, ADKOC has garnered the most attention of anything I’ve written or performed. I’ve heard from people all across the country as well as Australia, Sweden, and Finland. To say it has hit a nerve with people who has seen or heard of it is an understatement.

The interesting thing is the play almost didn’t happen.

A little backstory.  I am lucky enough to live in Sacramento, the home of a fantastic new works theatre, The B Street Theatre. For the past fifteen years or so, I have been associated with these folks. Every three years or so they contact me and ask if I have anything in mind that might work for their space.

In the past, I have written plays about being a new dad (Letters To Declan), trying my luck in Hollywood (Just The Guy) and losing my parents (What He Left). All of these pieces are personal and revealing.

While I was anxious to write another play after the theatre contacted me, I was at a loss as to what the topic might be. In fact, the only idea I had was to write about the Boston Red Sox finally winning the
World Series in 2004 after 86 years. I am an avid fan.

It was my wife who suggested I write about Liam.

While he had been diagnosed with PDD-NOS as a second grader, his challenges were never something we spoke about publicly. We are a very private family.

However, my wife thought it was time that people knew our story. She thought that families with kids on the spectrum could relate to my struggles with Liam and that people who thought they understood autism might learn a little something.

Like most parents of an autistic child, the period when Liam was diagnosed was a confusing and emotional period.

Where do we go for help? To whom do we talk? Is there a cure?

While we searched for answers to these questions, I thought the first thing we needed to do was work harder. I thought Liam could apply himself more and we could “fix” whatever was wrong.

I wanted him to be like the other kids and not some uncool outcast.

As a former teacher I knew that different learning techniques worked for different kids.

We discovered early on that Liam was a visual learner, so I started working in that direction. I made chart and graphs and flash cards. While he was in the fifth grade I completely rewrote his entire math book to include more pictures and charts.

And while Liam continued to do well (with the help of an aide) in a mainstream classroom, I noticed our relationship was suffering. Homework time was dreaded by both of us. I would push him harder and harder. There were tears and yelling and a general feeling of frustration on both our parts.

After one particularly awful session, I realized this wasn’t working, I decided to step back. I just couldn’t do it anymore.

When I did that, I noticed, once again, the things at which Liam excelled. Unconventional things in terms of schoolwork but interesting nonetheless.

He has an amazing imagination. Loves video games. Can quote entire books of Calvin and Hobbes comic strips. He wrote and submitted a Simpsons script at age ten and ultimately received his first rejection letter!

While homework and school are still important, what I found to be even more important is to let Liam be who he is. To not try and turn him into every other boring person I know. To let that energy and creativity seek its own level.

Is it hard to do? You bet. But the results are so much more pleasant and positive. And he is still doing well in school. Without an aide!

We are letting Liam be Liam.

So what if there are quirks? So what if he isn’t just like everyone else. He’s better than everyone else because he’s the one and only Liam.

And I realized that there was no need for a fix, because there is nothing wrong with him.

He is different. And he is cool.