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  • Jim Gazzolo

Undereducated and Understanding

How My Grandson Taught Me About Autism and Myself

Two young boys holding the hands and looking at the water
Brothers Kaleb (left) and Ryder enjoy a moment together.

We are led to believe that it is our job to teach the next generation, to extol our wisdom upon them. That is not always the case.

From the moment he arrived just over a decade ago, Kaleb McClelland has taught me as much or more than I could ever teach him.

Like most first grandchildren Kaleb was welcomed with high hopes and typical concerns. You buy him the small glove and ball, leave a football next to him in his crib, and dream that he is the next great whatever he chooses to be. 

Being a grandparent is different because you get all the joy with half the worries. You treat them with extra candy or cookies and let their parents handle the clean-up. And soon you experience the irony of your child repeating the words you said to them and your parents said to you.

Thus, the education circle continues on.

Something Seemed Different

Early on I realized Kaleb was a bit different, or maybe he wasn’t. He had some issues that concerned his mother and grandmother. Whether it was slow development or some unique behaviors, Kaleb wasn’t what you expected, or what we were led to believe is “normal.”

As his grandfather, I overlooked most of these behaviors, dismissing the talk of my wife and daughter as overly worried. I can’t remember how many times I said the words “he’ll be fine” or “he’ll grow out of it” and threw a ball his way. 

But he wasn’t growing out of it.

To their credit, my wife, or Nana as the grandchildren call her, and Kaleb’s mom fought to see every doctor, every expert, and every person they could to get to the truth. They were relentless.

I was uneducated.

As Kaleb got older, we continued to notice more challenges. Some were medical, but most were simple things. It wasn’t only what he was doing but rather what he wasn’t. Sometimes it was how his temperament seemed to be affected by complex or even simple situations.

As a long-time educator, Nana nailed it early. From almost the start, she had Kaleb pegged as autistic.

Like a lot of other people, my knowledge of autism began and ended with the 1988 film Rain Man, where Dustin Hoffman played the autistic older brother opposite Tom Cruise. I was like Tom Cruise – well, in terms of knowing about autism anyway.

At first it confused me, frightened me, and even made me sad. You hope for perfection when it comes to your kids and grandkids. And then you realize nobody is “perfect.” 

Little did I know, my education from Kaleb was just beginning, and he was barely two years old.

By then, his brother Ryder, grandchild number two, had arrived. Ryder would double the speed of my education about autism. I can’t remember the day or age when I first heard that Kaleb was on the spectrum, but it was around the time of Ryder’s arrival. 

Help for Kaleb

To say I knew little of the signs of autism is an understatement. I noticed his stimming, but I passed it off. 

Stimming is repetitive or unusual movements or noises. Stimming seems to help some autistic children and teenagers manage emotions and cope with overwhelming situations. If stimming affects children in negative ways, you can look at ways to reduce their need to stim

As we met with doctors and I started taking Kaleb to more appointments, the more stupid I felt. The doctors would talk, I would nod my head, and then I would wait for the ride home for my wife to translate.

The more I heard, the more worried I became. I tried to read up on autism. The internet was filled with lots of news, opinions, and language. I was overwhelmed and way too undereducated on the subject.

There were a lot of waking moments where my worry was overcome by questions about how this could happen and why. Did I do something wrong? Was there something in my genes?

You beat yourself up about the whys and what-ifs, or at least I did. Not Kaleb’s mom and Nana; they attacked each issue, grilled each doctor, pursued all options. They stayed focused; I stayed lost.

As a writer I could work from home, so I was often the one watching Kaleb, and then Ryder, who was showing similar signs. Two in one family – unthinkable to the undereducated. 

I spent so much time with those boys and drove them to and from doctors and their special schools that you would think I would have learned more quickly. 

In our town we found help at a place called the St. Nicholas Center for Children, but there our others around. You just have to look. They aren’t hidden, but may be under the radar.

By the time Kaleb was six years old, we knew just about all we could on the clinical part of his diagnosis. We knew he was considered high functioning and was smart in some subjects. We also learned what his temperament might be, at least for the early years.

I was far from an expert about autism, but I was learning and had come to understand it wasn’t the end of the world. That much Kaleb had taught me, but there was so much more to come.

He got chances to play sports through Buddy Ball, was involved in school groups, and had his group of friends. As time went by, I noticed more and more that Kaleb was interested in a lot of the same things I was. At six years old, he had become a history buff, especially when it came to wars and battles. He was very good at math, loved to hear and tell stories, and had a wild imagination. Maybe all the doctors, Kaleb’s mom, and Nana were wrong. Maybe he had grown out of it.

Kaleb (left photo) and Ryder (right photo) finish up a day of Buddy Ball with their respective coaches. (Click arrow on side of photos.)

My A-Ha Moment

One day, when he was home sick from school, Kaleb and I got into one of our usual talks. He had come up with some war story and was mesmerized when I told him his great grandfather had fought in World War II. 

That’s when seven simple words forever changed my thoughts on autism, Kaleb, and even myself. 

Kaleb simply said: “Grandpa, you are a lot like me.”

Talk about a lightbulb going off.

At first, I thought, “No way.” I loved to play sports, didn’t have any real social issues (or so I thought), and seemed “normal.” Ah, there’s that word again.

So, I took a long look back at what I was like as a kid. 

  • I loved math – could even do batting averages in my head – and didn’t agree with the whole show-your-work stuff. I knew it. Kaleb is the same.

  • I loved history. Seeing a war map is like playing a game of chess in my head. Same with Kaleb, who picked up the game of chess in about a day.

  • I am literal and a stickler for facts. So is Kaleb.

  • In certain situations, I can be shy, and I use the art of storytelling to come out of my shell – just like Kaleb. Well, that really hit home, too.

There are so many things we have in common. My eyes are open wider than ever. And Ryder, who is on a different place on the spectrum, is a lot like his brother. Suddenly, the “how this had all come about” was no longer a question. This revelation – that I am likely on the spectrum – had become the biggest learning experience of my adult life.

Understanding and Moving Forward

Over the last four years, I have learned a lot about autism. It is complicated, and it is concerning. 

The biggest thing I have learned is that autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental disability that affects one’s ability to communicate and engage in social behavior and interactions with others. It often leads to how one learns and how well.

I now understand that autism is not the end but rather a different path to learning and social engagement. As a grandpa, it often tests my patience, but then I wonder how I tested my parents. 

And I wonder just where I fit on the spectrum. 

I have also become more educated. I picked up a different language and found a different world of people who are there to help. 

I have learned that my wife should be listened to when it comes to fighting for answers. 

Kaleb and Ryder each received early intervention through schooling and therapies and played in special sports leagues. They had fun but often would rather do their own things. Both have gone on to thrive in mainstream classrooms and become honor students, showing what can be accomplished. 

My love of sports didn’t really get passed down, but that’s fine. We have found other ways to connect and to share our mutual interests. 

My two oldest daughters have started careers as teachers who help kids with autism and other challenges. They have become stronger through their experiences with Kaleb and Ryder and are dedicated to giving back.

If I am indeed on the spectrum, I made my way just fine. I will be there with Kaleb as he continues to forge his own path. I figure I owe him that much after all he has taught me in his first 10 years.

Jim Gazzolo is a freelance sports multimedia journalist who resides in Lake Charles, La. He is married to Kimberlee, and they have four children and seven grandchildren. Jim is a fellow graduate of Truman State University (formerly Northeast Missouri State University).


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