Comedian Jack Gallagher gave an emotional speech, laced with humor, about his experience as a parent with a son who has autism to a group of educators and counselors at American River College (ARC) on Friday.
Gallagher is a nationally known comedian, having made several appearances on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and Johnny Carson as well as a recurring role on the show “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”
Gallagher began by speaking about what we think of as “cool,” what it entails and also that being cool starts out by being exceptional.
“Cool when you first see it,” Gallagher said. “Is unique, it’s different, it’s out of the ordinary, it’s one of a kind.”
Gallagher held back tears several times throughout his speech.
Gallagher said when his son Liam was seven, he was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder and that he and his wife saw signs pointing to autism, but it was different when someone else said it.
“That’s when your heart sinks,” Gallagher said. “Because there is nothing worse in the world than thinking there is something wrong with your child.”
He wanted to impress upon educators and parents that their children will be different from them, sometimes quite different, but that labels can only make things more difficult.
“We didn’t want him diagnosed because we didn’t want him to have a label,” Gallagher said. “As soon as we gave him that label that’s what people would think.”
Gallagher said that autism does not define who Liam is as a person, he is a child that needs the right kind of help.
“Liam is not autistic, Liam is a child with autism,” Gallagher said. “There’s a huge difference in my mind.”
Gallagher ended his speech by touching on his opening theme of what is cool.
“Different is good, there’s nothing bad about different,” Gallagher said. “Cool is different. If we don’t take time to know these people and appreciate who they are as people, we’re missing out.”
“He’s a different kind of cool,” Gallagher said of his son.
Barb Dyal, who has an 18 year old grandson with autism whom she raised by herself, was grateful to hear Gallagher’s speech. Dyal said that all these years, she thought she was a failure and that Gallagher helped her realize that she was not.
“Thank you, so much,” Dyal said holding back tears. “It took 18 years to find out that my grandson has autism. For 18 years I blamed myself, what have I done wrong, and from what I’ve heard you say I’ve done everything right.”
Gallagher and Dyal shared a hug after she thanked him for his speech.
Nisha Beckhorn, Disabled Students Programs & Services Counselor for ARC coordinated this event with Gallagher. She was Liam’s teacher at Sacramento City College three years ago and since then has been a friend of the family.
“I came here last year as a coordinator, and Jack and I still keep in touch,” Beckhorn said. “He wrote to me in March and April and said ‘I really really want to come in and do something for you.’”
When Beckhorn told Gallagher that she could not pay him, he said “I’m not looking for money, I just want to come in and do something.”