A previous version of this post was published on April 23, 2015.
What in the world could be funny about autism?
It’s a condition too many families struggle with — a lifelong diagnosis that affects how children learn and interact with the world. You don’t have to sell Jack Gallagher on the seriousness. This educator and comedian has a 19-year-old son who is autistic.
And the proud father has responded with a play and a one-hour adaptation for ISTE called “A Different Kind of Cool” about his son Liam.
“My whole presentation is about expectations and realities,” Gallagher says of his keynote at ISTE 2015. “I pushed the limits when I allowed myself to think in a different way. As a parent, you assume your child will follow a certain path. You imagine things will go a certain way. Parenting Liam reorganized my thought process. It made me understand not to prejudge people, [and] it certainly expanded the boundaries of how I see everything around me.”
Gallagher began his professional comedy career in Boston during the early 1980s, when he helped establish the legendary Ding Ho Comedy Club. After moving to Los Angeles, he became a regular at The Improvisation and added big screen credits to his résumé working beside Bobcat Goldthwaite and appearing in “Heartbreak Ridge” with Clint Eastwood.
He went on to earn three Emmys for his work on PBS and appeared on late night talk shows, from Johnny Carson’s “The Tonight Show” to “Late Night with Conan O’Brien.” So it was a given that Gallagher’s skits were funny, relatable and ultimately moving.
Along the way, he married his wife, Jean, and they had two sons. Suddenly, Gallagher’s material added poignancy to the humor.
“A Different Kind of Cool” is about how he “realized Liam’s differences and the gifts that he was overlooking for a long time.”
And the stage hasn’t been his sole experience. Both Gallagher and Jean taught at a boarding school for kids with learning disabilities before Liam’s birth. Jean also taught in the Los Angeles Unified School District and is currently director of professional development for the California School Boards Association. Liam attended New Technology High School, where he began using technology to separate himself from the pack, establish his identity, and express himself artistically and intellectually.
But Gallagher didn’t always see that, either. “I use the computer as a giant typewriter, and he uses it for research, for writing, to create an animated series, for video games,” says the dad. Accepting those differences allowed him to see that his son was moving forward, thanks to these tools.
“What has changed is just the way I perceive people in general,” he says. “I take a second breath and try to be less judgmental.”
“In 25 years of conventions, I’ve rarely heard anyone do a better job of keeping the room laughing while also giving them a great message,” is how Nicholas D. Caruso, Jr., member of the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education, has described the presentation.