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When Jim Oricchio's grandson Sammy was diagnosed with autism at age 3, his family worried the boy wouldn't make friends, would struggle to communicate and wouldn't do well in school.
Instead, Sammy captained his high school bowling team, founded the school's computer club and cohosted a podcast about autism. Now 20, he's into cars and the stock market, and attends college. Along the way, Oricchio and his wife Donna, who have 11 grandchildren, have helped Sammy's parents with the cost of his private school, advocated for services and connected with him through activities like twice-monthly lunches.
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"I thank God every day that Sammy is who he is; he's a blessing to our family,” says Oricchio, 75, who lives in suburban Minneapolis and owns a business technology company. He is also a volunteer with the PACER Center, a special-needs advocacy and support organization in Minneapolis that, among other programs, runs groups for grandparents.
Being the grandparent of a child with special needs can bring incredible joy but is also complicated, say grandparents like Oricchio, as well as advocates and other experts. About 17 percent of children are diagnosed with some kind of disability, says Madonna Harrington Meyer, a university professor in sociology at Syracuse University and coauthor with Ynesse Abdul-Malak of the book Grandparenting Children With Disabilities. While that percentage seems to be increasing, support programs for families are not, she says.
That's one reason grandparents are so important. In fact, they are sometimes the first to spot that a child's development is off the established norm, says Harrington Meyer, who interviewed dozens of grandparents for her book.
"Sometimes the grandparents are actually out in front,” she says. “But then they learn what it is. They learn what it means. And then they hit the ground running.”
Grandparents play an important role
Paul Fredette, 74, of New Bedford, Massachusetts, says he has a special connection with his grandson Tyler, 20, who has seizures and intellectual impairment as well as social and behavioral challenges.
"He just has this bond with us,” Fredette says. “It's wonderful for us and it makes us feel happy that we can connect with him and make him laugh.… He loves us and we love him.”