Nancy Geraci- daughter AliDad/Coach- SamMom- NancySibling- Anthony 12Sibling-Gabrielle 8AliMy husband Sam is the head coach of Headlock Wrestling Academy and assistant varsity coach for Addison Trail HS. His family is well known in Illinois wrestling, and were once very involved in it. Wrestling has been a big part of his life for over 30 years both as a competitor and as a coach. Our son, Anthony just completed his 5th season in IKWF.Q- How old was Ali when she was diagnosed with Autism?A- Ali was OFFICIALLY diagnosed at 22 months but we knew long before that, around 16 months.Q- How old is she now?A- Ali is 11 1/2Q- Autism has several different areas of the brain that can be affected. Some children have exceptional sight, music or other enhanced abilities. Where does Ali fall on the spectrum of autism?A- That is kind of a tricky question, when Ali was little (under 3) she was much more affected than she is now. She was completely echolalic, meaning that she could imitate anything but had no expressive communication skills at all. She could repeat anything that was said to her, but she could not tell me she was hungry or thirsty or point to what she wanted or needed After intensive in home therapy (four days a week) and then transitioning into a 5-day a week program through our school district she has come a long way. She has always been exceptionally bright, she could read books and recognize all her numbers to 100 at 3 years old. She is gifted in both math and science as well as language and music. She is a very visual learner and is drawn to all things electronic like her iPod and computer, at this point her main deficit is her coping skills, she continues to struggle with that but is learning to deal with it better as she gets older.
Q- I have a daughter in 5th grade as well. Does Ali have a lot of girlfriends? Does she FaceTime, message and text like crazy like my daughter does or do all the typical behaviors of a 5th grader?A- She struggles with friendship at school because she used to have VERY frequent melt downs at school and the kids didn’t understand how or why and would try to help her. What she really needed was to be left alone to calm herself down so she would yell at them to leave her alone. She wants to be a regular preteen girl and all that goes with it but is very rules rigid (part of her autism) and that doesn’t always translate well to other girls her age. She has a few friends at school and several of the wrestling sisters she gets along with very well and texts and FaceTime with them but the difference is that they haven’t known her since she was younger and don’t know her history. So to them Ali is just Ali. Ali is also very self-sufficient and can entertain herself for hours on end. Ali is a very different kid than she was when she was younger.Q- Does Ali pitch in on household chores the same as her siblings?A- Ali actually does more than her siblings, she loves to help in the kitchen and is always willing to clean (when I ask) the room that she shares with her sister. As long as she isn’t busy playing Wii or her iPod!Q- What was it like prior to Ali being diagnosed?A- I knew there was something wrong with her when she was about 16 months old, she had a completely normal first year developmentally, walked just before she turned one and made all the babbling sounds that babies make. Things changed not long after she had her 15 month shots. I am not trying to turn this into a rant about vaccines but she has been harmed twice by them and her doctors agree that she can’t be given any more shots. I had to be very careful where and when I took her out, she would have meltdowns that included uncontrolled screaming fits that couldn’t be stopped. She was never violent, just loud. People did not understand and would think that there was something wrong or she was hurt, or that were hurting her. The only person that we could really leave her with was my mother because my mom spent a lot of time with her and she knew how to handle the meltdowns.Q- What accommodations have you had to make as far as her education goes?When she was first diagnosed we had in-home therapy four days a week. Two days of speech, one developmental and one occupational therapy. When she turned three she transitioned into our school district special ed program for ages 3-5 and she really thrived there, I can not say enough about how wonderful the teachers were who worked with her. I give them all the credit for Ali being where she is today. Since kindergarten Ali has been in a regular education classroom and starting in about third grade, Ali has had no special education services other than her sessions with the school social worker. She takes tests with the class and needs (even though she could) no accommodations. She does have the ability (written into her IEP) to go put her headphones on and listen to music to calm herself down. Music has always been a panacea of sorts and continues to help her self-sooth.Q- Is there anything different about how Ali interacts with her siblings?A-her siblings don’t treat her any different because they really don’t know that there is anything different about her, to them she is the bossy big sister or the annoying little sister.
Q- When you are in public, is there anything that you wish strangers would do differently when interacting with Ali?A- Not really, at this point you really have to either know her very well or know what to look for to see that she is autisticQ- Many times children with autism have sensitivities to certain things, is this the case with Ali?A- Ali has dietary sensitivities to dairy and gluten. It isn’t an allergy per say but a gastrointestinal sensitivity. Ali is emotionally sensitive as well, she has a very deep understanding for things well beyond her years. For example, when she was about 4 she was watching a music video for Whitney Houston, I Will Always Love You (from The Bodyguard). She was crying because she understood what the video was about and it made her very sad. Over the years Ali has learned to recognize when she is overstimulated and her mechanism for dealing with it is to go into her room, put on her headphones and listen to music.Q- Our society seems to be less and less patient in general. Everyone is always in a hurry it seems to do anything. Does this have a negative affect when you’re out with Ali?A- Ali does not like being rushed at all. She is on her own time schedule and we have learned how far we can push her before she gets upset.Q- What is the biggest thing that you wish people in public would understand about Ali?A- How far she has come and everything she has had to go through and continues to struggle with to become the remarkable girl she is today.Q- I see Ali has just performed the National Anthem in front of thousands of people at the IKWF Senior and Novice State Tournament. I saw the video you posted of Ali. When did you first realize she had this gift?A- Ali has always loved music and would walk around the house humming and singing songs that she heard on the radio. When she was in third grade we heard her singing in her bedroom (when she thought no one was listening) and really let her voice go. Sam and I were both floored, we could’t believe the sounds that were coming out of her.Q- Many kids can’t get in front of a classroom of 20-30 people to speak. Ali has performed the National Anthem in large arenas, how did she learn this? Was Ali nervous the first time? Does Ali get nervous every time?A-She really doesn’t get nervous at all, music and singing are very soothing to her. In 2011, at 8 years old she taught herself the national anthem and got up and sang in in front of 1800 people at our home wrestling tournament http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ug9ycU0LGuc and with no formal singing training she just nailed it. My parents also heard her and did some research and found a children’s choir in Glen Ellyn called Anima, they signed her up and took her to her first practice and her love of singing has grown intensely.
Q- Does Ali sing at other events? Does Ali take singing lessons? Does Ali watch American Idol or The Voice?A- Ali has sung the national anthem at several charity events including the Pinning Down Autism tournament. She loves The Voice and in addition to singing for Anima, she will also join the choir at the junior high next year when she starts 6th grade.Q- Does Ali have aspirations of being a performer?A- She does, for career day at school she dressed as a pop star. She wants to go to college and then become a professional singer.Q- Is there anything that Ali can not do because of her autism?A- Competitive athletics are very difficult for her, she did wrestle for awhile and enjoyed it but it keeps coming back to her coping deficits and the fact that she is an extreme perfectionist in everything she does. She hates ask for help with homework and doesn’t like to fail.Q- What advice would you give to a new set of parents of a child that is diagnosed with autism?A- Trust your instincts and don’t wait for anyone to validate your concerns. Be forceful and always remember that you know your child best and are there to advocate for him/her. If your doctor won’t listen, then find one who will. So many people have a hard time admitting that there could be something wrong with their child that by the time the child gets the help they need there has already been so much valuable time wasted. Early diagnosis (before age 2) is key.Q- How has the wrestling community, especially your team members and parents been with Ali?A-Most of our team know her pretty well and they are surprised when I tell them she is autistic. The wrestling community as a whole has embraced her and her talent and made her feel very special. Whenever she sings at a tournament, all the wrestlers and referees come and high-five her, the parents come to the table and tell her how great she sounds. Most people are astounded that she can get up there and do that (autistic or not!). She feels at home in the wrestling community because they have welcomed her as part of the huge wrestling family that is Illinois wrestling.Q- Autism has been growing at an alarming rate. What is your hope for the future for children with autism?A- For there to be a wake up call and realize that there is something that is triggering this in kids, genetic or environmental or both. Whatever it is was not around 50 years ago. I have my suspicions and I advocate for what I believe in but I will keep that private as this is not the forum for it.Q- What can the average person do to help in the fight of autism awareness?A- Make yourself aware of the early signs and don’t be afraid to ask questions. Read up on all sides of the topic and teach your children about autism because the chances are very good there is an autistic child in their class.Q- Is there any reason why a Father and Mother of an autistic child can’t have the same dreams for their child as any other?A- We as a family have been blessed to have taken this journey with Ali and to watch her grow and come through the worst of her disorder. It will always affect her in some way but she was lucky enough to be very mildly on the spectrum. I can’t speak about other parents wishes for their children but I know that our dreams are bigger because of all the obstacles she has had to clear to get where she is today.Thank you Nancy for taking the time to help educate us about your beautiful daughter Ali. We certainly appreciate it and hope that it can help someone either learn a little more about autism or at least make someone more aware about what it’s like living in a family with an autistic child.True Wrestling Insider will be making a donation in Ali’s name to Pinning Down Autism. Best of luck to you, the family and may all of Ali’s goals and dreams be realized.Mike HoustonManager, www.truewrestlinginsider.com