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When My Grandson Asked Why His Uncle Is Different

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How do I explain to Diego, my 7-year-old grandson, that Alberto, his 34-year-old uncle, has an intellectual disability? Is it necessary or should I wait for Diego to mature and “get it” on his own?

These were the questions I asked myself a few weeks ago.

Until very recently, we saw our daughter and grandkids sporadically. Birthdays (maybe) and Christmas (always). Living overseas complicated traveling and our visits were always on joyful occasions.

All this changed last May, when we moved to their hometown to seek medical attention for my husband, whose cancer had come back.

Diego, now 7 years old, started spending more time with us, having sleepovers on weekends and coming over several times a week. After a few weeks of this routine, I noticed Alberto started acting out when Diego came over, snapping at him and complaining about having to pick up toys or having to share his TV.

I felt for Alberto. After so many years being the center of attention in our home, he had to fall back and assume a supporting role in the family dynamics. At the same time, Diego started answering back to Alberto, who would invariably retort with “I am the adult.”

The situation escalated to the point that I subtly discouraged Diego’s sleepovers on Fridays. That’s when I started considering whether to speak to Diego about Alberto’s diagnosis.

I have to admit I felt bad about “outing” Alberto to his nephew. Preserving Alberto’s self-esteem has been a constant concern in our home. How would Diego take it? I thought. Would he somehow lose respect for his uncle? Would he say something unkind in a heated moment?

I decided to take a the risk and speak to him. Diego is a smart, sweet boy and both his parents have taught him to be loving and thoughtful to his large extended family.

On one of those days when he was spending the afternoon with us and he and Alberto had butted heads over something insignificant, he cautiously asked me “Abuela, why does Alberto act so funny?”

Here is the perfect teachable moment, I thought.

I asked Diego what he meant by “acting funny.” He mentioned Alberto’s loudness, his constant hugging (too tight!), and the fact that he couldn’t figure out 50 was bigger than 5.

I explained that Alberto has an intellectual disability, which means he is “slower” at many academic tasks. Reading and writing are difficult for him. His math skills are very poor. I explained, “Diego, you are much quicker than Alberto. Lucky he has you to help him make change at the store.”

I emphasized that he did not have to worry about anything similar happening to him since Alberto experienced a lack of oxygen to the brain at the time he was born. Then I went on to stress the recent changes in Alberto’s life (gaining empathy for him) and how much it meant for us to be near his family while making the crossover to the United States.

At the end of this long and heartfelt conversation, Diego finally “got it” and since then, he has been much more patient with Alberto, acting as his translator when necessary, helping him grasp basic math concepts and letting him hug him tightly. I have no doubt that having Alberto in Diego’s life will make him a more empathetic and thoughtful adult. And Alberto is lucky to have Diego in his life; he’s already an important natural support.

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