TUPELO • “We see things differently but neither of us is wrong.”
That’s how Caleb Gann sums up his relationship with the clients he works with at the Autism Center of North Mississippi in Tupelo.
The 28-year-old Monroe County resident and soon-to-be father is a registered behavior technician at the Autism Center, where about 100 North Mississippi children and young adults come for weekly one-on-one behavioral and educational therapy.
While Gann readily acknowledges the challenges of working with autistic children, he said he loves the work.
“It’s fun as mess,” he said. “When you get a hug from a kid who used to beat you senseless, it’s the most sincere form of love you’ll ever get outside of your own family.”
Gann earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Mississippi State University in 2016 and began working at the Autism Center in 2019. He said his daily routines vary, but the goal is always the same.
“The main thing we do at the Center is provide hope, support, and empowerment for kids and families at all levels,” he said. “We’re there to say, ‘We’re going to work with this; you don’t have to sit at home and keep your kid isolated. It’s going to be OK. There is hope.’”
Gann said awareness of autism is increasing as the diagnosis becomes more common, but it is still a difficult condition to explain.
“People say, ‘What is autism?’” Gann said. “It’s a tough question to answer, because it’s a spectrum. It’s a group of mental and developmental disabilities that can give you a deficit in communication, social, and behavioral skills that ranges from slight to profound.”
According to the Autism Center’s website, nearly 1 in 59 American children are somewhere on the autism spectrum, and boys are four times more likely than girls to develop autism. While symptoms range from mild to severe, most people on the autism spectrum struggle with social interactions.
Gann said he works with kids all across the autism spectrum.
“There are so many ‘brands’ of autism,” he said. “I see kids who’ve never spoken a word, and I see kids who are perfectly ‘normal’ until they get in a social setting, and then they panic.”
While children with autism often struggle with verbal communication, Gann said his work has taught him to listen on other, and sometimes deeper, levels.
“These kids see things in different and really cool ways,” he said. “I get a whole different level of communication from the kids who don’t speak. Most of us are so cynical, but these guys don’t know how to do a social fake. When they love, they really love. When they dislike something, they really dislike it.”
Gann said he now sees previously hidden points of commonality with his clients.
“Now I feel like I have more in common with the so-called ‘atypical children’ than with the ‘typical’ ones,” he said. “We are all more similar than we’d care to think, and we all have some of those behaviors. We just know how to fake it better because we know the social norms.”
In addition to his work at the Autism Center, Gann and his wife Shelby are volunteer youth leaders at CommonGround Christian Church in Wren. Gann said his work at the Autism Center has deepened his faith and given him a richer sense of connection to others.
“God has shown me a side of creation I’ve never seen,” he said. “This population has a bad rap – the kid who’s acting out in the grocery store or the kid who won’t look you in the eye. But now I see them with a new set of eyes.”
Gann said families with autistic children sometimes feel excluded from church.
“I read somewhere that families with a child on the autism spectrum are one of the most-excluded groups in church,” he said. “It’s usually lack of education, and because people want it to be quiet in church. But some churches are starting to get it.”
Gann said while he enjoys the challenge of engaging with his clients at work, he also finds ways to ‘power down’ when he’s at home.
“It can be pretty exhausting,” he said. “To decompress at home, I go full nerd with video games and tabletop games and comics.”
Gann said the feedback, both from his clients and their parents, makes it all worthwhile.
“What I love is finding that human spark,” he said. “It makes me proud that my crew and I can maybe help with that. And when a parent comes up to you and says, ‘Thank you,’ that makes it all worthwhile.”