Asperger’s boy nears his ‘Jeopardy!’ dream

GREELEY, Colo. — Alex Trebek, host of the game show “Jeopardy!,” might as well come to Sunday dinner at the Harris home. Why not? He sits at the head of the table five other days of the week.

Well, not really, but it’s a guarantee that homework is done and the dinner plates have been cleared from the table by 5:57 p.m. Monday-Friday, because if 11-year-old Gabriel Harris has his way, he will get a live shot at the 29-year-old game show.

And he needs all the practice he can get.

For the fifth-grader at Shawsheen Elementary School to make it to the show, his parents had to out how to come up with the money needed to get to the “invitation only” round of testing. After a story about Gabriel appeared in the Greeley Tribune, readers raised enough cash and donated airline miles and lodging so the entire family could make the trip.

“I am overwhelmed,” said Gabriel’s mother, Jessica Harris. “I think I am still in shock.”

Gabriel has his own special reason for wanting to land a spot on a 10- to 12-year-old segment of 2013 Kids Week. He wants to prove to others that kids with autism spectrum disorders are no different than their peers. For Gabriel’s parents, it’s about letting him chase a dream, because much of his life is different than his peers.

Gabriel was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome just two years ago. Asperger’s is diagnosed mostly in males and involves poor social interactions, obsessions, odd speech patterns, few facial expressions and other peculiar mannerisms. Most are diagnosed between 3 and 9 years old.

Gabriel can be hard to calm down. He does have meltdowns. He does have outbursts. He does say rude things. And for all those reasons, he doesn’t get to do all the other things kids his age do, said Jessica Harris.

“He has social anxiety,” Jessica said. “He has a hard time controlling his emotions, and that causes issues in his life. People call him rude, but he’s really not. He’s just honest and doesn’t know how not to say things sometimes.”

There is no question about Gabriel’s intellect, however. He reads at a high school level, and perhaps more importantly, knows his Jeopardy!

The son of Aeolus. He betrayed the secrets of the gods and was punished by Hades.

“Who is Sisyphus?” Gabriel shouts out before the contestants even push their buttons.

In Colombia, it is known as “El precio es correcto.”

“What is, ‘The Price is Right?”’ He correctly answers again.

He died in his sleep on Jan. 6, 1919.

“Who is Teddy Roosevelt?” Gabriel says ever so calmly, causing his parents to laugh at the ridiculous amount of knowledge that keeps him glued to the TV every night for the game show.

“I read a lot of books,” he says when asked how he knows all these answers. “I read mostly non-fiction. I like non-fiction.”

In fact, Gabriel reads so much that he and another student paired up for the battle of the books last year at Monfort Elementary School and took second place, beating out dozens of other six-man teams.

Gabriel first started watching Jeopardy! in 2008 and hasn’t missed a show since. In October, when they announced Kids Week online testing for 10- to 12-year-olds, he was at the computer almost instantly to take the test.

“I have always wanted to be on the show,” he said during a commercial — the only time he will talk during the 30-minute show. “I get into books. Do you know who the Baby Ruth candy bar was named after? Grover Cleveland’s daughter Ruth. Most people think it was Babe Ruth, but it wasn’t.”

Jessica said Gabriel has always been obsessed with letters and words. When he was a toddler, his parents would have to hide the magnetized, plastic letters that he played with on the refrigerator to get him to go to bed. By kindergarten, he was reading at a fifth-grade level.

Despite changing schools in mid-year this year for what the family calls a needed change, Gabriel gives all the credit to his fourth grade teacher at Monfort, Pam Kola.

“She really got him,” Jessica said. “She would carve out special times for him to read because she knew how much he loved it. She took his thirst for knowledge and fed it.”

Gabriel has passed the first round of testing. Only those that pass the test are invited for an in-person test, and the turn-around time is quick, usually — two to six weeks from the time the contestant takes the first test.

Gabriel took the online test Oct. 30 and is scheduled to interview on Dec. 15 in Culver City, Calif., which is a suburb of Los Angeles. There, he will take another 50-question test and if he passes that, will go through a mock game show to see how he does in a “live taping-like” environment.

No one is worried about meltdowns on stage. Gabriel said he knows there will be a lot of strangers and he has to take the test without his parents in the room, but they have talked a lot about what to expect and how to act, and that he knows he’ll be OK.

“I don’t worry about it,” Gabriel said. “I will be OK. I know my mom will be outside.”

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