The Autistic Journalist

Using words to explain the mind

Autistic Origins: J-Mac

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Photo from Fanhouse. McElwain is third from left.

Since we’re on the subject of origins, AOL’s FanHouse returned to the spark that electrocuted stereotypical conventions of autism going back to Rain Man. Jason McElwain, who scored 20 points in Greece-Athena High School’s final home game of the 2005-06 season after spending the year as a student manager (the now 6′ McElwain was considered too short to play with his 5’6″ frame in 2006), has lived a rather quiet life since that game transformed him from an average kid to inspiring celebrity. McElwain now spends his time as a volunteer assistant coach for Athena’s JV basketball team as he pursues his dream of coaching high school basketball.

The article is a profile story to the T updating us on what McElwain is doing since his 20-point game four years ago. He holds a part-time job at Wegman’s, a grocery store chain, and was invited by Colts quarterback Peyton Manning to attend the team’s preseason training camp. McElwain has participated every year for the past four seasons, and McElwain returns the favor by drafting Manning and kicker Adam Vinatieri in McElwain’s fantasy league. Throughout the story, the writer includes anecdotes of McElwain’s behavior that will strike a chord in autism world (including his desire to get to practice while the writer glances over pictures of McElwain with celebrities and a binder from a Gatorade commercial shoot).

I learned a lot reading this since the hoopla surrounding McElwain has long faded. The most notable segment was the reporter asking McElwain’s father if Jason would be any different had he never stepped on the court four years ago. His father doesn’t believe there would be much of a difference while Jason regrets a coaching decision he made during a JV team scrimmage. My post on autism and the job market highlighted the passion autistics often have for their interests, disregarding almost everything else to maintain their focus. McElwain is no exception, although it’s difficult to say how far his coaching career could go should his passion stay there. Based on the article, there are still traits that could interfere with his interactions, especially toward people unfamiliar with his story (good luck finding them in these parts).

This won’t be a game-changer for autism and media coverage, but for you journalists in training, it’s not uncommon for reporters to follow-up on big stories. If the subject is controversial or inspirational enough, make a note, because chances are you’ll be assigned to check those stories after the initial wave. Profile stories give viewers the glimpse they often seek after hearing a story like McElwain’s, and this one communicates the message that Jason’s visible label fails to dissuade him from executing his game plan. We’re always labeled, but how we interpret them determines our fate more than labels do.

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