The Autistic Journalist

Using words to explain the mind

Archive for the ‘sports’ Category

Five years later, McElwain’s magic muscles on

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Jason McElwain. Photo by Neilson Barnard, Getty Images North America

How does a reporter fight a case of insomnia? By doing some research to write another blog post!

In my efforts to unearth the resurgence of popularity for Jason McElwain five years after his memorable 20-point game that propelled him to permanent celebrity status among the autism community (a 2006 CBS Evening News feature was recently shared among Facebook users), I found a story published last week by Craig Fox of the Watertown Daily Times. The 22-year-old McElwain can add public speaking to his credits, as Fox documented his speech to a crowd of 100 at the Jefferson Rehabilitation House’s annual dinner in upstate New York.

Fox recaps McElwain’s life-changing game that recently gained a second coming on Facebook with its users sharing the story once more, but notes a few details from McElwain’s speech the audience may not have known when he first was a media sensation. McElwain attended a special education school at a young age and didn’t understand why until years of inquiry led to his mother telling him about his autism diagnosis. He tried out for Greece Athena High School’s junior varsity team, but didn’t make the cut. His “failure” led to his position as team manager, running drills in practice and doing whatever was asked of him.

Fox also reveals where McElwain picked up his “J-Mac” nickname, given to him by Athena varsity coach Jim Johnson because he had a difficult time pronouncing Jason’s last name. Johnson had no difficulties rewarding his loyal manager, letting him suit up for the final regular season game, where McElwain nailed six three-pointers and a deuce to finish as the game’s high scorer. McElwain told his audience he achieved his dream while shooting hoops in the driveway of making the game’s last shot. However, he considers Athena’s Section 5 title that year to be a bigger moment for that roster.

Fitting with his passion for sports, his favorite moment in the aftermath wasn’t meeting President George W. Bush, Oprah Winfrey, or writing his autobiography. McElwain is most proud of earning a 2006 ESPY Award for Best Sports Moment of the Year and working as an equipment manager for the NFL’s Indianapolis Colts, which included a meeting with quarterback Peyton Manning.

McElwain will start his fourth year as junior varsity coach for Athena, where he also coaches the track and cross country teams. He also is training to run a marathon in Rochester, New York as he continues to live life the way he wanted to when he was little, as “one of the boys.”

Fox illuminates how time can benefit journalists when the concept itself appears ironic with a schedule filled by story deadlines. Once McElwain’s life-changing game video surfaced, every news outlet in any form that covered the story focused almost exclusively on the game. ESPN was first to provide a back-story, producing a feature that ran in the 2006 NBA Finals about how McElwain inspired the country, including a young autistic boy who also took up an interest in basketball (his father played for Richmond and orchestrated an upset of Syracuse in the first round of the NCAA tournament). More stories would surface occasionally following up on the man who stood 5’6″ his senior year and hit 6’0″ before he finished growing, each detailing a new note to readers caught up in the hoopla of McElwain’s public appearances and meetings in the weeks and months following his 20-point game.

While the details don’t provide an insight that would drastically change the story, Fox does reveal just how deep McElwain’s passion for sports. Fox also enlightens us on Jason’s exploits as everyone’s favorite autistic basketball players continues his mission to be “just one of the guys.” As I noted in my last post, the shift from solely dwelling on autism’s deficits to embracing its advantages will play a key role in the future direction of the autism population. McElwain benefits from this not because he can remember what you ate for breakfast on a specific day five years ago, but because his biggest interest is an area shared by many people in many backgrounds. In fact, I have yet to read a story that summarizes just what exactly McElwain’s specific deficits are, making it clear that acts of greatness can transcend a status quo.

Of course, his passion for sports is an assist, because sports itself is considered the great unification among communities. No polarizing politics, no debates about morality or the economy, just a bunch of people relishing in the talent of their athletic idols. Fox won’t be the last reporter to tell McElwain’s story, and every time we see Jason appear, look for another of his endeavors to appear that will reinforce the notion autism shares a similarity with other disabilities: they’re merely obstacles to be cleared.

Call him many things, except the R-word

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Photo by Bev Horne, Chicago Daily Herald

The R-word, standing for retarded, has recently joined campaigns to end other incorrect uses of words demeaning to certain groups. In the same vain as using “gay” to describe something unfair, “retarded” has gone through a desensitizing process in 21st century culture (did we all forget about “suck?”).

Kristy Kennedy of the Chicago Daily Herald profiled one autistic senior determined to bring us back to the days of “sucks” and “stinks.” Jordan Schubert, who will be graduating from Neuqua Valley High School soon, points his breakthrough moment to 6th grade, when he and his sixth-grade basketball won a Special Olympics gold medal. Schubert’s public speaking skills, not a common trait among autistic people, grant him speaking opportunities with groups as part of the Special Olympics campaign to end the “R-word.” For good measure, Schubert and his Special Olympics co-host from a youth summit last summer created a soccer league that teams up disabled and non-disabled students.

Schubert himself isn’t surprised the word “retarded” is in contemporary vocabulary; his peers in middle school used the word to describe anyone or anything stupid. So he decided to speak to younger kids before they start using “retarded.” Schubert’s also changing perceptions of the autism spectrum with his on-camera poise; he produces stand up reports for the high school sports program and submits stories for the Neuqua Valley’s weekly news program. Fluent in Spanish and college-bound, his dream is becoming a foreign language teacher for students with special needs.

Quite a track record for a sports enthusiast. Schubert’s interests and ability to integrate with the mainstream may, ironically, explain why he’ll hear “retarded” being used among his peers. He’s quick to point out the negative connotation behind the word, and his campaign has won support from fellow students. The big issue with demeaning words that are incorrectly used in sentences is simply a numbers problem. Although there are no exact figures for the GLBT or disabled population, by percentage, their representation is small. With low odds of constant communication with either of these groups, using “gay” or “retarded” usually carries the same repercussion experienced when YouTube users post hateful comments on videos: little or none. Schubert’s peers understand what’s going on because they interact with him on a daily basis, likely allowing them to relate on the feelings he and other disabled people experience when the word “retarded” is uttered. Without that exposure, incentive to educate the self drops, increasing the likelihood of grammatically incorrect sentences.

Kennedy quotes many sources to tell the story of one, a technique not often seen in profiles of autistic people (and sometimes other people), but had she not sought insight from his peers, coaches and instructors, there’s a chance she wouldn’t have learned all of Schubert’s pursuits. She seeks to balance the leadership skills Schubert beams to his equals with his personal interests to remind the audience he’s still a teen. For an added touch, Kennedy ties in Schubert’s quest with legislative action in Illinois, where the state Senate passed a bill that would replace “mental retardation” with “intellectual disability” in state statutes. Although such a story will have autism communities beaming themselves, Kennedy’s story communicates that Schubert isn’t all that different, even if he carries a more specific label.

His developmental key is also no different than most others who find professional success: they discover their passions early. Schubert’s was sports, playing baseball, basketball and football. You’ll also find him cheering on NASCAR, the Chicago Bulls and Chicago Bears. As long as there’s a supportive environment, kids will latch on and build off their interests. For parents of autistic children, their strategy should be no different.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see Schubert become a vocalist for the disabled community with the contributions he’s already provided. Journalists can take note of this story as well, as Kennedy points out autism, as with other disabilities, doesn’t necessarily define character or ability.

ESPN, the worldwide leader in autism?

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50 Tyson photo courtesy of Hudson Records

If you’ve never heard of ESPN before, congratulations on escaping your cave. The network that launched SportsCenter and grew from its small Bristol, Conn. roots in 1979 to a cultural phenomenon can now claim they covered the first publicly-known autistic rapper: Minnesota native 50 Tyson.

You might say “What does 50 Tyson have to do with sports?” Although 50 Tyson, whose real name is Antonio Henderson-Davis, did play high school football for Minneapolis Edison High School, ESPN usually sticks with professional and NCAA Division I sports. That’s where Antonio’s record label comes in; his owner is former NBA player Troy Hudson, whose most productive years were with the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Freelancer Kalani Simpson contributed a profile for ESPN’s page 2, a site for sports figures in the news but not necessarily for athletics. Because the article is geared toward a national audience, Simpson gives us a quick glance at how 50 Tyson landed a record deal, an accomplishment not all musicians get early in their lifetime (Antonio turned 18 recently). Hudson watched YouTube videos posted by Henderson-Davis when the rapper sneaked his sister’s camera and spit off a few freestyle rhymes in his bathroom. Now, Henderson-Davis has released his first album to coincide with Autism Awareness Month, aptly titled “50 Tyson Presents the Rhythm of Autism Vol. 1.” Simpson, who writes a weekly column for FoxSports.com, would have posted this story sooner, but his interview with Hudson and Henderson-Davis was delayed as both sought out a tuxedo for Henderson-Davis’ school prom.

Although concern lingers with how an autistic music artist will handle show business, Hudson believes the biggest name on his label will change the world, with Hudson still learning about what he calls his most important project he’s ever done. 50 Tyson has no trouble embracing his autistic roots; he headlined a concert during the Autism Society of Minnesota’s annual fundraising event.

In terms of young autistic celebrities, 50 Tyson has the most staying power. Jason McElwain flooded the airwaves five years ago with his famous 20-point performance in his first and only high school basketball game, but attention has faded. The owner and writer of this blog has morphed into an adult but is still looking for a big break in a profession with less glamor than music, although no less fulfilling. Meanwhile, 50 Tyson has grown to be a darling of the locals for the same reason McElwain and this writer developed followings of our own, regardless of the magnitude, we found a talent of some sort and that trait has captured the hearts of a public still investigating autism itself. 50 Tyson’s mainstream exposure has permeated for some time now, gaining fans who are notable names themselves and last fall’s Star Tribune profile piece that introduced the Twin Cities rapping sensation to his hometown media market. Even one of my friends paid a visit to get a photo with him following a recent Timberwolves game we attended. We have yet to hear of any fallout with 50 Tyson and his label, or with anyone else, which is a positive sign in the fast-paced business of music.

As I mentioned in my first discussion of 50 Tyson’s mainstream coverage, the community still holds genuine curiosity about his activity because he’s in a position no known autistic person has assumed before. It’s an interest that may not fade for years as 50 Tyson grows in age, wisdom, ability and possibly name recognition. Even though ESPN placed Simpson’s story on Page 2, the network owned by Disney isn’t shy to promote stories of this nature when there’s a sports tie-in, as Troy Hudson has with his NBA career.

Speaking of the story, Simpson’s may sound redundant if you’ve followed 50 Tyson to this point, but when you’re writing for a national audience about a personality who isn’t too famous outside of Minnesota, you have to consider the number of first-time readers when writing the story. Simpson also had to factor an audience whose source of news doesn’t explore autism as deeply as general news outlets. Considering those elements, Simpson was effective at briefly explaining Antonio’s differences compared to his peers because he also included a storyline to keep Antonio human. For parents who worry about their children ever going to a prom, seeing a rapper getting ready for one is a welcome line of reading.

With Antonio approaching high school graduation, watching his career evolution will reveal more to an inquiring public on how autism can adapt to the entertainment industry. You can follow 50 Tyson’s career path as well by visiting his website

Par for the autism course

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In essentially a fluff piece from WCCO’s Mark Rosen (fluff in journalism is referred to stories included that are meant to fill time but not necessarily hard-hitting), a 13-year-old autistic teen is featured for his love of golf. Charlie Bristow took a golf class last year and immediately was hooked. Charlie took lessons from an Applewood Hills golf pro this year and Charlie and his father hit the links once a week during golf season.

In fact, the story’s so fluffy, we don’t really know what Charlie’s issues were before he started taking up golf. The only clue to life before birdies came from his father, who said Charlie finally found something he knows he can do well. The only point viewers could really take is how finding an activity that an autistic person excels at could be key to solving some issues autistic children often face, although the idea of finding ways to keep kids engaged and entertained has been fed to us by mainstream media outlets for many years.

Does that make Rosen’s story a waste of time? The answer isn’t clear-cut. The story first appeared on Rosen’s Sports Sunday, Mark’s Sunday night sports show. Sports segments carry about a quarter of the total viewing audience for a news broadcast, but those who truly dig sports will hang around. While the Vikings will always carry the Twin Cities sports headline in games they play, Rosen was left with a rut. The Wolves are still in preseason mode and already written off, the Twins won’t make news again until spring training as they made another first-round exit, and the Wild are just starting their season, but with low expectations from the locals. While the firing of University of Minnesota football head coach Tim Brewster also made news, there was little to discuss because the reason was very clear. No better time to roll out stories like this, even if the reporting is very basic.

For parents with autistic children, the strategy revealed by this story is identical to the game plan for any child: search high and low for a productive activity, and obstacles will find themselves evaporating.

Written by TheSportsBrain

October 18, 2010 at 11:18 pm