The Autistic Journalist

Using words to explain the mind

Posts Tagged ‘public speaking

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.