Sarah sent me this piece a couple of weeks ago and while she’d told me about it, I hadn’t had a chance to watch the video or read the actual story. By now, perhaps, you’ve already seen it but since I’ve been asked to write an Op-Ed piece for our newspaper about it, I thought I’d share it with everybody just in case some of you hadn’t heard about it or seen it. The story is about Jason McElwain, a 17-year old high school senior from Greece Athena High School near Rochester, New York. J-Mac, as he’s affectionately known, has Autism Spectrum Disorder though he’s been characterized as high-functioning. For the past four years, he’s been the team manager of the high school basketball team, which means he fetches towels and water and tries to improve team morale. On the last game of his high school career, his coach had him suit up for the game — not with an eye toward having him play — but just to give him a chance to see what it was like to be in uniform and feel like a player. Toward the end of the game they found themselves up 16 points and the coach changed his mind and decided to put J-Mac in the game with just four minutes left on the clock. He took his first shot, a long one from the corner of the court — missed. A second shot from beyond the free throw line also missed. The coach was starting question his decision and praying that he’d at least make a basket. But then J-Mac drained a three-pointer. The crowd went wild. Then he hit another three-point shot … and then a third. The crowd and his team grew increasingly excited and both his teammates and the audience were jumping up and down enthusiastically. By the time the game was over he’d scored 20 points (6 3-pointers, tying a team record, incidentally, and 1 2-point basket), including hitting his last three-pointer at the buzzer.
It’s pretty inspiring to watch and as many people have commented, if you didn’t see it with your own eyes, you might believe some Hollywood screenwriter had made the whole thing up. His story’s been compared to the Notre Dame football movie, Rudy, but that’s about a kid who was simply too small to play college football. To my mind, J-Mac had a lot more to overcome than Rudy (not to take anything away from his story) because being autistic is not really comparable to just being too small but having all your other faculties intact. It got autism quite a lot of attention, which is great, and believe or not Hollywood really is interested in filming his story. Apparently, his family has been approached by around twenty-five production companies including Disney, Warner brothers and some independent documentary filmmakers. Here’s the CBS story on J-Mac. But to get the real emotion of the story, watch the video on Google Video.
I searched around today about the story and there hasn’t been much follow up but it will certainly be interesting to see what comes of it. Almost anything that puts autism front and center in the national press is a good thing because we could certainly use more awareness about it despite it being an epidemic. Surprisingly, however, I did stumble upon several forums where scores of comments had been left, most of them unsurprisingly positive. What shocked me a little, however, was that there were any negative comments, but there were. Before you read on here, be sure to watch the video first and see if you can find anything negative to say about this story.
The negative comments seemed to fall into three broad categories. First, some people said “so what” dismissing it as no big deal, though in some cases the language was a bit more blue. Second, some people remarked that he sounded and looked “retarded” with a “high forehead.” And third, several commenters responded to others trying to defend J-Mac by saying things like “don’t pretend you’d want an autistic kid” and “would you want him to be the father of your kids.” Now I know most, if not all, of these comments are the products of ignorance and immaturity. When you see how they’re written and as you watch the dialogs unfold you quickly realize that they are from people who find daytime talk shows too intellectually challenging. I’m not really trying to be flippant here, I really was quite amazed by how low the level of literacy and discourse was. I’m pretty sure many of them were teenagers, but that could just be my own bias.
But I was also struck by how utterly insensitive many of the remarks were and the ignorance that was so amply demonstrated about what autism is and how it affects people. To me that was remarkable. Obviously, we knew little about it before Porter was diagnosed and we, of course, have since educated ourselves about it as only two anal-retentive geeks could, by reading everything we could get our hands on. But even what little we did know was several levels above the discourse I read today. So what I now wonder is whether or not this is due to the media’s utter lack of appropriately covering this epidemic on a regular and continuing basis. Don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful for what coverage there is but you’d think that a disease that afflicts one in every 166 people might command a bit more attention than it currently does. Or is it simply a more pervasive problem that people are becoming more and more happily ignorant. Certainly very little in our society celebrates intelligence: not sports, not entertainment, not television, not politics and not our educational system. Is this the effect that paying so little attention to schooling has produced in the last twenty or thirty years. Or have I simply become the next generation of curmudgeons complaining about these damn kids today? How can one even tell the difference in a culture that so glorifies stupidity?
Now I realize I’ve drifted off point here, that’s one of the dangers of writing extemporaneously and thinking in tangents, which is how my mind tends to operate. Anyway, I’ve got to figure out how to attack this Op-Ed piece since it’s a great opportunity to educate people about autism. I think this story does highlight some very positive aspects of autism that bear reinforcing. For example, it clearly shows that many autistic people can create social bonds and be productive members of society with the proper support and guidance. That this kid had a basketball coach willing to give him a chance speaks volumes about how important those relationships are. That he was able to maintain friendships with jocks also says something important about how people behave when faced with real situations rather than as stereotypes. I certainly have a prejudice against many jocks, and I was prepared to believe that such a group would have a great deal of difficulty accepting an autistic kid without making fun of him. Of course, he’d been in the position of team manager for four years. It would be interesting to know how long it took before they accepted him. High school boys are not exactly known for their compassion and understanding, at least not when I was in high school and I doubt much has changed on that score. Anyway, take a look at the story, please. Watch the video. What do you think about it? What do you think I should emphasize about autism and this story for my op-ed piece?