Monday, December 28, 2009

Ravioli. Green Beans. Chicken Noodle Soup. Cup of Milk.

If you are a fan of high school or college basketball you know that there is often a familiar character in the story of any season: The “fan favorite” who comes off the bench late in the game when the home team is way ahead. This character rarely gets any playing time, but when he does, the crowd erupts into an emotional fervor that is almost religious in nature. The Game of My Life by Jason “J-Mac” McElwain is the uplifting story of just such a character with a twist: “J-Mac” is severely autistic.

Even the fan favorite with full cognitive function never contributes more to the game than exciting the crowd, so it should be a foregone conclusion that “J-Mac”, a basketball-loving special needs student who was allowed to suit up on the last game of the season due to a special arrangement between coaches, would probably just make a fool of himself.

Instead, he surprised the world by scoring 20 points that night, an act that would eventually earn him an ESPY award, catch the attention of NBA legend Earvin “Magic” Johnson, and lead to book and film production deals.

It would also change the way the world viewed Autism.

It is easy to become jaded by all of the “awareness” that is out there, up to and including autism. But in my mind it was just one more dollar to add to your grocery bill or your paycheck or whatever, like breast cancer or Parkinson’s research. Even in my own life, autism has been in the headlines of an article never read. I had answered questions about thimerosal content in drugs at work, seen TV shows with autistic characters, and have known people who work directly with autistic children. But until reading this book I was completely unaware of how much this disorder has penetrated our society.

So The Game of My Life serves two purposes: to inspire and to educate. And on both fronts it succeeds. Jason McElwain, after all, wrote the book himself (for the most part), a tremendous feat in and of itself for an autistic person. Over 1.5 million Americans suffer from this disorder in various degrees. Most people who have it, though not mentally retarded, are cut off from the outside world in a crazy diagnosed form of introversion. Autism is incurable.

Of course, none of this stopped “J-Mac”, whose spirit wanted desperately to fit in and be a part of things. Most professionals will not recommend team sports as therapy for autism, but basketball wound up being the best therapy he could have. It drew him out of his shell and gave him purpose. Even though he was cut from the team every time he tried out, his persistence led to a job as the team manager, a job that offered no playing time, but one he took very seriously none-the-less.

As a sophomore, J-Mac was also allowed to play on the last game of the season as the minutes wound down. He played with all of his heart and eventually sank three free throws. The ref later admitted that he blew the whistle that would send “J-Mac” to the line intentionally. I suspect that few believed that this autistic boy could even manage to hit a few unguarded shots from the foul line. But he surprised a lot of people that day.

Two years later he would do it again, proving once and for all that you shouldn’t feel sorry for the disadvantaged, when he scored 20 points in four minutes in his second and final appearance in uniform.

J-Mac is a champion not because he is disabled, but because he found ways to overcome his disability. His story is worth reading because it provides hope to the millions of families who have been challenged with raising an autistic child. But beyond that, J-Mac is an inspiration to everyone, even those of us who are not disabled, because we all have challenges in life that make things difficult and tempt us to give up. If he can overcome autism, just think what you might be able to accomplish!

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