J-Mac's meaningful message for autism

Updated: June 14, 2006, 11:55 AM ET
By Wayne Drehs | ESPN.com

It took four minutes. Four measly minutes for high school senior Jason McElwain to morph from a relatively unknown student manager of the Greece Athena basketball team into a nationwide inspiration.

In those 240 seconds, the 5-foot-6 kid with autism, in his first-ever appearance in a high school game, scored 20 points and tied a school record with six 3-pointers.

The grainy video clip of his jaw-dropping accomplishment -- and the pandemonium that ensued in the gym -- has made its way from Greece Athena in Rochester, N.Y., to "Good Morning America," "SportsCenter" and CNN. And as much as it tugs at the emotions of sports fans all across the country, its most significant impact might be felt within the autism community, where doctors, parents and educators are still buzzing about what this all could mean for the treatment of this disease.

"A lot of us feel like this is our gift to have this happen and to have it receive so much nationwide publicity," said Dr. Catherine Lord, a professor of psychiatry and the director for the University of Michigan's Autism and Communications Disorders Center. "There are thousands of Jasons out there, carrying the net for the soccer team, keeping statistics for the baseball team, playing the drum for the school band. This serves as a reminder to give these kids a chance whenever possible."

The timing perhaps couldn't have been better. Based on statistics from the U.S. Department of Education, autism, a disease that affects an individual's ability to relate socially to others, is growing at a rate of 10 to 17 percent a year, making it the fastest-growing disability in the country. The disease cuts across all racial, ethnic, social and economic lines, yet it affects boys four times more often than girls.

When most people think of autism, their minds immediately race to Raymond Babbitt, Dustin Hoffman's character in the film "Rain Man." But the disease is far more complex than that, imposing wide-ranging effects on its subjects. Some are left speechless or entirely unable to communicate, while others face miniature hurdles each day that often aren't readily visible to those on the outside.

There is no known cure.

"There are thousands of families across the country, getting a diagnosis of autism for their 3-year-old; they took at Jason and have tears in their eyes," said Dr. Susan Hyman, an associate professor for pediatrics at the University of Rochester's Strong Center for Developmental Disabilities. "Because the image they have in their minds isn't of some strapping young teenager making baskets from half court.

"The hope and the promise this provides -- it's priceless."

But hope is only the beginning. For many in the autism community, McElwain's story provides a much-needed template for the right way to integrate a special-needs child into the mainstream community.

When Lee Grossman, president of the Autism Society of America, first saw the clip of McElwain's magical night, he was blown away -- not by the frequency of 3-pointers swishing through the net, but by the frenzied students who jumped up and down and waved their arms back and forth and held up pictures of McElwain. Before he had even checked into the game.

"For me, that was enough right there," said Grossman, whose son, Vance, has autism. "It was absolutely thrilling. That's what we as advocates strive so much for -- to have kids included so they can live a relatively normal life. By providing them with those experiences, they can excel at a much greater level than if they were isolated."

That's one of the reasons the buzz about McElwain's success spread so quickly through the autism community. Even before the story went national, Grossman said the inbox of his e-mail account filled up. Dr. Lord also received "countless" e-mails. Autism Listservs, message boards, hotlines … they've all been flooded with McElwain questions. At Greece Athena, secretaries have been taking calls from parents of autistic children, seeking advice.

"The lesson that people need to get from this is why this worked," Hyman said. "You're going to have people looking at the school, the team, the kids, the family. There are a lot of positive interactions there that will hopefully point towards ways to get a similar end result."

The impact could be potentially groundbreaking. Dr. Lord, who in 2001 chaired a National Research Council committee on educational interventions for children with autism, has already begun pointing to McElwain as an example to the families of her patients.

"One of the things we're always negotiating is how to get autistic kids around other kids in a situation that's positive," Lord said. "[Jason's story] is just such a good example of persistence paying off. It produces motivation for the parents who argue it's too hard, they don't want to put their child through this.

"We can tell them, 'Look, there is a place where this did work. Not just because he made great baskets, but because the team and the school accepted him.'"

Before McElwain's sharpshooting, high-profile role models for children with autism were few and far between. Sure, there is the occasional child who grows up to earn his Ph.D. and have a family or become a top-selling artist, but there aren't many whom those inside the autism community can relate to.

McElwain's story -- and the flood of publicity that followed it -- has changed that. Grossman is hopeful that the McElwain experience will inspire schools across the country to increase the number of no-cut sports programs that are offered. Hyman agrees that those 240 seconds can greatly increase the opportunities for others.

"This is about looking at what sports do for kids in America," she said. "You see kids with special needs on the sidelines, not involved, while their typically developing peers are playing. I think the good to come of this is that people will look at the novel ways all members of a community can participate.

"It's wonderful that he got all those points. But what's most wonderful is the circumstances around it. It's bigger than all those baskets."

Wayne Drehs is a staff writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at wayne.drehs@espn3.com.