- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 2, 2008

The big “feel-good” stories of life and sports usually find their natural home in film or TV. Too often, books that depict profound adversity thwarted by uncommon determination fall under the weight of prose that weeps, wobbles and ultimately surrenders to sentiment. Even when rescued by their splashier media sisters, these books are, inevitably, soon forgotten.

But despite the media exposure Jason McElwain’s story has already received (“Oprah,” “The Today Show,” “Larry King Live”) and that which it will receive in the not-too-distant future (Jason’s story has been optioned by Columbia pictures to be developed by Laura Ziskin, the producer of the “Spider-Man” series), his book, “The Game of My Life,” is an impressive achievement in its own right, and it is not likely to be forgotten anytime soon.

The moment that thrust teenager Jason “J-Mac” McElwain into the spotlight came on a high school basketball court in Rochester, N.Y. on Feb. 15, 2006. Then, at the last home game being played by Greece Athena, with four minutes left to play, Jason scored 20 points, including a school record of six three-pointers.

For any young athlete, such a performance would have brought friends and family to their feet. But for Jason, who is autistic, his moves on the court that night propelled everyone who witnessed it into the stratosphere. Tears flowed and cheers of “J-Mac!,” “J-Mac!” thundered across the court. In his preface, Daniel Paisner, with whom Jason wrote this book, sums up the night this way:

“That he was there at all, in uniform, was remarkable, considering that until he was three years old Jason McElwain refused to eat unless he was forced to do so. He didn’t speak until he was five. He spent most of his early childhood sitting beneath his parents’ dining room table banging together two packs of Trident Bubble Gum, or alone in the corner of his special-needs classroom, disconnected from the other children.

“As a child, he was unable to maintain eye contact or respond to the most basic external stimuli. His body went rigid at the slightest touch. He often appeared to stare blankly across the room. His parents worried that they would never reach him, that Jason would remain closed off from the simple social interactions that moved the rest of the world.”

Written as memoir of growing up autistic, Jason’s book is told in Jason’s own words, with his parents, brother and coaches weighing in at intervals. Mr. Paisner also weighs in to put things in context and add important information about autism. The transitions are seamless and the book flows smoothly toward its much-anticipated climax — Jason’s star turn on the basketball court.

But it is Jason’s own words we remember most, and Mr. Paisner is careful to remind readers that these are, in fact, Jason’s own words. He writes that the story is “told as much as possible by Jason McElwain himself. That qualifier, as much as possible, is key. To some, the notion of an autistic teenager narrating his own story might seem like a literary conceit, but there is nothing artificial about Jason’s ability to share his experiences.”

According to a 2004 study issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, autism occurs in every 166 births — once in every 100 male births — and currently affects as many as 1.5. million Americans.

As Mr. Paisner writes, “Alarmingly that number is growing, at a rate of 10 to 17 percent each year, making autism the fastest-growing disability in the country. The Autism Society of America estimates that some form of autism could reach 4 million Americans in the next decade. One popular theory to explain the surge is a growing awareness of autism, which has led to an increase of the number of diagnoses and in the number of families seeking treatment.”

He notes that “Autistic children can … exhibit any of several of the following behaviors: insistence on sameness and resistance to change; repeating words or phrases in place of responsive communication, tantrums, not wanting to touch or be touched; obsessive attachment to objects or routines; uneven gross and fine motor skills; no real fears of danger; oversensitivity or undersensitivity to pain or loud noises; and difficulty interacting with others.”

Of special note and to put Jason’s achievement in perspective, “Jason exhibited all of these behaviors, at one time or another.”

In this book the run-up to the game and particularly the last four minutes of it are told with the suspense and care of a great adventure story. Jason is forthright and possessed of an impressive capacity for introspection: “I’m used to people looking at me like I’m different. It doesn’t bother me. I don’t even notice it. When they ask me what it’s like to be autistic, I don’t know how to answer. It’s just how I am.”

To explain the way in which he came to write this book he notes, “For this book, the way I’m doing it is I’m speaking my thoughts into a tape recorder and then when I get out everything I want to say, I read it back on paper and see how it is.”

Jason also shares details of how he and his brother from whom he learned so much often fought, his sadness that his brother wasn’t able to be at his big game, how glad he was to be able to take gym classes with non-special-ed kids, and how much he enjoyed the company of his special-ed friends.

Jason explains how certain routines were especially important to him. An earlier high school triumph led to ritual: “I had to have the same pregame meal after I hit those three free throws in the junior varsity game I played my sophomore year: ravioli, green beans, chicken noodle soup, and a cup of milk. My mom had to buy a lot of that stuff during the basketball season, because there were a lot of games.”

And he is forthcoming about how hard he had to work toward his goal to earn a spot on the basketball team. “I kept trying out for the school team every year. Eighth grade, for the middle school team. Ninth grade, for the freshman team. And I kept getting cut. I tried to be positive about it. My dad and my brother helped me with this … I kept going to Coach Johnson’s camps and clinics, and I started to know a lot of the coaches. I was always hanging around the gym after school, or on school vacations. In basketball, they have a word for a kid like that who always hangs around the gym. They call him a gym rat, so I guess that’s what you could have called me.”

But along the way, we hear him talk about how he “stayed focused” and how he encouraged the team to do the same. Because, technically, he was not on the varsity team, his role for most of that year was team manager. He always wore a white shirt and black tie and from the sidelines encouraged the team. Until, as the coach promised, at the end of the season he was given a chance to play.

His take on what happened when he was allowed to play for just under six minutes is riveting. Describing what happened once he got going he writes, “I was hot as a pistol.”

While it is now possible to see a bit of that last game on You Tube, and while it will surface once more when the film of Jason’s story is made, those of us who are fortunate enough to have read this book will remember some quieter, poignant moments in Jason’s life. Like the time Jason’s mother cupped his chin in her hands to calm him and and he spoke his first words.

Jason works at a bakery now, a job which he enjoys. He gives speeches and has learned how to deal with the media. His book is one of incomparable power and hope.

Carol Herman is Book Editor at The Washington Times.

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