Jason "J-Mac" McElwain: Autism, Basketball and Life Without Limits

Brit Milazzo@@M11azzoCorrespondent IFebruary 8, 2009

Autism: n. A developmental disorder characterized by severe deficits in social interaction, by a limited range of activities and interests, and often by the presence of repetitive behaviors.

Jason “J-Mac” McElwain defies what it means to be autistic.

Jason McElwain’s cell phone rings. “Hey Brit. Long time, no see,” he says in his super low voice. His tone sounds a little angry about something.

“Hey Jay,” I say back. “What are you up to?”

“Walking to work, God damn work…like usual.”

I laugh. “Wegmans or the Y?” I ask.

“Wegs. Today was supposed to be my day off, but they called me in anyways, like they don’t think I have a life or something.”

“Bummer,” I reply back.

McElwain, also known as “J-Mac,” is 20-years-old; he’s tall, about 6’1”; has blond hair and blue eyes, and "is the best basketball player to come out of Rochester since Johnny Wallace in 1993,” says Thad Brown, sports broadcaster for CBS affiliate, WROC-TV 8, in Rochester, N.Y.

McElwain is also autistic.

A severe form of the disorder grabbed McElwain’s life at birth, though was not diagnosed until age 3.

According to WebMD, the severity of symptoms vary greatly between individuals and are usually noticed within the child’s first three years. Although autism is present at birth, signs of the disorder can be difficult to identify or diagnose during infancy. Parents often become concerned when their toddler does not like to be held; does not seem interested in playing certain games, such as peek-a-boo; and does not begin to talk.

“Jason didn’t start to talk till he was five,” says Debbie McElwain, Jason’s mother. “We knew something was wrong years before that, though.”

According to WebMD, parents may be confused about their child's hearing abilities. It often seems that a child with autism does not hear, yet at other times, he or she may appear to hear a distant background noise, such as the whistle of a train.

At first, doctors assumed McElwain was slightly deaf, because he failed to respond to some sounds, but then found he had learning and social disabilities and diagnosed McElwain with autism.

Some medical researchers say half of individuals with autism do not develop enough natural speech to meet their daily communication needs starting at a young age. But, according to research done at the Galisano Children's Hospital, a branch of Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester and partnered with the University of Rochester Medical Centre, about one third of people with autism usually form the ability to speak and interact with others later in their lives.

McElwain’s symptoms have been getting better every year since he was born.

McElwain’s older brother, Josh, explains how McElwain never spoke when he was younger and now is giving speeches about autism around the country. “His motor skills have improved drastically and he’s gaining more knowledge in general,” Josh says.

Josh is a good role model and mentor for his little brother.

“Jason’s a good kid. He’s fun and he’s smart. He just has a 14-year-old brain trapped in a 20-year-old body,” Josh says. “He knows a lot, but he is still very immature, so I like to be a good role model for him and put him in his place when he’s being a little immature. I know slowly, but surely, he learns and each year I see his autism becoming less severe than the previous year.”

A genetic mutation

Having autism, however, is not a disability for McElwain. “I see it as a genetic mutation. Some people have green eyes, 'cause of a genetic mutation when they were born. I have autism,” McElwain says. Then he explains how and where he learned that having green eyes was a genetic mutation.

“So, I didn’t talk when I was little and now I have a learning problem,” he admits. “So, what? That doesn’t keep me from going to school and things.”

McElwain was always a grade or two or three behind his year, mentally, and although, he couldn’t find strong success with his nose stuck in a textbook, McElwain looked to playing sports, instead—mainly basketball.

“I’d shoot baskets to let off steam if my mom was getting mad at me for doing something wrong, again or other stuff,” McElwain says.

McElwain says he was the odd kid in town. “… Not just, ‘cause I was autistic, but ‘cause I wasn’t one of the kids to play hockey or lacrosse,” McElwain says. “I like basketball, ‘cause it’s the different sport like I am different next to everyone else.”

For four years in high school, McElwain tried out for the basketball team, but constantly got cut. “I knew I was an awesome player, but I wasn’t sure if anyone else thought that, and I didn’t know how I’d be on the court as a team with the rest of the guys,” McElwain says as he continues to elaborate how good he really is at basketball.

“I could sink ‘em from the three-point line, from half-court, with one hand and one hand behind my back… with my eyes closed. So, instead of giving me a jersey, Coach Johnson made me team manager. I took stats, helped with drills, and got the guys ready to go before game time.”

Life-changing experiences

Feb. 15, 2006, was the day that McElwain’s life changed forever.

McElwain was a senior at Athena High School and it was senior game day for the Trojans men’s basketball team. One win against cross-town rival, Spencerport, a suburb of Rochester, would bring the mighty Trojans a section-V title. Section-V was the athletic conference for the eastern half of western New York State. Coach Jim Johnson officially put McElwain’s name on the roster that day.

With a heavy Trojans lead in the fourth quarter, McElwain, wearing No. 52, ran the court the last four minutes of the basketball game—the only minutes he would ever see in an Athena jersey. McElwain scored 20-points in less than four minutes to help secure a Trojans, 79-43, victory.

“I missed my first shot, ‘cause I was nervous, but then sank ‘em like no one’s business,” McElwain says. McElwain made six, three-point shots from close to half-court and a two-pointer from just inside the three-point line. The sellout crowd at the Athena gymnasium went wild chanting, “J-Mac, J-Mac, J-Mac…”

McElwain’s story was heard around the country.

He went on Oprah, Larry King Live, the Today Show, Good Morning America, Cold Pizza on ESPN and a variety of other different talk shows. President George W. Bush came to Rochester, while professional athletes like Peyton Manning and Magic Johnson came to see the autistic boy who made a miracle happen.

“Peyton was my favorite person to see before I met Jessica Simpson at the ESPY Awards,” McElwain says before explaining how rude Oprah was to him and Josh. “Oh, and meeting the President was cool, too. He kissed my mom right on the lips on National T.V.” He couldn’t stop laughing about that situation. “She definitely didn’t expect that,” he says.

In the summer of 2006, McElwain, accompanied by this parents, Dave and Debbie; older brother, Josh and the 2005-2006 Athena men’s basketball team, flew to Los Angeles for the ESPY Awards to see McElwain win the Best Moment in Sports, ESPY Award. “That was the best day of my life,” McElwain says. “I got to meet my idols and I even got a hug from Jessica Simpson.”

History is still in the making

Two years later, on Feb. 5, 2008, a book titled, The Game of my Life, by Daniel Paisner, was released about McElwain and the game that changed his life forever.

In addition to all this, 25 film companies, including The Walt Disney Company and Warner Bros., had plans to make a movie based on McElwain’s life and his basketball game, but in April 2008, Columbia Pictures bought the rights to make the movie.

Two-time Academy Award-winning screenwriter Alvin Sargent is writing the script.

“I can thank Coach Johnson for giving me the opportunity to show everyone what I was really made of,” McElwain says. “If anyone, besides my family, I’d have to thank the neighborhood kids and families I grew up with, ‘cause they were my real support since I was born and I thanked them in my ESPY Award speech.”

McElwain talks…a lot

McElwain occasionally attends conferences and speaks on behalf of autism awareness events. McElwain was just recently in Tulsa, Okla., speaking about dreams coming true.

“I also go to Spokane [Wash.] once or twice a year,” McElwain says. “There they have a lot of autism events for the Autism Society of Spokane and an autism center and they are usually at Gonzaga [University], too, when I talk to college students. It’s cool, ‘cause I get to meet up with the basketball team and I meet other people who are autistic at the other conferences.” McElwain also talks about how autism affects his life and the loved ones in his life, but encourages others with autism that they are “not alone.”

In February 2007, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a report that concluded the prevalence of autism had risen to one in every 150 American children and almost one in 94 boys.

Autism is not yet known to have a cause or a cure, but that doesn’t necessarily mean limiting a person with autism from going to school and having a career. In fact, according to the Autism Spectrum Disorders Health Center, at least 33 percent of people with autism go on to live lives independently. McElwain hopes to be in that 33 percent.

School is cool

With his success, more job and schooling opportunities opened for McElwain. He ended up walking the stage with his graduating class in late June 2006, but did not receive his diploma. Just recently, McElwain passed all his General Educational Development tests (GED) at Monroe Community College, part of the State University of New York system (SUNY) in Rochester.

McElwain was hesitant to continue with his GED, because he knows what a struggle school was for him. “I guess I try to encourage him and keep him on the right track. I always tried to show him how important school was,” Josh says. “When he was contemplating discontinuing his GED program, I encouraged him to get tutored and I helped him with his studies.”

“I got my GED this summer and I want to start taking a class at Roberts [Wesleyan College], while I help coach the men’s basketball team there during the season,” McElwain says. “I don’t help out a lot, ‘cause of other thing I have to do like working and stuff, but I help when I can, ‘cause I love basketball.”

Hangin’ with the pros

In the 2006-2007 basketball season, McElwain managed the Monroe Community College Division II basketball squad, then went on to manage and help coach the Rochester Razorsharks, a professional basketball team in the American Basketball Association league in their 2007-2008 season. McElwain helped coach the team to their second league championship last year.

When school is out and basketball season is done, McElwain is an equipment manager during preseason with the Indianapolis Colts.

In 2006 Peyton Manning formally invited McElwain and a friend to help out during the 2006 preseason. McElwain chose Steve Kerr, fellow Athena basketball player and current junior at North Carolina State University. Last summer was McElwain’s third year with the team. “It’s my favorite job I have,” McElwain says. “For almost a month I get paid to hang out and help some of my favorite athletes like Peyton. They are really neat and help me get in shape.”

If it works, it works

Aside from working with the Colts, McElwain has three jobs back in Rochester.

McElwain works full time at Wegmans Food Markets, Inc., in the bakery department as the Bakery Adviser. “I bake bread, pies, and other bakery goods and make sure we are making and trying to sell our quota for the day,” McElwain says.

“They never would have given me the chance to work before all this happened,” McElwain says. “They didn’t even interview me, they just offered me a job, so I took it, so I can make money and don’t always have to ask my parents for everything.”

Wegmans is a national grocery store chain. “Wegmans likes to have a diverse staff and give as much opportunity to the disabled as possible,” says Ted Madama, former store manager of Wegmans No. 64 in Rochester.

Occasionally, McElwain works as a busboy for Red Fedele’s Restaurant The Brook House in Rochester and on the weekends, the Northwest YMCA hired McElwain to coach kids’ recreational sport teams. “I work with the 8- to12-year-old basketball camps at the Y,” McElwain says. “I like it there, ‘cause I get to have fun and when the weather breaks about 40 [degrees] we get to shoot hoops outside and run around. I like to teach basketball to them.”

“Jason’s a great asset to our Northwest team,” says YMCA Camp Director, Dan Trax. “He gets along well with everyone and the kids love working with him. With Jason on our staff, our sports camps have grown in size.”

McElwain is a good marketing tool for both Wegmans and the Northwest YMCA, and now, because of McElwain’s “hometown hero” status, everyone is lining up to meet him. “At work or if I’m out to eat with my family, people come up to me and ask for my autograph,” McElwain says. “...And everyone wants to be my friend.”

Medical mystery

Autism remains a great mystery in medicine. It is estimated that autism will be diagnosed in more than 25 thousand children this year, and scientists and doctors still know very little about the neurological disorder. Diagnosis relies solely on behavioral observation and screening.

According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, three distinctive behaviors characterize autism: lack of social interaction, problems with verbal and nonverbal communication, and repetitive behaviors or narrow, obsessive interests. Although there is no known cause or cure for autism, it is treatable. Children do not “outgrow” autism, but studies show that early diagnosis can lead to significantly improved outcomes. With the right services and supports, people with autism can live full, healthy and meaningful lives, like McElwain.

CNN.com took a look at two individuals living with autism. Jeff Donohoo, 36, is an adult living with autism. “Jeff has a social problem, not a mental problem,” his mother says. But having autism doesn’t stop Jeff from working. This is his 16th year working at the cafeteria of Memorial Hospital in Chattanooga, Tenn. Jeff’s supervisor, Ollie Forté says he’s dependable and on time.

Twenty one-year-old Dan Hackett has an Autism Spectrum Disorder called Asperger's Syndrome. Despite his disability and learning disorder, he is still able to attend college at Community College of Allegheny County in Pittsburgh.

According to an article done by CNN, Dan said he had a hard time organizing his time and managing assignments, so he joined a college group for students with mental disabilities called, Achieving in Higher Education with Autism/Developmental Disabilities group.  AHEADD, helped Dan increase his grade point average to a 3.6 while majoring in political science.

Although, McElwain defies what it means to be autistic, what does he think the hardest thing about living with autism is? “Waking up everyday knowing I am still different from the rest of my peers.”

Britney Milazzo is a Contributor for Bleacher Report.