Sunday, November 16, 2008

What Do You Think of J-Mac?

A long time ago, I was shown a youtube video of an autistic teen, team manager on a high school basketball team, who got to go in the last couple minutes of the last game of the season and broke a school record with how many points he got in such a short time. At that time, it was just like 'See? We are capable!'
Recently, I found The Game of My Life, an autobiography by that boy - Jason McElwain, also called J-Mac. I'm not sure what I think about J-Mac, so I was thinking of quoting some things he says and asking my readers (if anyone actually reads this) what they think.
At the start of the main body of the book, he says:

"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. It's like asking someone what it's like to be tall or short, fat or skinny. It's like asking a tomato what it's like to be a tomato. It's normal. It's me. I don't think I'm any different from anyone else. Really, I don't. I look at the world the same way as anyone else. I see myself in the mirror and how I look to other people. I think about things probably the same way you think about things. It's just that the world looks back at me a little funny, like I'm a little different."

He describes his functioning level and learning over time like this:

"I want to tell people that there are a lot of very successful people who have some type of autism. It's pretty common. Some people have a very severe form of it, and some people have a very mild form of it, and if you're on the mild side you can go to college and get a good job and live what a lot of people would call a normal life. I'm somewhere in between. With me, I started out having a very severe form of it; that's what the doctors told my parents when I was little. But then as I got older, I got more and more social, and I got involved in more and more activities with other kids, and that helped me a lot with my autism. It forced me to do some of the things I wasn't comfortable doing, and to do them over and over until I became comfortable doing them. But you can't grow out of autism. You can't cure it. There are no medicines you can take to make it go away, and now all my friends have graduated high school and gone off to college and I know I'm probably not ever going to college. I understand that. But the reason they're all going to college is to get a job, and I've already got a job. And it's a good job, too. I work at Wegmans, a local supermarket, and I hope to stay at that job, and to me that's a normal life. Maybe someday I'll get an apartment and live on my own, which is what all my friends will be doing, too."

He has a regular pattern of describing a problem he has and saying plenty of non-autistics also have the same problem, possibly milder, like this:

"It's true that sometimes it's hard to put into words what's bouncing around in my head, but I know a lot of people who don't have autism who have the same problem. They say things they don't mean or mean things they don't say. They say one thing and do something else. They forget something they should probably remember."

"I'm not so patient. When something's coming, when something's about to happen, I want it to just hurry up and happen. I'm like, Enough already! Let's go! I guess a lot of people are the same way, but on the other people you don't notice it. On me, you notice it. I think probably this is because of my autism. I think it makes me not so patient. ... I get all nervous and jumpy and I start pacing back and forth. I start talking a lot and asking a lot of questions. I don't know what to do with myself; that's the expression people say for how nervous I can be, how jumpy. When I was little, I used to wave my arms back and forth whenever I got excited, almost like I was flapping, but I didn't do that anymore. At first I had to keep my hands in my pockets to keep from doing it, but after that I just stopped doing it."

As the second of the above quotes indicates, he views some autistic behavior as bad things he should try to stop, such as 'stimming'. Here's a quote about 'autistic outbursts' and another about where he learnt this from:

"The running around and screaming in the middle of the night [night terrors] was called an autistic outburst. I had different kinds of these, not just in the middle of the night. Sometimes I would flap my arms up and down and all around, like a bird. Sometimes I would just kick and scream. Sometimes I would just run around, out of control."

"I don't know where I got this from, but if I fall into one of my bad habits, like humming or flapping my hands or a whole bunch of different things I do when I don't even know I'm doing them, then someone just points it out to me and I focus on it and I get it under control. Usually it's my mom pointing it out to me, what I'm doing wrong, but I guess this is how it is for a lot of people, right? I guess my mom is like a lot of moms. She wants what's best for me. She wants everyone to see me in the best possible way. ... She wants people to think I'm normal, but she's just looking out for me, the same way she looks out for my brother, Josh, and he's not autistic. He's away at college, and she still calls him every night to make sure he's eating properly, or cleaning his room, or doing his homework. She wants what's best for him, too."

However, some parts of being autistic he seems unconcerned about:

"She doesn't want me to say or do anything to embarrass myself, but I don't really get embarrassed. I don't really care about that stuff. I went to a doctor once and he told me that autistic kids usually don't think about how they look to everyone else, and I think that's probably true about me."

"All the best players, the best shooters, they take a thousand shots a day. A thousand shots from the free throw line. A thousand shots from the corner. A thousand shots from the top of the key. A thousand layups. I don't think I took that many shots, but I took a lot of shots. After a while, it's like your memory. It becomes natural. Your body knows what to do because it's done the same thing so many times. That's how it is when you're autistic. Anyway, that's how it is for me."

Here's how he talks about some labels people give him:

"A lot of people, when they hear I'm writing a book, they look at me like I'm making a joke. They don't believe me. They think because I'm autistic I must be slow, or simple, or retarded. Well, I am slow. That's just how my brain works. It takes me a while to get the words out. It takes me a while to get them in, too. And it takes me a while to think about things in a way that I can understand them. Like I said, there are a lot of pages and a lot pf stories to tell, and I have to do it in a special way and all of this takes a while. I'm simple, too. Not in a bad way, I don't think, but I like things a certain way. I like my routines, to break things down into patterns I can understand and control. Keep it simple - that's my thing. ... Like I said, I'm slow. And simple. But I'm not retarded. That's the one thing people always think when they hear the word 'autism,' they think it means you're retarded. Well, that's not true. Sometimes it makes me mad that people think that way, but mostly it makes me frustrated, the way people can treat you like you're not even there. They talk about you right in front of you, like you can't understand what they're saying. They don't take you seriously. It's frustrating - it really is."

"All the time, whenever we had a big game, I kept telling all the guys on the team to keep their focus. That was like my theme. Over and over, I'd say this. The guys on the team would tease me about it. Coach said I was like a broken record. I didn't know what a broken record was, and someone had to explain it to me, and then I understood. But he was right. I can be like a broken record. That's how I'm able to focus, to concentrate. I repeat things to myself, over and over, until it comes. I just repeat myself and repeat myself and eventually I get it right. That's how I break things down. That's how I learn."

So, what do you think of J-Mac?



Blogger Adelaide Dupont said...

Well, I thought he was an excellent sportsman - with his skills and his focus and the elusive quality known as 'sportsmanship'. I would have called him the autistic Michael Phelps, because they both have a lot of focus in their respective sports, and both their mothers care about them a great deal.

I don't think night terrors are particularly 'autistic', per se. I'd have to read the whole book and the columns in the newspapers to judge, as well as see the game.

It's great [?] that he has a job. Sports scholarships are very competitive. Do you know if America has an Institute of Sport?

Another great thing about J-Mac is that he doesn't care what people think of him. That's a great quality in anyone I know, though one has to be careful in how you interpret it.

7:13 PM  
Blogger Adelaide Dupont said...

Something else important about this book that I think your readers might have to know: Jason reads at the fourth-grade level, and actually taped and talked this book (The Game of my Life) out to his mother. Also, there was a ghostwriter involved in the first and third parts.

And his mother told him not to cry after the game was played, and he shot all those three-pointers. (This is in the introduction part).

His memory is probably most accurate for the season described in The Game of my Life and he does point out that his friends 'don't remember stuff that happened in grade school'. (I have tended to go with Atwood that the autistic memory is 'superior', if only because it does not repress or forget, as shown with Anthropologist on Mars by Oliver Sacks).

I like the part how he gives his mother flowers at the start of the game. But I don't know if I like the people who are reviewing it, like Doug Flutie. Back in 2000-01 I had heard of him as this famous American footballer.

Apparently there are 'no bad guys' in Jason's writing, like John Robison, who wrote a review about it. He also talked about Oliver Sacks and Tony Atwood making him feel good.

Robison's review of THE GAME OF MY LIFE by J-Mac. Read especially Robison's comment about the job.

I also liked the way that his nickname was explained. It follows a basketball tradition.

7:31 PM  
Blogger Lindsay said...

I think he's got a lot of self-knowledge, and a healthy attitude toward himself and his life. He doesn't care what other people think of him, he doesn't care that his life probably won't look like everybody else's --- he just cares that he's happy, and that he finds a niche that works for him.

He seems to have more perspective and balance than most people his age!

I agree with Adelaide that the night terrors are not necessarily part of autism. Of the other things he mentions, the one that was most familiar to me was the slowness of his thought, particularly in generating words. My thought is exclusively visual, and particularly hard to translate (a lot of stuff will be implied in a subtle shift in color, or the way the image moves), and it goes slowly. But it's also very precise: I often notice small, subtle details that others do not.

I don't relate to what he says about muscle memory, though (i.e., if he practices a motor skill long enough, it becomes automatic). I've also had a lot of involvement in athletics, and I do a lot of other stuff with my hands (drawing, sewing, making jewelry, painting, cooking), and it never becomes automatic for me. I actually don't think I've ever been able to do anything automatically or unconsciously; I always have to think really hard about whatever I'm doing. I also have trouble remembering whether I've done something, or remembering bodily sensations. So maybe the whole part of my brain that's supposed to give you some sense of your own body is just not working in me.

8:34 PM  
Blogger Ettina said...

"I don't relate to what he says about muscle memory, though (i.e., if he practices a motor skill long enough, it becomes automatic)."

Even though I'm quite clumsy, I actually get that. It's odd, because one of the big contradictions is that he wasn't good enough at basketball to make the team, but he could make all those baskets. He's more physically capable than me, but I've noticed that I'm incredibly good at this one arcade game where you have to make baskets, and I have a similar pattern to what he showed in that game - miss the first few, then get them all (or most of them) and I can really relate to him saying he got a 'feel' for it. I think there's something special about a repetitive, highly focused activity like making baskets, that makes it easier for some autistics than all the other basketball things like passing. And of course, practicing so much like J-Mac (and unlike me) certainly helps.

6:52 AM  
Blogger Ettina said...

As for his description of 'autistic outbursts', it sounds kind of like what Amanda Baggs was referring to here:
And there's a combination of assuming every quirk an autistic has is due to autism.
Also, I didn't quote this bit due to lack of time, but he seems to be misinterpreting the 'autistic is not really there' stereotype as referring to night terrors, in which you really aren't aware of your surroundings. It's not completely explicit, but he says his parents said it was like he was somewhere else, and says 'in my head, I was somewhere else' and then starts talking about night terrors, so it seems like that's what he meant by being 'somewhere else'.

6:58 AM  

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