2016-06-30
As an autistic teenager, Jason McElwain was used to being “special.” But on Feb. 15, the 18-year-old redefined what special really means.

That day, Jason took his usual spot at the end of the bench as manager of the Grace Athena High School basketball team outside Rochester, N.Y. But instead of a manager’s white shirt and black tie, Jason wore a team uniform.

Wanting to repay Jason’s three years of dedication to the team, coach Jim Johnson had Jason suit up, but with no guarantee he would play. Then, with his Trojans way ahead in the last period, Johnson gave Jason his chance.

And he ran with it. In the last four minutes of the game, Jason--known as “J-Mac” to players and friends--hit six 3-point shots and scored 20 points for a school record. When the buzzer sounded, the crowd rushed the court as Jason was lifted onto the players’ shoulders and carried in triumph around the gym.

Thanks to a student video of the game widely viewed on YouTube, Jason was soon fielding calls from reporters around the world. He met President George W. Bush, who became tearful as the teenager shook his hand. Columbia Pictures bought the rights to his story, and Magic Johnson is producing a movie about his life.  

But while his achievements on the basketball court were impressive, his actions off the court are even more so. McElwain is nominated for most inspiring person of the year for his unfailing belief in his own abilities and his unwavering determination to push the boundaries of autism.

After the game, a local clothing company donated T-shirts with Jason’s mantra emblazoned on the front: “Stay Focused.” The back carries the bigger message of his achievement: "J-Mac: Six three-pointers for Athena ... One slam dunk for Autism."

Diagnosed with autism as a toddler, Jason became one of a growing number of children with this puzzling developmental disorder for which there is no cure. According to the Autism Society of America, one in every 166 children born today are autistic--an alarming and dramatic rise of 172 percent since the 1990s. Jason’s time in the spotlight has brought added attention to this little understood condition. Jason finished high school last June, but must still complete his General Equivalency Diploma to get his diploma. He takes GED study courses every morning and works four afternoons a week in the bakery department of a local grocery store. He turned 18 in October. He says he’d like to stay in the grocery business, or perhaps become a physical education teacher.

And he has some advice, based on his own experience on and off the basketball court. "Never give up," Jason told Beliefnet. "Give it all the effort that you can. Do everything to accomplish your dreams. Keep dreaming, and if you don’t dream it, you can’t become it. That's it."

Jason’s father, David McIlwain, said Jason's classmates cheered for him not only because of his prowess with the basketball. "Everybody rooted for him because he was always rooting for them," he told Beliefnet. "There is a lot of peer pressure in high school, what you look like, what you dress like. But Jason is kind of blinded to that. He is friends with everybody."

Jason’s mother, Deb McIlwain, said her son’s triumph goes way beyond the basketball court. "Once the severe autistic child can break through, they can live in this world,” she told reporters last March. “Just like anyone else."

To view a video of Jason’s basketball performance, click here. To find out about the Autism Society of America, click here. To learn more about autism from the Center for the Study of Autism, click here.

View 2006 nominees' photo gallery.