October 2, 2008
Transcendence: Jacob Artson’s eloquence and spirit defy his severe autism diagnosis
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(Page 2 - Previous Page)Shattering Myths
Over the past two years, Jacob has addressed audiences in Chicago, Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles, and he has more public engagements this year. For these, someone reads aloud Jacob's speech, and then he uses facilitated communication to answer questions.
His impact is tangible.
When Jacob was 14, he spoke before 200 middle-school kids and their parents about the huge benefits he's gotten from Team Prime Time, a sports program where kids from disadvantaged areas coach kids with special needs. The next day, 120 seventh- and eighth-graders signed up to volunteer as coaches.
You can read one of Jacob's speeches 'Opening the Gates' here.
"Once Jacob is given the chance to communicate, he blows everyone away, because you don't expect him to be the smartest one there," said Peter Straus, who runs Prime Time. "He's the best ambassador we have for these kids, because we can point to Jacob and say don't underestimate them, because there's Jacob."
Jacob has been willing to put himself in the public eye because he is eager to debunk myths about autism -- that autistic kids can't process emotion, can't engage in higher-order thinking, must be trained in normative behavior before they turn 5. While every autistic child has different strengths and weakness, too often, those ideas become self-fulfilling prophecies, Jacob said.
"After years of being told that they will never amount to anything, most kids give up trying. Not just kids with autism -- I see it at school everyday. The biggest obstacle is that the kids don't believe they are capable or worthy of success," Jacob said.
A support system of innovative and caring professionals, sensitive friends and his own tireless parents has allowed Jacob to believe he can succeed.
One by one, he's taken down the myths.
He is emotionally astute:
"He's a really good reader of moods," said Rabbi Brad Artson, dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University. "He can tell me 'Ima is mad at you' hours before I know. He notices if we need a hug, or company, or he can say, 'I just want to hang with you right now, put that down.' No one said autistic kids are supposed to do that, but he and all of his friends do that all of the time."
He thinks about abstract things, like God:
"People with autism sometimes have a hard time organizing where their body is and being able to integrate various types of input, but when I am in God's presence, that is the one time I feel totally integrated with my ears and eyes and heart and touch and body, all in the same place," Jacob said. "For me, praying or studying parsha or other Jewish texts is not primarily intellectual, it is something that I do to feel like my body and mind and emotions are all connected."
He wants to be a writer when he's an adult, and he also wants to teach Torah, which he studies with his father.
He has deep and meaningful friendships with autistic and non-autistic kids:
"A friend is someone who smiles at you differently from everyone else and notices your presence in a special way," he wrote in an e-mail, when I asked about his friendships. "We don't talk, obviously, but we communicate a lot through body language and facial expressions. I can tell when my friends are happy or scared or bored or feeling infantilized, and they can do the same with me."
He calls his mother his "rock" and enjoys his father's playfulness and intelligence.
He can't say enough about his twin sister, Shira.
"She has been my chief source of joy and laughter since we were born. Shira is my best friend, my cheerleader, my hero, my advocate, my social secretary, fashion consultant -- I would be totally lost without my other half."
Shira, a sophomore at New Community Jewish High School, said any essay she's ever had to write about a hero has been about Jacob.
"He's an amazing guy. He's inspired me and showed me that if you work hard, you can pretty much do anything," Shira said.