April is National Autism Awareness Month in the United States of America and globally, the world marks World Autism Awareness week from 2 April – 8 April.
Next in our series of individuals, using their skills to make a difference in the world, is 16 year old special needs and autism advocate, Alexandra Jackman.
At the age of 13, Jackman created the 2013 award winning film “A Teen’s Guide to Understanding and Communicating with People with Autism.” The film has been shown and taught in schools across America and exhibited at film festivals around the world. Jackman created a Spanish language version of the film late last year, which Autism Speaks has agreed to include, alongside the original film, in its resources. The original film has been made available to every school principal in America, as a teaching tool and resource, and Jackman is regularly asked to speak at screenings of the film.
Autism and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) “are both general terms for a group of complex disorders of brain development. These disorders are characterized, in varying degrees, by difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication and repetitive behaviors.” (Autism speaks.org)
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 1 in 68 American children are on the autism spectrum. Three million people in the U.S. and tens of millions of people are affected by ASD, globally. Despite these high numbers, ASD is still not well understood.
In advance of Autism Awareness Month, we met with Alexandra Jackman via Skype, to discuss her film and learn how she had become, at such an early age, an advocate for special needs people, particularly those affected by ASD.
Special Needs Volunteer and Autism Advocate
Jackman recalls her first exposure, at the age of 8, to a person with special needs. She had been attending a family camp in Vermont and noticed one girl in particular who sat alone with a carer. At first, Jackman assumed the girl wanted to sit alone, but soon decided to approach the young girl and ask if she might join her. Jackman learned that Jaime had Cerebral Palsy and could not speak, but that she could communicate in other ways. Getting to know her, and understanding both the girl’s special needs and what they shared in common was the spark that ignited a passion within Jackman to engage with peers with special needs.
Given that peer pressure begins early, TTDOG was curious about what motivated the young Jackman to approach someone different, when all her other friends were not engaging with the girl.
“I’ve never had a problem doing..what I wanted to do….I feel like every teenager, at some point, goes with the crowd…but for the most part…I would say that I’m confident enough to do… regardless of what my friends are doing….what I think is right.”
In fact, following Jackman’s positive example, other girls at the camp befriended Jaime, too. We asked if Jackman had ever felt somehow different to her peers. Jackman was never bullied or treated unkindly.
“I was always naturally interested in taking care of those who were different and….I don’t really know what I was thinking at the time but I’m obviously very glad that I went over to her…It feels weird for me to say but, I’d like to think I’m naturally an empathetic person.”
In advance of our interview, Alexandra Jackman’s parents, Michael and Lisa Jackman recounted for their daughter some particular examples of her empathetic character, which she shares with TTDOG:
“We’re Jewish but we celebrated Christmas, one year for fun, and to try a bit of a different culture… when my parents asked what I wanted, I said that I wanted to help someone in another country that doesn’t have food for Christmas…
I just feel so bad if I…see someone upset and if there’s something I can do to help…it’s so often so easy to help people and it can really make a difference…”
The two girls remained friends for many years and Jackman, at the age of 10, became a volunteer and youth advocate through Autism Family Times peer mentoring program.
We were curious as to why Jackman chose to make this commitment at a time when her peers would be spending their social time differently.
“There’s an honesty and openness with people with special needs…It’s hard to be accepted as a teenager or pre-teen, and people with special needs tend to just be so accepting. There’s no pettiness, there’s no judgement…people with special needs….are so themselves and so honest and I love that. It just makes me so happy.”
As a youth advocate, Jackman gives talks at school assemblies in her local area of New York and New Jersey. She has been requested to speak further afield but as a junior in high school, commitments further afield would be too demanding at this time. Also, at her Synagogue, Jackman is in her 5th year shadowing a teen with special needs and she runs a monthly teen night for teens with special needs. Speaking about the Friday night teen night, Jackman says:
“It’s a party and its accepting and it’s so much fun!…So many people don’t look past the special need and don’t get to know the person and its so upsetting because they’re so much more…they’re people who are so interesting, and creative and funny that you would never get to know if you’re not accepting…or you’re not aware…of the special need and that it’s not who that person is. At teen night, it’s a lot of really talented, unique people interacting and working on social skills and having a good time, being themselves and making new friends. It’s really special.”
Jackman also founded “the hangout club” at her school where, on a monthly basis, people with and without special needs have the chance to get to know, understand and appreciate one another. Jackman is continuing her personal advocacy for people with special needs, and particularly ASD, through school projects like her junior year research paper, in which she is currently examining the contribution of people with autism to the advancement of our culture and society. As her schedule allows, Jackman contributes to ad hoc advocacy projects and in the summer months, she will be undertaking an internship at an autism centre in her area.
“A Teen’s Guide to Understanding and Communicating with People with Autism”
To date, Jackman’s advocacy work has had its widest reach and impact through her film. The film is the output of school work Jackman undertook in the full year Teddy Roosevelt Scholars program. In order to participate in the program, Jackman had to demonstrate a high academic performance in her area of study. She considered a few topics but it was her passion for special needs and ASD that inspired her application. As with most creative projects, the film did not emerge in Jackman’s consciousness as a fully formed concept, but evolved over time and through collaboration and research.
“I wasn’t sure what type of teacher to work with…so I talked to my Vice Principal and….there was a social studies teacher….at my middle school, who is also a Special Ed teacher, Mr Dominick Ceccio. I talked with him to see if he might…be interested in working with me, and he was!…I wrote my application…and I got in. We started brainstorming and it took me awhile to know that I wanted to do a project on autism and even then, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I didn’t know if I wanted to do a pamphlet or a video or…what way I wanted to get out the message. I just knew I wanted to do ‘Autism,’ which was so general.”
As Jackman embarked on her research and reflected on her own experience as a volunteer and advocate, the idea began to take shape.
Identifying a gap in the existing literature and developing material to fill the gap is difficult for the best of us. TTDOG was curious how Jackman identified her niche:
“There was a boy in my Math class who had special needs…and he always liked to sit in his one spot in the corner. That was what he was used to; he sat there every day. When we changed seats at the beginning of the new semester…the idea of switching seats was nerve wracking… I realised that people were getting annoyed with him…And I understood that if people don’t understand…why it’s difficult for him…they’d be frustrated….I realised that so many people know so little about special needs… I also realise that they didn’t want to bully their peer. They just didn’t understand what was different.”
“My experience has largely been working with people with autism… From my experience….there wasn’t a resource that was a neurotypical teen talking to neurotypical peers. I’d never seen anything like that and I felt that could be really valuable. I’m glad that it seems to have been, so far.”
With a plethora of options as to the media for her message, TTDOG asked Jackman how she settled on making a film.
“Once I decided I wanted it to be for my peers, middle schoolers, and my school specifically, I wanted to do it in a medium that would be most interesting. In order for it to be effective, I thought it needed to be…short…and present the message in an interesting way. For middle schoolers, video tends to be more enjoyable and my Dad works in the film industry and that was useful in where to hold the camera…lighting….and so on.”
Jackman notes that the project been envisioned as a “video” designed to get a message across about autism awareness and acceptance. The medium, whilst an effective tool to convey the message, was not her main focus. Jackman’s equipment was low-tech and readily available. The film was shot on an iPad, edited on iMovie and graphics were generated with a simple to use, Creative Commons, graphics package.
She admits that it wasn’t until she was approached at a film festival about her editorial choices for certain shots and angles that she became conscious of her many choices, having worked intuitively within the medium. Editorial decisions were driven by the mandate to make an accessible product that conveyed her message in a compelling way. Scenes that had been integral to the storyboard were cut from the final version, whilst her spontaneous responses as a director allowed her to capture moments and stories she had not imagined in pre-production. One clear decision Jackman made was that the film would not be fictional. She chose the documentary format because she wanted it to be as immediate, factual and relatable as possible for her target audience.
“I’m very glad that I ended up doing it in a film…Often in the news you hear about how media is really bad and dangerous and it can cause depression…which of course it can, but…having the video on YouTube and..on Facebook…people can share the video so quickly. (This) has been very valuable in spreading the message of acceptance.”
The film has made a much bigger impact than Jackman had ever imagined it would. Her goal had been to help people to be more understanding, in her own school. She wanted the project to be spread as far as possible, in her school and in her own community. So far the film has been screened and taught all over the USA, in the Guam International Film Festival and she has been asked to come to speak at screenings as far afield as the UK and Indonesia.
The film has won the “Best Home Grown Student Short Documentary” at the Garden State International Film Festival and “Best Emerging Filmmaker Award” at the Queens World Film Festival, the 2015 “International Humanitarian Gold Award” at the World Humanitarian Film Festival, and the International Film Festival for Spirituality, Religion and Visionary (IFFSRV) “Award of Merit” in Jakarta, Indonesia.
Jackman regularly receives feedback from parents and siblings of people with autism, from teachers of students with special needs and from people with ASD. Feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, and many share how the film has helped them to understand their family member, students or themselves better and to accept these differences with an open heart and mind. What makes Alexandra Jackman perhaps most proud of the work is that a project which she intended to be delivered to teens in her own school is having an impact on all types of people, of all ages and in so many different countries and cultures.
“There are comments on the YouTube channel…that are so touching….A man commented and said that his stepson has autism and…this video helped him better understand his stepson..And a mom saying that her son with autism was watching this video and said ‘Oh yeah! That’s why I do that!’ And the fact that the video can not only help neurotypical teens be more understanding of autism, but people with all sorts relationships to special needs…shows that it’s having a broader impact.”
And in terms of the impact on herself, Jackman admits that the process of making a project over so many months taught her good time management skills, flexibility and discipline.
Jackman gratefully received the help of teachers, professionals and families of people with ASD, who generously shared their time and knowledge with her. Amongst those participating in the film were Adrienne Robertiello, Autism Educator at Children’s Specialized Hospital and member of Autism Family Times board, and Jed Baker, Ph.D., an expert clinical psychologist, behavioural consultant, lecturer and author on the topic.
Jackman was initially intimidated to reach out to professionals for interviews but, with support of her family and teachers, she quickly overcame her fears.
“My parents were really supportive…and when people ask me, I don’t think I thank them enough and talk about them enough. My Mom is…really good with people…and she reaches out and contacts people…every day. It was really valuable to have input from both my Mom and my Dad who work in fields that work with other people and kind of have to do with this…And, as I went along, the process got a lot easier as I learned that people were willing to help and as I learned about myself and making a project like this.”
And whilst seeking contributors was challenging, Jackman was also challenged to grow as a media professional in learning to adapt her independent spirit to a collaborative medium. Because it was a school project, Jackman initially struggled with accepting advice from her father, Michael Jackman, a film industry professional. He pointed out that in any filmmaking enterprise, the director does not undertake all of the roles, especially when they are conducting on-camera interviews. Learning to accept some assistance and advice on camera angles, lighting, and sound was a growing experience and education in filmmaking, for the young auteur.
Following the release of the film, Jackman has been exposed to varied opportunities for public speaking and has learned to pitch her message appropriately for different groups, ranging from medical professionals to school aged children. This has helped Jackman to continue learning, well beyond the initial year-long project.
Of all that Jackman has learned, she speaks fondly of the talented individuals with special needs and ASD.
“There are so many people that I’ve gotten to know with special needs who are incredible and are so interesting and have cool talents…I love working with people with special needs and doing that inspires me to get out the message of acceptance any way I can and so without a doubt, who motivates me and what keeps me inspired is my friends and the people that I know with special needs.”
“People with special needs have taught me that there’s not one mold for success….There are so many ways that you can be happy and successful…and sometimes it can be good, and sometimes not, conforming to society.”
We asked Jackman to share a few words for others who might want to make a difference in the world, somehow:
“You’re never too young or too old to make a difference. You might have to be creative and do something that others aren’t doing to get the message across, but that sometimes makes for the best projects and the best outcomes. If you feel like you have something to contribute and you want to make a difference, there’s always someone that can help…Once you look, you can find someone that is passionate about the same thing you are. And, if not, then make people passionate! Make people care….Get the message out, spread the word. Use social media. Use whatever connections you have….And I wouldn’t be surprised if you found someone that has a similar goal or passion as you.”
Watch Alexandra Jackman’s short film, now:
As always, TTDOG asks: For what are you most grateful and where do you find your greatest joy?
“I’m really grateful for my friends with special needs and…without special needs… And for my parents – I am so grateful for all their support and they are very encouraging.
And my greatest joy?
Going to teen night. I just love it and the relationships I’ve built… Also being able speak to people, and being able to spread the message of acceptance, especially to other students, that really makes me happy.”
Follow Alexandra Jackman’s film on Facebook