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Westfield teen’s video is primer on autism
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Westfield teen’s video is primer on autism

A ninth-grader’s film helps peers understand others’ special needs

Alex Jackman, 14, has worked with children with autism spectrum disorder and other disabilities, and she has trained other youngsters to do the same.

But she wanted to reach more people, to open their minds and hearts to those they might find strange or off-putting.

So, last year, as an eighth-grader at Roosevelt Intermediate School in Westfield, when she was chosen to take part in the school’s Teddy Roosevelt Scholars program, she decided to make an educational video.

The result is a 14-minute documentary, A Teen’s Guide to Understanding and Communicating with People with Autism. It can be seen here.

“The most common scenario that I see in school is people ignoring their peers with special needs, not to be mean but because they feel uncomfortable or don’t know what to say,” said Alex, the daughter of Lisa and Michael Jackman and now a ninth-grader at Westfield High. “If they knew a little bit about them and why they are different, I definitely believe that this scenario would not be as prevalent.”

She made her film with the blessing of the organizations with which she has been volunteering, including the Ma’ayan program for children with disabilities at Temple Emanu-El in Westfield, where her family belongs; the Friendship Circle in Livingston, which pairs teen companions with kids with special needs; and the local nonprofit Autism Family Times with Brianna, Inc., which creates programming for families dealing with ASD.

Alex said she hoped to reach a few dozen teenagers. By early this week, the video, launched on-line on Sept. 5, had already had over 8,000 views and had been picked up by the international advocacy organization Autism Speaks.

“I love reading all of the comments, and it’s so nice to have confirmation that others are getting value out of it,” she said. “I hope that the word keeps on spreading so as many people as possible can see it.”

An increasing number of families are touched by this issue. In the video she cites the 2012 figures: One in 252 girls is on the spectrum; one in 54 boys is. Of those, 62 percent have no intellectual disability, but their lack of social skills can create painful isolation.

Among other autism issues Alex addresses in her video are hypo- and hypersensitivity, and the “stimming” behavior some use to counteract their discomfort. She points out that many “normal” people bite their nails, or fiddle with their hair, or bury themselves in their cell phones. To give viewers a taste of what it feels like to be unable to screen out the barrage of incoming sensations, she filmed a trip to the supermarket, edited to emphasize the onslaught of sights and sounds.

The teen got expert commentary from Adrienne Robertiello, an autism educator at Children’s Specialized Hospital, and clinical psychologist and author Dr. Jed Baker. Both were impressed with her work. “This is not your typical dry educational presentation, but a dynamic presentation that speaks to students of all ages to increase their sensitivity to those with autism,” Baker said.

Alex began working with children at 10, when she trained as a peer mentor with Autism Family Times. Its president, Claudette Bardwil, praised the openness Alex brings to both the children and other mentors, saying, “In all her volunteer efforts, her acceptance is contagious.”

Social service has become a way of life for Alex. For her bat mitzva project she raised over $2,000 for the Children’s Hunger Relief Fund, for children in Somalia. “Among many problems they were facing, like drought and famine, al-Shabab, a terrorist group, was causing much violence as well as not letting aid into the needy country,” she said. “The $2,000 provided 20,000 meals to children and families in Somalia.”

In addition to her volunteering, Alex plays piano and drums, loves acting, and is active in student government. Asked what kind of parenting produces a youngster like her, Lisa said, “They come out that way.” She and her husband also have an 11-year-old son Sam, who, she said, has his own fervent interests. Pushed further, she added, “I suppose we provided an environment that allowed Alex to be who she is. We support her passions. When she told us about a program to help children with special needs, we said, ‘That sounds great.’”

As for the future, Alex is still deciding. Her interests range from newscasting to law and occupational therapy. “However,” she said, “even if it is on the side from my job, I 100 percent know I want to work with people with special needs, no matter what.”

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