We asked Alexandra Jackman, the teen who made the film “A Teen's Guide to Understanding and Communicating with People with Autism,” about life since the film and what she plans to do after high school. Read her Q&A below!
Tell us how “A Teen's Guide to Understanding and Communicating with People with Autism” came about. Did you have help filming/putting it together?
Originally, my interest in getting involved in organizations relating to special needs began with an experience I had when I was eight years old at a summer camp in Vermont. There was a girl in my camp group who was in a wheelchair, and she always sat by herself with an aid during lunch. I had always assumed that she wanted to sit alone, because she never came to sit with the rest of us. One day, out of curiosity, I hesitantly asked if I could sit with them. The girl’s aid replied yes, and I learned that the girl in the wheel chair’s name was Jaime, and that she had something called Cerebral Palsy. I learned that she couldn’t speak, but communicated through hand signals. Over the next couple of days, I started hanging out with Jaime more and more outside of camp activities, and I really liked her!
I think that me becoming friends with Jaime helped the other girls in our group realize, “Oh, we can hang out with her,” and started including Jaime in activities.
This was also the first time I realized that many people don’t look past the special need and get to know the person, because I almost didn’t.
If I hadn’t just been curious, I would have missed out on the opportunity to get to know a friend, because of her special need.
I began working with people with special needs and getting involved in organizations about five years ago, when I was ten. Since that time, I have met so many incredible people with autism and other special needs.
I realized in my middle school specifically, that many of my peers didn’t interact with other kids with autism, not necessarily to be mean, but because they didn’t understand what was “wrong.” I felt like a lot of people were scared because they didn’t understand what was different. After coming to this realization, I wanted to change that!
I thought that if people knew a little bit more about what autism really is, they would be less judgmental, and be more likely to go up to someone with a special need and interact.
I wanted to create and easy to understand guide for teens, that would be very relatable to everyday life, to hopefully increase understanding and acceptance of those with autism and other special needs.
Two years ago, when I was in 8th grade, I had the opportunity to apply to be in a program called TR Scholar (Teddy Roosevelt Scholar). If accepted, one gets the chance to work with a teacher on a year-long project. When I had the idea to make a tool for teens, I spoke to a special education teacher, Mr. Dominick Ceccio, who loved the idea and was willing to be my mentor. Mr. Ceccio helped me from a “big picture,” standpoint throughout the project. My dad was a huge help as well. He encouraged me to do a storyboard, to outline the filming of the project, and filmed me while I was speaking. As well, he helped tremendously with lighting and sound.
I also reached out to people who I had met through my volunteer work involving special needs. Adrienne Robertiello, Autism Specialist at Children’s Specialized Hospital (CSH), provided me with a tremendous amount of help. She allowed me to interview her, provided resources for me to review, allowed me to use the CSH recorded music at the end of the documentary, and helped me get the film out to her contacts.
Local parents allowed me to film and interview their children; friends with special needs let me interview them, as did many teachers and students in my school. Dr. Jed Baker, an expert on autism, was willing to have me interview him for this project, as well. I couldn’t have made the film without so many people’s support and assistance.
How has the response been to the video since it came out?
The response has been incredible. Originally, my goal was just to help people in my school and community become more understanding of people with autism. What I hadn’t focused on while making the video is that misconceptions and lack of knowledge on special needs is not only occurring in Westfield, New Jersey, but is occurring all over the country, and the world.
Since releasing the video online, “A Teen’s Guide” has been seen by over 45,000 people on YouTube, shared worldwide and praised by doctors, educators, families impacted by autism, and individuals with autism themselves. The film has been shown in schools and universities as a tool to teach acceptance and understanding. It has also been shown at 14 film festivals worldwide and has been recognized with numerous awards.
The video has been incorporated into anti-bullying programs in New Jersey and beyond, and has been integrated into the Westfield School Districts 8th grade health curriculum, as well as other school curriculums. It is being used by The Children’s Specialized Hospital for presentations on autism and as part of their Kohl’s Autism Awareness Community Hub. It was used as part of a “Week of Respect” in my district and others, as well as being shown to many teachers and students worldwide.
What’s the best thing someone’s told you after watching it?
Learning about the way this video is impacting families, and helping teach people about autism is so incredible.
One memorable comment in particular that was written online was from a mother who wrote, “I watched it with my 13 years old autistic son, who is just figuring out that there is ‘something’ a little different between him and many other kids at middle school. He kept watching and saying ‘that's just like me mom’ when you were describing behaviors and situations. I think it helped him turn a corner about his own autism acceptance and his own sense of identity.” The fact that this video was able to help someone with autism better understand himself, is something so heartwarming to me, and an impact I had never thought about.
A teacher from a school in NJ told me that it changed the way he looked at and taught his students with special needs.
As well, a guidance counselor in Massachusetts contacted me to tell me that after the video was shown at an assembly, she saw meaningful, positive change in the way her students treated their autistic peers.
There have been so many positive comments and they all mean so much to me!
Are you currently involved in any other volunteer groups or leadership activities?
Yes! I help run monthly special needs teen nights and am the Peer Mentor Leader of the group. The teens with special needs that appear in my video were friends that I met through this program. I also founded a club this past year to promote inclusion in my high school, and we meet monthly as well. I volunteer through the YMCA for young adult special needs activities and shadow a special needs boy at my synagogue. I do some work with Children’s Specialized Hospital and Friendship Circle as well.
What do you hope to accomplish after high school? Do you plan to continue to be involved with autism advocacy?
While I am still only a sophomore in high school, when I go to college, I am thinking about studying either Communications or Psychology (or both). Ultimately, I may want to go to law school.
I definitely do want to stay involved with autism advocacy, because it is so important. I do not want to stop my efforts when I go to college and I hope to stay involved wherever I attend school.
As a 15 year old, it is hard to know exactly where I will end up in terms of career. If I do become a lawyer, advocating for those with special needs would definitely be a part of my practice. Whatever I do for a career, I know that I will definitely stay involved in helping the special needs community. It is such a big part of my life.
What¹s the most important thing you think people should understand about individuals who are on the autism spectrum?
Autism isn’t who a person is. It is something they have. Just because someone has autism and may have challenges in one area, doesn’t mean that they aren’t bright, funny, or possibly a great friend. Try to understand the differences, and use that knowledge to get to know the person behind the special needs. You just might meet someone you really like!