The Challenge: Nearly one in five people in the U.S. have special needs, and yet we still have trouble teaching special needs awareness.
The Solution: Autism Advocacy.
The Teen Who’s Making A Brighter Future: Alexandra Jackman from Westfield, NJ.
Alexandra Jackman was 8 years old when she met a young girl with cerebral palsy at summer camp. Alexandra wanted to say hello, but she didn’t know how. That’s when she realized that there was nothing holding her back except for her own fear and misperceptions.
From that moment on, Alexandra not only made an incredible new friend, she also found her passion for working with people with special needs. In 2013, she created a 14-minute documentary titled, “A Teen’s Guide to Understanding and Communicating with People with Autism.” When she put it online, the reactions were fantastic. Her film is now presented in schools and hospitals as an educational and anti-bullying tool and won awards at 10 film festivals. Alexandra uses the film as a platform to talk about awareness and acceptance all over the country. This year, Alexandra received a Diller Teen Tikkun Olam award for her dedicated work.
We caught up with Alexandra to chat…
What’s your favorite color?
Your favorite book?
“Night” by Elie Wiesel.
When did you first become interested in advocating for people with special needs?
Meeting my friend with cerebral palsy was the first time I had really interacted with someone with special needs. And I realized there is so much more to a person than their special needs—what you might not see on the outside. And I also realized that I’d almost missed out on making a friend because of her special needs, and a lot of people do the same. I didn’t want to do that again.
So when I got back from camp I told my mom that I wanted to get involved in working with people with special needs. And she knew a local organization called Autism Family Time. They’re not running any more, but with that organization I did my first training. I learned about what autism was and about special needs in general. And I went to some of the events they had. They had an Everyone’s Birthday Party, a Sports Day, and a Special Needs Team Night, which is something I got more and more involved with. So when Autism Family Time closed, I ended up continuing these events.
How did you make your beautiful documentary?
When I was in eighth grade, we had the chance to do an independent study project about anything you were passionate about. When I thought about making something to help people with special needs—especially autism-related—I got really excited.
So I reached out to a teacher who was at my middle school, who was a social studies and special education teacher, and I asked if he’d be willing to be my mentor for the project. I worked on it for about eight months, and then in September of my freshman year of high school I released it on YouTube.
Why a video?
I was deciding between a pamphlet or a book, but I decided on a video because I wanted it to be super accessible and engaging to teenagers.
What were the reactions when you put it online?
The reactions were amazing and so much more positive than I had expected. I didn’t know what to expect. You know, I ran it by lots of people, but I wanted to make sure it was correct. So I was nervous, but the reactions were amazing. I’m still so thrilled.
I heard from not just other teenagers, which was the target audience, but also from parents of children with special needs, and teachers, and siblings, and also people with special needs themselves who were commenting and saying, “Yes, this really describes me!” and, “This really helped me!” It was just so amazing to see it’s helped not only my direct community but also a lot more people than I expected.
What’s next for Autism Advocacy?
Right now I’m working with Montclair State University with their Center for Autism and Early Childhood Mental Health to create a curriculum or some type of program that we could possibly send to schools. Because a lot of schools show the video, but they’re across the country or overseas and I’d love to be able to travel and talk to everyone but that’s really hard. So we’re working to make some type of resource that we could send with the video that would have common questions students ask and more information that we could send with the video.
Is there anything else you’d like to say about Autism Advocacy or your Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Award?
Winning the Diller Teen Tikkun Olam award—and traveling to San Francisco and meeting all the other winners—was one of the most incredible experiences. I’m smiling now just thinking about it because the whole weekend was so amazing…
It wasn’t just winning the award. It was meeting with each other and talking about networking and how to best present what people were working on. It was really cool to be with such similar people—I left that weekend feeling so motivated. It reminded me these are the kinds of people I want to be around.
The Diller family welcomed us into their home, and what’s really amazing is that they also fly in recipients from previous years. And they really stress it’s not just this one year where we’re winning this award and moving on. We really are part of this incredible network and family.
This post is sponsored by the Helen Diller Family Foundation. To learn more about the foundation’s $36,000 Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards, visit www.dillerteenawards.org