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Autistic basketball sensation's inspiring year

Jason McElwain, 18, said his life was transformed in one night when he scored 20 points in 4 minutes during a high school basketball game.
/ Source: TODAY

A year to the day after he stunned everyone by coming off the bench to score 20 points in four minutes in a high-school basketball game, autistic teen-ager Jason McElwain says he hopes his story is still inspiring others to set goals and achieve their dreams.

"What more can you want?" the 18-year-old Rochester, N.Y.-area boy said in an interview on TODAY Thursday morning, as he recounted his year in the spotlight, which included a meeting with President Bush. "My life has changed from going to just an ordinary kid with autism to someone who is a hero."

Jason, then 17, was thrust into the spotlight when Greece Athena High School basketball coach Jim Johnson decided to send him onto the floor for a little play in the team's final regular season game against Spencerport on Feb. 16, 2006. Jason had never made the team but stayed on as team manager, and Coach Johnson thought a little playing time would be a fitting show of gratitude for his dedication.

Jason set the crowd into a frenzy when, after missing his first shot, he sank six three-pointers and a jump shot in the final four minutes. His achievement, captured on videotape, made him a national sensation.

Jason, known as "J-Mac" to friends in his upstate New York suburb, made appearances at the ESPY awards, the NCAA Final Four and the NBA finals. In addition to the president, he got to meet Oprah Winfrey, Peyton Manning and Jessica Simpson.

Letters still pour in from all over the world. People with autism write to thank Jason for serving as a beacon of hope for others.

"Can you look back at all and tell me what is has been like, Jason, to live in your shoes?" TODAY's Matt Lauer asked.

"It's been fun and amazing," said Jason.

Still playing basketballIn addition to his part-time job at a supermarket, Jason still plays in nightly pickup games at the "Y," but admits he has never been able to repeat the feat that got his name in newspapers and magazines from coast to coast.

"When you play with your buddies, do they kind of expect you to make every single shot?" Lauer asked.

"The expectations are really high, but not exactly," Jason said, laughing.

His parents, David and Debbie McElwain, who appeared on TODAY with Jason and his older brother Josh, said they still can't believe all of the attention Jason's performance has received.

"After that game when he scored 20 points, I thought, 'Gee, his name might be in the paper,' " David McElwain said.

Now there are even discussions about turning his life story into a book and movie. (Jason said that he thought Matthew McConaughey should portray him on film.)

'On a roll'Debbie McElwain admitted that Jason sometimes can get "cocky" about his fame, but she and Josh bring him back down to Earth. She said she hopes Jason's story will encourage other families with autistic children to identify the symptoms early and get treatments designed to foster communication skills before it is too late.

"I never thought he would come this far," Debbie McElwain said of her son's disability, which was diagnosed when he was 2 1/2. "When your child is diagnosed with severe autism, you just want him to speak. Jason had most of the autistic symptoms of severe autism. It was just one hurdle after the next ... You just want him to say one word, because wants an autistic child says the first word, you are on a roll."

Jason's been on a roll ever since the big game, which his team won.

"I just hope more people are aware of autism, the disease autism," he said, "and that people know more about it and get the treatment they need with their children, early in life like my loving mother [did]."

Marked primarily by impaired social interaction and diminished communication skills, autism is a developmental disability believed to be caused by both genetic and environmental factors. Last week, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control issued a report estimating that one in 150 children born in this country are autistic — much more prevalent than previously thought.

— John Springer, contributor for TODAY