Alexandra Jackman: A Passion for Peers in Need

Alexandra Jackman's empathy helped her connect with her peers with autism, and open avenues to better communicate with them.

Alexandra Jackman helped organize Teen Night Out, a monthly social event in Fanwood for young adults with special needs.
Alexandra Jackman helped organize Teen Night Out, a monthly social event in Fanwood for young adults with special needs.
Photo by John Emerson

Alexandra Jackman’s empathy for youths with autism can be traced to summer camp when she was nine. She struck up a friendship with Jamie, a girl in a wheelchair who often seemed isolated except for her aide. It turned out Jamie had cerebral palsy and could only communicate with hand signals. As Jackman spent more time with Jamie, other girls in their group started to include her in more activities.

“If I hadn’t been curious,” says Jackman, now 17, “I would have missed that opportunity to get to know a friend.”

Back at middle school in Westfield, Jackman noticed a number of her classmates did not interact with their peers with autism—not out of malice, she surmised, but due to a lack of understanding. She channeled her concern into a year-long project focused on autism acceptance and awareness. The project became the Teen’s Guide to Understanding and Communicating With Autism, which she published on YouTube in 2013, shortly before she entered Westfield High School. The video adds to an understanding of people with autism by drawing parallels to behaviors any teen would likely experience.

“What a lot of people don’t realize,” says Jackman, “is when a person with autism is flopping their arms or rocking back and forth…, they’re doing that to handle the same emotions as someone who’s twirling their hair or biting their nails.” Since the video was released, Jackman has spoken at schools throughout the state. The video, which has been shown at film festivals, is used for autism awareness and anti-bullying campaigns, and has been featured during New Jersey’s Week of Respect in October. Jackman also recently translated the film into Spanish.

These days, Jackman—working with Autism Family Times and Intensive Therapeutics of West Caldwell—orchestrates Teen Night Out, a monthly social event at the Fanwood community center for young adults with special needs. The themed parties create a “judgment-free” space for people from across the special-needs spectrum. Additionally, Jackman volunteers at Children’s Specialized Hospital in Fanwood, promoting meaningful interactions for kids with special needs.

“What’s so great about New Jersey is there are so many resources for people with autism,” she says. “To have so many organizations with the same kind of goal is really great.”

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