MN 3rd grader starts school year with speech about autism

Lindsey Seavert, KARE The beginning of the new school year moves pretty fast, but that's okay with Jackson Cook, a third grader from West St. Paul.

At the Twin Cities German Immersion School, his 8-year-old mind races with ideas in art class. He drew a soapbox derby car he spent all summer building, which he'll debut in a practice race after school.

After art is over, he readies himself to walk back into his third-grade classroom. He's practiced for this moment too.

"Your turn," said Frau Sims, his teacher.

Jackson, also nicknamed Jax, walked slowly to the front of his class, papers in hand.

"Raise your hand if you know what autism is," said Jackson. "Raise your hand if you know that I have autism. It makes some parts of my brain work really well and some parts my brain work not very well. Doctors don't know what makes some brains have autism and some brains not have it. I have it, but Charley doesn't, even though he's my twin brother."

Jackson wanted his new class to understand why he's easily frustrated or avoids eye contact. He's on the autism spectrum, and also struggles with ADHD and anxiety.

"Sometimes I need help learning things that other brains automatically know," as he read the speech carefully. "Like my brain tells my body that it is not comfortable to look at someone in the face when they talk to me."

"The autism in my brain is something that I like, and something that I don't like, but it's part of me, just like your brain is part of you," said Jackson.

"Why do you not like your autism sometimes?" asked one student, hand in the air.

"Because it can do stuff I don't like," said Jackson.

He wrote the speech with the help of his mom, Beki Cook, after struggles in school last year when other students didn't understand why he needed extra help at times.

"Now he feels more empowered to say 'that's because of the autism in my brain,' and it was really important to me that he and others are able to see the difference between Jackson and the autism," said Beki Cook, his mother. "I am hoping by never allowing him to feel ashamed of who he is and showing him I'm not ashamed of who he is, that will help him as he grows older."

The students applauded as Jackson finished his speech. He told them how he spent the summer building a lifelike arcade from cardboard in preparation for an arcade-themed birthday party. He admitted he struggles with subtraction but is really great at multiplication and told them how he easily memorizes tons of movie lines.

"It may also help you realize why I might make a really good friend or partner in class, because my brain -- just like yours -- can do some pretty amazing things," said Jackson. "I brought these brain shaped chocolates to share with all of you to help remember how SWEET all our brains are. Thank you."

"I thought it was a good speech because it was really nice and really brave," said Soleil Schnellinger, a fellow student.

Jackson happily fielded more questions from the class and learned he can make friends in a hurry when the answer is acceptance.