Column: Winners revel in ‘Autism’s Got Talent’

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“My bank called me recently because they noticed some very suspicious activity on my credit card. … It was from a gym membership.

This line came from a comedian perched behind a drumset who punctuated each joke with a bada boom and cymbal strike as the laughter erupted.

“I also realized that if at first you don’t succeed, skydiving is not for you …” Bada boom …

Carson Wehlage, 19, of Rancho Santa Fe, was on stage in front of cameras doing his comedic routine to garner votes from viewers online.

“America has talent”? No, “Autism has talent.”

Judges Simon Cowell, Sofia Vergara, Heidi Klum and Howie Mandel were nowhere in sight at this talent show. But it didn’t matter. The contestants devoted their hearts and souls to their performances under the lights of the San Diego Rock and Roll facility near the Sports Arena, where many professional performers rehearse.

Contestants sang, danced, played piano, strummed air guitar, worked hand puppets, emulated singer Jason Mraz, and more. When the final votes have been counted last week, Carson took home first place and $ 2,500. It was adorned with a crown, a red velvet cape and a micro mirror ball.

Singer Jonah Palmer took second place; third place goes to pianist Bruce Kopstein, with the precocious talent of being able to listen to a song and then play it.

“Working in a professional recording studio and being the center of attention with sound and lighting checks is so important to these kids who are struggling to find a way to shine among their ordinary peers,” says Jan Wehlage. , Carson’s mother.

This was the second production of “Autism’s Got Talent”. Instead of being silenced by the lockdown, this event grew out of the pandemic.

When the pandemic scuttled their usual fundraisers – Splash for Cash swimathon, Beers and Cheers and Lights, Camera, Autism event – the Autism Society of San Diego board members got creative to find a way to generate financial support for services vital to the autism community.

The resulting program not only raised money, it raised the bar.

“No fundraiser I have ever organized has given me the intoxicating feeling we had in the studio,” says Jorie Ellazar. She and her husband, Joel, manage marketing and public relations for a living. They both sit on the board of the local autism society.

The idea for a competition showcasing the talents of those the group serves was born out of a brainstorming session between Jorie and a few friends.

Rock and Roll San Diego, a longtime client of Joel, is outfitted with a stage, control room and rehearsal studios that became available when music tours and performances were canceled due to the lockdown .

It was a perfect setting to record performances, so the Ellazars asked for studio support, and “Autism’s Got Talent” was born.

They created a website to post photos, biographies and videos of competitor performance. Viewers could cast as many votes as they wanted, for $ 5 each, during the five-day voting period, with the proceeds going to autism programs.

Word spread and 23 applicants from across San Diego County signed up and submitted videos for the initial competition last October.

Their talents were diverse. Auditions included making a salad and creating a stop-motion Lego animation. All skill was a fair game.

The competition far exceeded their expectations, says Jorie. Not only did this raise awareness in the community, but it boosted the self-confidence of the performers.

The videos recorded at home were uploaded with poignant stories of the contestants who proved that “American’s Got Talent” had nothing to do with “Autism’s Got Talent”.

The top seven artists have been invited for a second round, this time in the Rock and Roll studio. Once again, the votes have been counted. Three finalists were chosen by voters, and the artist with the most votes was crowned the winner.

The 2020 competition, won by teenage DJ Jonah Parks of Carlsbad, has caught the attention of the autistic community in Southern California. This year’s event was therefore open to attendees from Los Angeles, Riverside and Orange counties.

Not only did the initial contest raise around $ 40,000 for the services, but more importantly, it boosted the spirit, camaraderie and self-esteem of the participants.

Carson, who finished second last year, insisted on competing again this year. He campaigned enthusiastically for the votes, and his hard work paid off.

This summer, during the Autism Society’s 20th anniversary celebration for its surf camp and CampICan programs, Carson approached families and gave them free beach balls. He mentioned the talent show and asked for their vote if they liked his act.

“There were so many people in families with young children who were struggling,” says Wehlage, Carson’s mother. “It gave them hope to hear Carson speak to them.”

She explained that her son had difficulty speaking when he was young. When he finally spoke, he either failed to finish his sentences or repeated the last words spoken by others.

“He had all the complications of autism, speech delay and ADHD. Now he’s doing stand-up comedy. Carson is an example of what you can become.

Carson also had the idea of ​​wearing a poster like he had seen homeless people do. Except the Carson poster said, “I’m not homeless. I participate in the show “Autism’s Got Talent”. I want your vote. He was walking along La Jolla Shores with his sign.

“Carson has a really good heart and he loves making people smile and laugh,” his mother says. “Despite the links to autism, he wants to inspire other children who may not yet understand that they can turn off their disabilities.”

When he won, Carson told his parents, “I feel so good about myself.”

He graduated from Torrey Pines High School in June. When I asked him what his future held for him, Carson replied, “I’m not sure yet. I want to do more comedy.

In his act, Carson admitted that he lacked social cues and he spoke about sports.

“I don’t understand how this party works,” he told listeners. After winning a game last week, he said: “I decided to throw the ball into the crowd like they do on TV. Apparently this is not acceptable in the bowling alley. »… Bada … boom.


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