Jumpabola Pragmatic

Column: Winners bask in ‘Autism’s Got Talent’ show glow

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

That line came from a comedian perched behind a drum set who punctuated each joke with a bada boom and a cymbal strike as laughter erupted.

“I’ve 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 comedy routine to attract the votes of online viewers.

“America’s Got Talent”? No, “Autism’s Got Talent.”

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

The contestants sang, danced, played piano, strummed air guitar, worked hand puppets, mimicked singer Jason Mraz, and much more. When final votes were tallied last week, Carson earned first place and $2,500. He was adorned with a crown, a red velvet cape and a mirror-ball mic.

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

“Working in a professional recording studio and being the center of attention with sound checks and lighting is so important for these kids who have a hard time finding a way to shine among their mainstream peers,” says Jan Wehlage, Carson’s mother.

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

When the pandemic scuttled their usual fundraisers — Splash for Cash swimathon, Beers and Cheers and Lights, Camera, Autism event— board members of the Autism Society of San Diego got creative in finding 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’ve ever put on gave me the intoxicating feeling we got in the studio,” says Jorie Ellazar. She and her husband, Joel, handle marketing and public relations for a living. They both serve on the board of the local autism society.

The idea of a competition showcasing the talents of those the group serves emerged from a brainstorming session between Jorie and some lady friends.

Rock and Roll San Diego, a longtime client of Joel, is equipped 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 for recording performances, so the Ellazars enlisted the studio’s support, and “Autism’s Got Talent” was born.

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

Word spread, and 23 candidates from throughout 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 Lego stop-motion animation. Any skill was fair game.

The contest far exceeded their expectations, says Jorie. Not only did it spread community awareness, it built self-confidence in the performers.

The home-recorded videos were posted online along with heart-tugging back stories of the contestants that proved “American’s Got Talent” has nothing on “Autism’s Got Talent.”

The top seven performers were invited for a second round, this time in the Rock and Roll studio. Again, votes were tallied. Three finalists were chosen by voters, and the performer getting the most votes was crowned the winner.

The 2020 competition, won by DJ-performing teenager Jonah Parks, of Carlsbad, caught the attention of the Southern California autism community. So this year’s event was opened to entrants from Los Angeles, Riverside and Orange counties.

Not only did the original contest raise about $40,000 for services, more importantly, it raised spirits, camaraderie and self-esteem of contestants.

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

This summer, at the autism society’s 20-year 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.

“So many people there were families with young kids who are struggling,” says Wehlage, Carson’s mom. “It was giving them hope to hear Carson talking to them.”

She explained that her son had a tough time with speech when he was young. When he eventually spoke, he failed to complete sentences or parroted the last few words said by others.

“He had all the complications of autism and speech delay and ADHD. Now he’s doing standup comedy. Carson is an example of what you can turn into.”

Carson also came up with the idea of carrying a poster as he had seen homeless people do. Except Carson’s poster read: “I’m not homeless. I’m a contestant on ‘Autism’s Got Talent.’ I want your vote.” He walked along La Jolla Shores with his sign.

“Carson truly does have a good heart, and he loves to make people smile and laugh,” says his mother. “Despite the tethers of autism, he wants to inspire other kids coming along who can’t understand yet that they can disable their disability.”

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 holds, Carson replied, “I’m not sure yet. I want to do more comedy.”

In his act, Carson acknowledged that he misses social clues, and he talked about sports.

“I don’t get how this celebrating thing 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 that’s not acceptable in bowling.”… Bada…boom.