Child with autism shines on stage

- To know what she means, you'd have to see him in the classroom.

In Mr. Catania's fifth-grade class at Gorrie Elementary, Jacob sits looking down shyly. He is quiet, unassuming and undeniably autistic.

But none of that worries him.

“My friends like me. I'm not one of who is afraid…who is afraid," he continued, stuttering again, "of showing off my autism. My friends like me for my autism. I'm a really blessed kid."

Yes he is.

The scene is set for a children's play like most others at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts.  Cruella DeVille just revealed her devilish plan to steal the beautiful Dalmatians, and to the right, her henchman -- played by 11-year-old Jacob Potantus -- is dancing, laughing and owning his part as the villain.

It's hard to imagine that this is the same boy who, at two, doctors diagnosed with autism and said would never talk.

“When he's on the stage he lights up. He's a different child," said his mother, Heather. "It's like when he gets in that costume or when he gets on that stage -- he doesn't have autism. He can almost turn it off.

Jacob is smart and funny, but modesty -- that's not exactly his strong suit.

"I hear you're pretty awesome on the stage," Laura said, prodding him.

"Aw, yes!," he lit up. "I am like a comedian on the stage. I'm like an abomination with the mic!"

And he is. He just found his thing.
 
"There's this mode where I need to get serious," he explained. "So I just switch to it and everything is better."

No one has been able to pinpoint exactly how or why, but it doesn't really matter.  It is the result of years of work, prayer and practice.

"Early intervention is key," said Heather, "He will tell you he's been through hours and hours and hours and hours of therapy. Physical therapy, speech therapy, behavioral therapy..."

Heather has been dogged about getting Jacob everything he needs to succeed, from accommodations in school, to the very best doctors and therapists.

And she confesses, the process wasn’t always easy.

"It was the hardest thing I've ever done because, as a parent- you know- you want your child to be perfect.”

But what Jacob is teaching her is to just go with it.

He recently won a public speaking competition at his school, which gave him the opportunity to go the big awards ceremony for Teacher of the Year and introduce his teacher, Mr. Catania, who was a nominee.

He's also speaking at a few schools in the next few weeks on diversity, and we also learned that he auditioned for a commercial and he got it!

Jacob Potantus is inspiring without even meaning to.

"It was important that he knows that he's different- that he can make a change and help people learn that different is okay," Heather said proudly.

Their love gave him the courage to get on the stage, into the spotlight, and out in the open about his autism, and what is happening will make you believe in magic.
 

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