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Autism can’t stop this Minnesota racer

Michael Jacobson (left) and his dad, Rick, pose with the checkered flag in front of Michael's Wissota B modified car. (Dennis Peterson / Special to Forum News Service)

Editor’s note: April is Autism Awareness Month. This is the true story of a young Bemidji man and his family struggling with day-to-day activities and how they have overcome many obstacles to live a healthy and productive life in the world of stock car racing.

Autism is a complex neurological disorder and there is no cure. Autism impacts the typical development of the brain. People with autism find it hard to communicate with others and relate to the outside world. Autism is not a mental illness. Autism affects the person but does not define them. Like all people, autistic people have their strengths and weaknesses.

Michael Jacobson, 28, is autistic. This is his story as told to Dennis Peterson by his mother, Kris Jacobson.

Michael was always very energetic. He didn’t sleep much; maybe two hours a night if we were lucky. He had delayed speech but we were told it was because his first years were like he was living underwater. He had many ear infections and two sets of tubes. He had tonsillitis and later a tonsillectomy and later discovered he had a cleft palate. In later years, we found out this is a common sign of children with autism.

Michael was later diagnosed with ADHD. When tested on a scale of 1-10, Michael was a 12 and placed on medication to help him in his early years of school.

We noticed Michael was struggling with reading and school in general in the early grades. One morning Michael went to school without his medication. His teacher said she had never seen a child so night-and-day before. Another teacher said he was lazy and the district said he no longer qualified for special help. His doctor, Neil Skogerboe, told me not to let Michael fall through the cracks. He pushed me to push the school district. You have to learn to fight for your child.

The school found a program through the state of Minnesota called Children with Special Needs. Michael was placed into the program and worked with several specialists who worked with him on a regular basis.

Shortly after, the school district called and scheduled a meeting for us to discuss findings in the advanced testing they did. At this time, I had no idea they had called an expert to observe Michael. The expert presented her observations and findings. She told us our son was autistic. Rick and I looked at each other in total disbelief. I don’t think we heard anything else she had to say after that.

During his high school years, having the same aide made a huge difference for Michael. But when the aide changed, it was disastrous for him. Changes are not good for autistic people. If you change every year from the beginning that’s OK, they understand. But change after six years was not a good idea.

Michael regressed to the age of a 3-year-old. They tried to change it back but it was too late. We said no, he couldn’t handle another change. Several teachers at the high school fought for what was right for Michael and he was soon on track once again.

While Michael struggled in school, he excelled in athletics. He received the presidential fitness award for five years. He played hockey, baseball, soccer and some football. He became a junior black belt in tae kwon do.

Michael took gun safety training and passed the course even though they said he wasn’t paying attention and always fidgeting. I told them that is how he concentrates, let him take the test. He had the best score in the class.

When words have more than one meaning, sometimes Michael gets confused. He doesn’t get slang. He doesn’t understand he might annoy people. When we tell him he is being annoying to someone, he says, “No I’m not. They’re my friend.” We can clearly see that is not the case. He doesn’t understand gray areas, only black and white. Maybe is a yes to him.

When he appears to not be listening, the fact is he is trying to hear everything. He hears all the background noise and cannot tune it out like we do, therefore it is hard for him to focus on our voice alone.

His emotional level is that of an 8-year-old. His cognitive level is that of a preteen or teenager aged 13-16. His mechanical level is close to his natural age.

Autism is expensive and scary at times but I got to hold my son longer than other people because his growth was delayed. He is good with kids. He loves animals. He has hopes and dreams. He is very protective of the people he cares about, sometimes overly protective. He wants to fix everyone’s problems and believes he can and becomes very sad and angry when he cannot.

Michael’s father, Rick, is a well-known stock car racer in the Bemidji area and has won numerous championships and awards racing in various classes. By traveling and watching his dad race, the interest for Michael to get involved was a natural one.

Michael started go-cart racing around 8 years old, racing at various tracks in Fargo and Valley City, N.D., and Staples, Minn., and he had success winning races.

Michael loves racing but doesn’t like crowds or large gatherings of people. He rarely will go to family get-togethers but likes to go racing. He is comfortable there.

In recent years, he has scaled back with different factors getting in the way. He’s had to cut back on some medications for fear of developing Parkinson’s disease and because of allergic reactions to some medications that worked for him but he can no longer take. That makes it frustrating and hard for him.

Rick and Michael never wanted to talk about his challenges. People knew he was different but didn’t understand why.

One night at the Proctor raceway someone said something bad about Rick. Michael turned and tried to defend his dad, and they told him to shut up. We knew it was going to be a long night.

Michael wouldn’t sleep. We went back to the trailer, quickly loaded the car up to go to the hotel and try and calm down.

One of Michael’s favorite drivers, Joey Jensen, came walking up and surprised him from behind. Michael turned around and Joey gave him a huge hug. They talked. Our night was saved.

At that time, the 20/20 race page, an online message board, was huge and people were making lots of negative comments. We thought let’s go on and talk about all the positive people in Michael’s life -- all the racers that make a difference and who are kind to him.

First, we asked Michael’s permission. On the way home, we discussed it with him and he thought it was a good idea. It would be the first time Michael openly talked about his challenges.

We could not believe the responses. So many people wanted to help us financially but that was not what we wanted.

Michael has so many friends in the racing community. When he needs any of them, they are there.

Besides Jensen, there is Steve Arpin, Mike Bader, Johnny Broking, Katie and Shane Sabraski, the Dyrdahl boys, Doyle Erickson, Jason Sanderson, the Englestads, Jason Thoennes, the Sadeks, the Borgens, the Bergs, the Nelsons, the Fullertons, Caley and Candy Emerson, the Tardy brothers, the Kintners, the Canons, Jason Voigt, the Esteys and so many more. Many of them helped with not only kind words of encouragement but with help for his racing as well.

On Michael’s Wissota B modified car and his father Rick’s Wissota A modified car is the slogan “Autism Awareness.”

Gary James Nelson, who also races in the Wissota B modified class, asked if he could also have the slogan on his car. We were honored, and shortly after, Nelson won a feature at Bemidji Speedway and pulled into victory lane with the slogan facing the grandstand for all to see.

Last August, Michael won his first race in the prestigious Wissota B modified class. Michael and his dad will be back on the track next summer. Look for Michael in the No. 7 B modified and his dad in the No. 7 A modified at Bemidji Speedway and various other tracks throughout the Midwest.

Special thanks to Kris and Rick Jacobson for this story and especially to Michael Jacobson for his courage in sharing his life and struggles with us all.

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