Roxborough junior has been 'Overcoming Great Odds' his whole life

Posted: May 19, 2014

GERALD SINGLETON grew up a fatherless, only child in Overbrook, always in search of a hero.

But over the last few years, the pursuit ended with his son, Javahn Singleton.

The 17-year-old Roxborough High School junior acts as a brother, a caregiver, a friend, a football player, a social butterfly and a videographer. Singleton says he always believed in his son, but he never expected so many facets.

"Javahn is my hero at this point because I've watched him struggle with his inwardness, his shyness, his awkwardness when he was younger," Singleton said. "I've watched him blossom into a very outgoing, gregarious, special young man."

Javahn has Asperger's syndrome, a form of autism characterized by difficulties with social interaction, repetitive behaviors and intense focus on certain interests.

Yet, he has exceeded all expectations - especially this year. Earlier this month, Javahn won an award for "Overcoming Great Odds," a documentary he directed about his life that showed at the Greenfield Youth Film Festival, a local high school film competition.

That honor followed the Gary Butler Unsung Hero Award, which was bestowed on Javahn in February by the Public League.

Javahn won the festival's "Voices Heard Award," which organizers said is for the film "that best promotes awareness and appreciation of the lives and stories of people who live with disabilities or obstacles." It features interviews with his family and friends.

Pretty good, considering that some counselors didn't know if Roxborough's communications program was a good fit for Javahn, said Derek Stevenson, his mentor and cinematography teacher. "You don't have to be the sharpest pencil in the box, but you just have to be teachable and willing to learn, and I think that's Javahn."

The Public League award was given to Javahn because "as a junior, he was head and shoulders above the player he was as a sophomore," said Roxborough football coach Mike Stanley, who nominated the 6-foot-2-inch, 282-pound defensive lineman for the honor.

Javahn learned last fall that he had Asperger's when a local newspaper profiled him, revealing the condition that he had been diagnosed with when he was 3 years old. His curiosity about Asperger's prompted the documentary, he said.

"I have it and don't even know about it," Javahn said, sitting inside the school's TV studio. "I probably already knew something when I realized I can't really talk to a person looking them straight in the eye sometimes."

He reaches over to a nearby plastic potted plant and gently rubs a couple of its small green-and-white leaves repeatedly while he talks with a reporter.

"Mom and Stevenson say I have a bad habit of picking up something, touching it for a while and putting it down somewhere else from where it's supposed to be," he said.

Besides winning awards, Javahn accomplishes equally important goals that bring smiles to the faces of Roxborough staffers and his parents. He's a B student in regular classes and this past season, he was near the top of the Roxborough football team in tackles.

"I'm just so proud of what he's accomplished," Stanley said. "The strides and growth I've seen with him. He shows up, he works hard, he continues to want to get better."

Singleton's dedication also extends into the Overbrook home he shares with his father and grandmother, Eva Norman. He helps take care of Norman every morning because his father has to leave for work early.

"I leave Javahn instructions. He helps her with her insulin and makes sure she takes her heart medication," Singleton said. He also fixes his grandmother breakfast and "makes sure she's comfortable" before he's off to school, he added.

Javahn's parents - who are no longer together but share custody - wanted to keep the diagnosis from him because they didn't want him to use it "as an excuse," they said.

"We don't make big things out of stuff in our household. We just never did," said his mother Juankenia Williams, whose father is the legendary singer Billy Paul, of "Me and Mrs. Jones" fame.

As a tot, "Javahn was always a very happy baby," she said. "He's always happy, I don't think I own a picture where he wasn't laughing."

But Williams said she observed something was amiss about her son. "I noticed that Javahn was a little different, his eye contact was a little off. He would go into his own way," she said.

"He couldn't express himself the way he wanted to," she added. "If his shirt would get wet, it would freak him out. Wet feet, it would freak him out."

Javahn doesn't remember, but does recall being placed in classes at Shawmont Elementary in Roxborough with kids who had severe disabilities. The school's other kids moved around from class to class, but his group stayed in the room, he said.

"He wondered, 'Why am I in this class?' " said Singleton, who noted that his son "was always the best in the class."

Other students laughed at Javahn and his classmates in the hallway when they left the class, his father said.

"Kids can be quite mean and at that age, he was big, he was way bigger than other kids," Williams said, adding that computers were "always his friend."

The athletic-oriented Singleton was frustrated that his son thought sports were "nonsense" and was averse to playing catch. "He would let the ball hit him in the chest," Singleton said.

That all changed when he played league football in ninth grade and then started to attend Roxborough.

"I'm in awe of what Javahn can do when he sets his mind to it," his dad said. "He doesn't let his disability bother him or anything like that."


On Twitter: @ReginaMedina

Online: ph.ly/DNEducation

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