By Caroline T. Lubbe.
How do you get out of homework when you’re in the fourth grade and writing feels impossible because of your dysgraphia? You convince your teacher to let you write a book instead. How do you get out of homework when you’re in eighth grade? You write a book of monologues based on your book and then produce your own community fundraiser.
At least, this is what you do when you’re Jordan O’Kelley.
When Jordan was 4 years old, he was identified as autistic. When he was 10 years old, he was recognized as gifted. Jordan’s strengths and challenges are part of his profile as a twice-exceptional or 2e individual.
He wrote his first book, The O’Kelley Legendary Legends of Legend: How I Got Out of Homework in the 4th Grade, as a way of embracing his strengths and to provide an alternative to the monotony of homework for a 2e student. Reading three grade levels ahead of his class, Jordan was frustrated with having to write book reports on fourth grade books. With his teacher’s consent, Jordan wrote each chapter as a family story.
Several years later, in 2018, Jordan met Dr. James Webb, founder of Supporting Emotional Needs of the Gifted, at the annual SENG Conference. Jordan was immediately impressed with the dedication of Dr. Webb in his unwavering advocacy for gifted and 2e individuals and their families. When Dr. Webb died shortly after, Jordan decided to write O’Kelley Legends Monologues and then present the monologues as a stage production to further SENG’s work.
The O’Kelley Legends monologue show premiered as a stage read at the Actors Art Theater in Los Angeles on February 17, 2019. Jordan and his sisters, Macey and Rachel, together with their parents Harri James and Brian O’Kelly, founded The O’Kelley Lab for the family’s creative efforts. They decided to develop and produce a behind-the-scenes film to document the commitment of Jordan and his family and to highlight the support team and community that brings the monologue show to fruition. The result is the documentary, O’Kelley Legends: 2e Behind the Scenes.
Jordan dedicated the production to Dr. Webb and SENG. Notably, SENG recognizes the whole gifted and 2e individual throughout their lifespan in SENG’s mission to empower families and communities to guide gifted and talented individuals to reach their goals: intellectually, physically, emotionally, socially, and spiritually.
The importance of family and community is emphasized throughout the documentary. Classmates and cast members and their families are featured in the film as well as mentors for key supports in directing, writing, editing, casting, producing, audio, and production design.
This is my biome,
It's what I call home,
All of my time I spent building you
Minecraft parody, theme music to Legendary Legends Monologues
The music for the stage read and the documentary is Minecraft parodies—Minecraft being an activity that was at the center of a number of 2e cast members when they were younger. Creating a 2e biome is more than a video game goal. Many families and caregivers do exactly this in seeking educational and social environments where their neurodivergent can thrive.
Harri James, Jordan’s mother, directed the film, and she documents the process of Jordan’s journey as he creates a neurodivergent-friendly theater production beginning with casting of 2e individuals, followed by coaching, rewriting, dress rehearsals, and the final live performance. Students, family, mentors, and industry professionals are guided by a strength-based approach. The young performers work individually and together with casting and acting mentors as well as 2e supports, such as Mime as Therapy, and with Jordan as the theater production’s director. Terry Hart who developed Mime as Therapy emphasizes the use of “our bodies to portray the thoughts and emotions that we have”.
The documentary was shown at the Awareness Festival in Los Angeles in October 2021. The festival’s aim is to raise awareness of real-world issues through independent films from around the globe. O’Kelley Legends: 2e Behind the Scenes won the Most Uplifting Film Award at the festival. The documentary also has been selected for international festivals including the Stockholm City Festival, Toronto International Women Film Festival, Bright Future Independent Film Festival—Gothenburg, Los Angeles Show Business Shriners Film Festival, Borrego Springs Film Festival, and the Crown Wood International Film Festival.
In the three years since the stage production, Jordan has started college and, at 16 years old, is a junior and majoring in physics in the Early Entrance Program at California State University Los Angeles Early Entrance Program. Jordan has become an advocate for 2e education.
Jordan continues to write and frequently speaks at education conferences on his experiences as a 2e student in public and private schools and autism advocacy. He remains involved with The O’Kelley Lab which seeks to support new therapies and approaches to improve 2e education. His YouTube series, “2e Like Me”, promotes 2e awareness. In the summer of 2021, he interned at NASA for the N3 Neurodiversity Network. This coming summer, Jordan will be a physics research intern at Vanderbilt University in collaboration with the Frist Center for Autism & Innovation.
Supporting Jordan was the inspiration for The O’Kelley Lab to explore alternatives to mainstream or general education school settings. Harri and Jordan emphasize the benefits of a strengths-based environment for twice-exceptional learners and allowing their abilities to shine. Jordan recently commented on his motivation, “I hope I can be an inspiration and empower other autistic individuals and their families to follow their passions and strive to reach their potential by identifying and embracing their differences.”
The documentary reinforces this focus on strengths development. Jordan’s directing and casting mentors provide him with advice to work with his cast as a theater director: “Give them guidance to be comfortable. Communicate that you’re having a great day, and you’re on their side. We want them to shine.”
Empowering and giving support to twice-exceptional people and their families is necessary for 2e individuals to shine. In Jordan’s view, “if you have a kid that hates homework, maybe give them a break and let them write something that they want to write about instead.”
Lean into their strengths. Let them shine.
O’Kelley Legends: 2e Behind the Scenes https://theokelleylab.com/2e-behind-the-scenes/
Books by Jordan O’Kelley https://theokelleylab.com/okelley-legends/
Jordan on Instagram https://www.instagram.com/jordanokelley/?hl=en
Caroline T. Lubbe is a graduate student at Bridges Graduate School of Cognitive Diversity, a director on the national board of SENG, and the parent of a cast member in the original theater production of O’Kelley Legends Monologues.