While it’s been a difficult year of isolation for most people during the pandemic, it’s been especially hard on members of the autism community, whose access to schools, recreation, arts and support programs has been limited.

But this month, a small group of San Diego children and adults on the autism spectrum are participating in a fundraising version of “America’s Got Talent” called “Autism’s Got Talent.” Inspired by the original “Autism’s Got Talent” competition in the United Kingdom, it’s a cash prize contest that raises money for Autism Society San Diego.

Joel and Jorie Ellazar, a married couple who served on the society’s “Autism’s Got Talent” committee, said the idea was developed because the pandemic had prevented the society from hosting some of its annual fundraisers this year. Joel Ellazar does public relations for Rock and Roll San Diego, a recording studio that also provides livestreaming, and he came up with the idea to have the show’s finalists film their performances at the studio for an online competition decided by public vote.

The voting system follows the style of NBC’s “America’s Got Talent” competition, which has a history of providing an inclusive platform to performers of all abilities. The grand prize winner of last year’s 14th season was Kodi Lee, a singer and pianist who is on the autism spectrum and blind.

Initially, there were 23 contestants in the San Diego competition, ranging in age from 5 years old to nearly 30. The talents these contestants performed ranged from singing, dancing, playing instruments and even making a salad, Jorie said. The top seven semifinalists were filmed at Rock and Roll San Diego and the public had the opportunity to vote on their their favorite artists up until Monday evening. Each vote costs $5 to cast.

From those votes, the top three finalists were chosen by public vote: Jonah “J the King” Parks, a DJ; Carson Wehlage, a comedian and drummer; and Jungle Poppins, a pop band made up of Ethan Marr, Brendan Kerr, Reid Moriarty and Steven Crowle. Those three acts will be recorded in studio on Wednesday for a final round of public voting that begins Thursday. The winner, which will be announced Oct. 21, will receive a $1,000 prize. The second prize is $500 and the third prize is $250.

“COVID has got a lot of us down and really we’re hoping this brought something positive for the families to focus on, and also for the people watching it and for the people who want to help,” Joel said. “This is an organization that does so much for individuals on the spectrum. This event really worked out on every level.”

Autism Society San Diego offers a variety of recreation programs, educational scholarships and camp programs. Its annual Camp I Can costs more than $100,000 to run and its Surf Camp costs more than $60,000. All money raised through Autism’s Got Talent will go toward the camp programs in 2021. Joel said the society is considering turning the Autism’s Got Talent contest in an annual event.

To see and vote on the finalist performances of “Autism’s Got Talent” or make a donation to Autism Society San Diego, visit: autismsgottalent.us.launchpad6.com.

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