Like a lot of kids his age, Jack Kestner loves animals.
So when the Highland Park boy and his family visited Key Largo a few years ago, his mother, Karen Reis, seized the opportunity for Jack to swim with dolphins.
“He can really relate to animals because they don’t have language,” said Reis of her son, who has autism. “It’s just this bizarre thing.”
The video of Jack’s up-close encounter with a dolphin is among several being showcased by an Edina nonprofit seeking to highlight some of the unique abilities of children and young adults with autism.
Launched earlier this month, “Genuine Genius” is an offshoot of Erik’s Ranch and Retreats, a fledgling group looking to provide jobs and residential living options for young adults with autism.
“I’ve heard it said that if you’ve seen one child with autism, you’ve seen one child with autism,” said Kathryn Nordberg, chief executive officer and founder of Erik’s Ranch and Retreats. “Each is so unique. What we’re trying to do with Genuine Genius is really broaden people’s ideas about what autism looks like.”
So far, the group has collected about 18 videos and has even fielded interest in the program by a family in Taiwan. Now, there are a videos of a 20-year-old Georgia man who makes animal sculptures, a 25-year-old Twin Cities man with an encyclopedic knowledge of aviation history and a 3-year-old girl from Missouri with a penchant for storytelling.
Also featured is Erik Nordberg, Kathryn’s 21-year-old son and the inspiration behind the group.
While Erik is mostly nonverbal and struggles with social interactions, Nordberg said she has always chosen to focus on what Erik can do, not what he can’t. For Erik, that means emphasizing his horseback riding skills.
Erik also makes rather loud sounds, mimicking sound effects or music from television shows and movies, that sometimes can annoy the rest of his family, Nordberg said. Convinced that she could somehow turn that challenging behavior into a skill, Nordberg wants to produce some puppet shows and have Erik serve as a sound effects technician.
“I am constantly thinking of about what the possibilities are for him and others,” she said.
As a parent of a child with autism, Reis said she often gets questions from well-meaning friends and relatives about Jack’s limitations. Genuine Genius focuses some much needed attention on the strengths of children with autism, she said.
That’s particularly important for families who have recently had a child diagnosed with autism, she added. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that one in 50 children have autism spectrum disorder, which is a group of developmental disabilities that frequently impairs a person’s ability to interact socially.
“I just love this program,” Reis said. “It’s going to really help create an awareness about autism while giving families hope.”
Ries said she hopes that someday Jack will be able to live and work at Erik’s Ranch in Montana. That facility near Bozeman is expected to begin receiving guests next sometime next summer. This fall, the group’s residential facility in Edina is slated to open its doors to its first 10 residents.
Meanwhile, the group continues to offer tours around the Twin Cities. Each tour is led by a young adult with autism and — like Genuine Genius — showcases some of their interests and talents.
For more information about Erik’s Ranch and Retreats, including how to submit videos to the Genuine Genius program, visit www.eriksranch.org.