By DIANE GASPER-O'BRIEN
PHILLIPSBURG -- Ever notice how switching one letter in a word can change its whole meaning?
Take for instance "autistic."
Alec Weishaar is autistic, having been diagnosed with the neurodevelopment disorder when he was 21âÑ2.
Change that "u" to an "r" and you've got artistic, a different meaning entirely.
But you're still talking about Weishaar.
The autistic Phillipsburg High School student has developed an art for sewing and for drawing people near him.
He has made approximately 300 pajama bottoms for family and friends the past six years, and people are honored to get on his list.
Weishaar has the common behavior traits associated with autism, such as accumulation of facts and information and obsession with numbers.
But he has turned what some might consider a disability into a skill that simply amazes.
Ask Weishaar a number, any number, between one and 300. He not only matches the number with the person who the pair of pajamas was made for, but the choice of material as well.
It all started as a hobby when Weishaar made pajama bottoms for himself during a Family and Consumer Science class at Salina South Middle School. Soon afterward, his immediate family -- Mom, Dad and three siblings -- as well as other family members, began accumulating pajama bottoms, especially at Christmas time and vacations.
"I have 12 pair," said his dad, Jeff, as Weishaar unfolded pair after pair of pants in various prints including several of fishing and golf, as well as hunting and tools and pool balls and money (his dad is a banker).
Weishaar chooses the material for each pair, representing something that reminds him of that particular person.
"We'll be shopping, and I'll see a fabric I like and he'll say, 'Nope, coffee is for mom,' " said his mom, Deb Weishaar. "He won't let me choose what fabric I want because he's choosing for me.
"It's so tied to the person he is making them for. He really does put a lot of thought into that."
He also puts a lot of thought into who he sews pants for.
"We don't know how he chooses who gets (pajamas)," Deb said. "Alec might make a pair for one person in a family and another family member asks for a pair, and he says, 'Sorry, you are not on the list.' Sometimes I think it's seeing a certain fabric and thinking of a certain person. In his mind, he's made a connection between the fabric and the person, and that's why he remembers them so well.
"People have tried to pay for the pajamas, but Alec says, 'No -- no money.' "
But folks have given Weishaar gift cards for fabric, and he and his mom go shopping once a month.
Weishaar, who turned 20 earlier this month, has been able to attend school in a regular classroom since kindergarten and now is a student in the 18- to 21-year-old special education program at Phillipsburg.
This is just his second year at Phillipsburg High, but many people throughout town know about his pajama-making talents -- and his passion for numbers.
"I quiz him on a daily basis," said J.B. Covington, Phillipsburg's head football coach.
When the Weishaar family moved to Phillipsburg from Salina in summer 2012, they frequented the local swimming pool, and Weishaar got to know the lifeguards, several who were football players.
"By the time school started, he was buddies with all those guys," Deb said.
Once school started that fall, Weishaar, who had been a manager for the golf team at Salina South, got to know the Phillipsburg football coaches, for whom he proceeded to make pajama bottoms -- out of football material of course.
He now serves as one of the team managers for both the football and wrestling teams.
"It's amazing to me how accepted he is by every group of kids," said Deb, a former school counselor who substitute teaches in the Phillipsburg school system and gets to witness firsthand the rapport between her son and his schoolmates.
One of those lifeguards at the pool who really gravitated to Weishaar was Hunter Kohler, now a senior who knows what his future goals are because of his friend.
"I just love the guy," said Hunter, who is PJ bottoms No. 272. "He's one of my best friends."
Hunter said it was easy to get to know the Weishaar family their first summer in town because "Mrs. Weishaar is the friendliest person, and she told us about her family, told us about Alec."
Now, Kohler plans to go into special education in college.
"I had no idea what I wanted to do (after high school)," he said. "Then Coach (Andy) Kenney, our special education teacher, saw me with Alec and told me I'd be really good at special ed. So I looked into it. Who would have thought? I found what I want to do in life because of Alec."
Covington said Alec has had similar effects on others.
"He's a joy to be around," said Covington, who in Weishaar's mind is Coach Cov, or No. 264. "It's really been good for our kids to see some of things he's had to overcome."
No one could tell you better about the challenges Weishaar and his family have faced than his mother.
"That first year after he was diagnosed, I could hardly say the word 'autism' without getting choked up," Deb said.
Now, she gets choked up watching her son getting noticed for being artistic, with little emphasis on his autism.
"Everybody has really embraced him," she said. "We've been blessed."