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Autism

Smithtown Town Hall. File photo by Rachel Shapiro

Smithtown Town officials plan to go blue next week to celebrate April as national autism awareness month.

The Town of Smithtown will hold a Light the Town Blue ceremony April 9 at 5:30 p.m. in front of town hall, located at 99 W. Main St. The event will feature Autism Speaks advocate Kathleen Lanese, along with her husband, Rick, and sons, Kevin and Brendan.

“I’m so proud that Smithtown will yet again, join with towns and cities across the globe in support of autism awareness this month,” said Smithtown Supervisor Ed Wehrheim (R). “We as a society must do more to bring attention and understanding to this increasingly more common neurological condition, affecting development in our children.”

Throughout April, giant blue puzzle pieces and blue lights will mark major landmarks throughout the town including: the statue of Whisper the Bull at the intersection of West Main Street/Route 25 and Route 25A, town hall, and the Town of Smithtown Parks and Highway Department grounds on East Main Street in Kings Park.

Councilman Tom Lohmann (R) and Joe Arico, Smithtown park maintenance director, helped to revive the tradition that started in April 2015. Lohmann will be distributing blue light bulbs to residents on a first-come, first-serve basis, out of his office this week and during the ceremony.

Matthew Lerner, far right, with his lab group at Stony Brook University. Photo from Matthew Lerner

By Daniel Dunaief

An actor draws in members of an audience, encouraging them to understand, appreciate and perhaps even become sympathetic to a world created on a stage. The process of creating scenes for the actor, however, can also change his or her world off the stage.

A team of scientists from Vanderbilt University, University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa and Stony Brook University recently received $3 million in funding from the National Institutes of Mental Health for four years to study how participation in a theater production can help people with autism spectrum disorders.

Matthew Lerner. Photo by Graham Chedd from the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science

“Theater is a venue for learning and gaining skills,” said Matthew Lerner, an assistant professor of psychology, psychiatry and pediatrics at the Department of Psychology at SBU who is leading the Long Island part of a study that will involve about 240 participants from age 10 through 16. “The process of putting on a play with others and being able to successfully produce and perform that has key benefits to learn and practice.”

Called SENSE Theatre (for Social Emotional NeuroScience Endocrinology), the shows were created by the project leader, Blythe Corbett, an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and psychology and investigator at Vanderbilt Kennedy Center, who herself performed in stage plays before pursuing her scientific career.

Corbett writes the plays, which have themes she believes are important not only for autism but also for the general public. The topics include acceptance, belonging and diversity and offer a current of core ideas that are “part of having a condition that is unique,” she said. The plays, which typically have about 20 characters, include music and last about 45 minutes.

Tiffany Adams and Jane Goodwin participate in the SENSE Theatre program. Photo by Steve Green, Vanderbilt University

Corbett explained that the experience uses theater as a platform for teaching fundamental areas that could help people with autism spectrum disorders, including reciprocal social communication, flexible thinking and behavior and imagination.

“It also gives [the participants] an opportunity to be exposed to social situations and to engage with others in a safe and supportive environment,” she said. “They can be John today and Henry tomorrow, which allows them to expand their repertoire in a playful, fun way” which, she hopes, might help them assimilate lessons when the program ends.

Corbett has been developing SENSE Theatre for nine years. This specific multisite project will allow her to see how transportable this program is to other locations, where other investigators who have not been involved with this before can employ it with other participants.

The investigators, which include Corbett, Lerner and Susan White at the University of Alabama, will monitor the participants through psychological testing, social interaction and research EEG, or electroencephalography. This is a noninvasive way of monitoring electrical activity in the brain that involves placing electrodes on or below the scalp. The EEG testing takes about 45 minutes.

Participation is free, although members, who go through a screening process, need to contribute to the research program by completing the evaluations.

The theater program has a control study, calling Tackling Teenage Training, in which participants will “address some of the challenges of being a teen,” which include dating and puberty, knowing how to know if somebody likes or doesn’t like you and how to express desires or interests appropriately, Lerner said.

Savannah Bradley participates in the SENSE Theatre program. Photo from Steve Green , Vanderbilt University

Corbett chose to work with Lerner because of considerable overlap in their interests in using performance to provide clinical help for people with autism spectrum disorders. Lerner “has a very strong interest in theater and is able to understand the core approach” to the training and shows as a form of intervention. He is an “engaging, charismatic individual who is extremely hard-working” and is a “really good choice in terms of harnessing his energy and intelligence.”

Indeed, Lerner and Karen Levine, a licensed psychologist and the co-author of “Treatment Planning for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders,” developed a model in 2004 for youths with disabilities to work on social skills called Spotlight, which utilized techniques of theater games and dramatic training. Spotlight is a program of Northeast Arc, a human services organization founded in 1954 and based in Massachusetts.

The Spotlight efforts started with nine students and has expanded to include hundreds of families each year.

In early high school, Lerner met someone who would change his life. He was having dinner with the family of a friend of his younger sister’s when he noticed a boy, Ben, playing on his own in another room. Lerner asked if he could play with Ben, who was 2 at the time and was running a car back and forth across the top of a toy playhouse.

Lerner mirrored what Ben did. “He looked at me curiously and kept doing what he was doing,” Lerner recalled. “I followed him around for over two hours.”

A scene from a performance by SENSE Theatre. Photo by Steve Green, Vanderbilt University

Up to that point in his life, Lerner thought the experience with Ben was “the most fascinating two hours of my life.” He had made a connection in which he “loved the joy and challenge of trying to meet him where he was, rather than behave in a way that was consistent with what the world expected.”

Lerner studied philosophy and music at Wesleyan University. After earning his doctorate at the University of Virginia, where his dissertation explored why youths with autism experience social problems, Lerner worked at the University of Chicago and then moved to SBU in 2013.

A native of Swampscott, Massachusetts, Lerner lives in Port Jefferson with his wife Chelsea Finn, a pediatric nurse practitioner in the Stony Brook Hospital Emergency Room and a nurse practitioner at SV Pediatrics in Patchogue. The couple has a 4-year-old son Everett and a 6-month-old son Sawyer.

Lerner is looking for people who would like to participate in the study. They can reach out to him by phone at 631-632-7857 or by email at lernerlab@stonybrook.edu. The first set of students will begin working in the SENSE Theatre program this spring and summer.

Corbett said the participants aren’t the only ones who benefit from the program.

“The overwhelming sentiment from those who come to see the performance is that it changes their perception of what it means to have autism,” Corbett said. After the show, some of the audience members “ask who are the children with autism.”

Parents of the actors are pleasantly surprised by the things their children are able to do, which exceed their expectations. “In one of our previous studies, parents reported that their stress went down” during the program, she said, “which appeared to be in response to the child participating in intervention.”

WWE Wrestler and Smithtown resident Mick Foley poses for a photo with the Castoro family during his event Sept. 7 where he raised funds for autistic families affected by Hurricane Harvey. Photo by Kevin Redding

Wanting to help in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, wrestling icon and Smithtown resident Mick Foley stopped by a local comic book shop Sept. 7 to sign autographs for a cause close to home.

The big-bearded and even bigger-hearted 52-year-old best known to WWE fans as Cactus Jack, Mankind and Dude Love visited Fourth World Comics on Route 112 in Smithtown to sign autographs, pose for pictures and raise money for KultureCity, a Birmingham, Alabama-based nonprofit advocating for autism awareness and acceptance.

WWE wrestler and Smithtown resident Mick Foley poses for a photo with young children during an event at a comic book store in Smithtown where he raised money for Hurricane Harvey relief efforts. Photo by Kevin Redding

Foley helped raise $3,240 for the organization that is helping dozens of special needs families that have been affected by the Category 4 storm in Houston, Texas.

When he found out the group had members on the ground in Texas, and special needs families were struggling with torn-apart homes and lost items, he knew he had to get involved. The organization is also near and dear to Foley, because his son is autistic.

“Anyone who knows about children on the autism spectrum know they tend to thrive on regularity, and so to take everything they have and to suddenly turn that upside down is just devastating — even above and beyond what other families are going through,” Foley said. “This just seemed like a good way to make a difference. The money we raise may not change the world, but it will change the lives of these families.”

As a frequent shopper and celebrity guest at Fourth World in recent years, Foley took his idea for the meet-and-greet fundraiser directly to Glenn Fischette, the comic book store’s owner.

“It was really last minute, [but] as we can’t really go down there and help, we figured this is a good way to do it,” said Fischette, adding that he and Foley spent a day and a half blasting the event across social media after Foley proposed the idea Sept. 5. By 5 p.m. on the day of the event, an hour before Foley was set to arrive, a long line of super fans had already assembled outside.

WWE wrestler and Smithtown resident Mick Foley meets young fans during a signing to raise money for Hurricane Harvey victims. Photo by Kevin Redding

“People just love him. I know a lot of people who’ve been here before to see him, and they want to see him again,” the owner said. “He’s really into the charity stuff, so it’s great.”

Set up behind a table inside Fourth World Comics, Foley put a smile on the faces of hundreds of adults, teens and kids eager to meet their hero as he signed shirts and his own Pop! Vinyl doll for $20 to $30.

The Castoro family, from Smithtown — parents Jason and Nicole, and their 9-year-old kids Marilena and Brandon — were at the front of the line, each of them donning a wrestling shirt. As excited as they were for Foley, they came to support the cause, too.

“I think it’s wonderful he’s using his celebrity status for a good cause,” said Jason Castoro, a lifelong fan. “Sometimes when we go to meet famous wrestlers, you have to wait on a long line, and that’s just to meet them and take a picture. This really adds something special to it. We realized we had to come to this.”

Nicole Castoro pointed to her daughter, Marinella, who she said came up with a similar idea on her own.

“The other day, she said, ‘why can’t all the wrestlers just give the people in Texas the money they make?’ and here he is, giving them all the proceeds,” she said. “That’s really cool.”

WWR wrestler and Smithtown resident Mick Foley signs an autograph for Chance Clanton, of Austin, Texas, who is staying in New York for the week. Photo by Kevin Redding

Another lifelong WWE and Foley fan was Chance Clanton, an Austin, Texas resident staying in New York for the week. He said he has friends in Houston and is grateful for the overwhelming support from everybody, including his childhood idol.

“It’s really cool that he’s taking time out of his really busy schedule to show support for something like this,” Clanton said. “But it also really was no surprise to me when I heard he doing it, he’s so charitable.”

Throughout the event, Foley shared stories from his career, goofed off and laughed with fans, all the while thanking each and every one of them for being there.

“I’m really flattered by the length of that line — I didn’t think there would be this many people,” Foley said. “This shows the strength and the heart of the Smithtown community and the surrounding areas. We’re called Strong Island for a reason. We pull together. And that’s really nice to know.”

Above, the Cusumano family of St. James stands in front of their newly donated 84-panel solar system that will be used to offset the costs of raising a son with autism. Photo by Sara-Megan Walsh

By Sara-Megan Walsh

A St. James family is looking ahead to brighter days raising their son with autism after receiving a generous donation.

The Cusumano family received an extensive 84-panel solar system donated by SUNation Solar Systems and its not-for-profit SUNation Cares, which will supply free electricity for life. The funds saved will be used to help their 14-year-old son Dylan attend weekly equine therapy sessions at Pal-O-Mine Equestrian in Islandia.

“When we can all come together as a team it makes a tremendous difference in people’s lives, especially people like the Cusumanos who are most deserving to reap the benefits and tremendous rewards that were generously donated,” said Lisa Gatti, founder and executive director of Pal-O-Mine.

The solar panels donated to the family were the end result of positive community building by several local companies. Gatti said she was introduced to Scott Maskin, CEO and co-founder of SUNation, a Ronkonkoma-based solar panel company, through Empire National Bank, where they are both customers. Maskin said as he learned firsthand about the nonprofit work done by Pal-O-Mine to benefit children with disabilities, he asked Gatti if there was a family he could step in to help. That’s when the Cusumanos were nominated.

“We are overwhelmed by the generosity and I think we were stunned because we feel there are so many needy families on Long Island,” said Amy Cusumano, Dylan’s mother. “The gift of solar panels lessens our load or burden so the money we are using to pay an electric bill, we now get to decide if we can increase his horse time or do something else for the boys.”

Dylan, the oldest of the Cusumano’s five sons, started horseback riding at Pal-O-Mine at age 5 due to the therapeutic benefits. Equine therapy provides children with disabilities with positive vestibular, or inner ear, input, can improve speech and language skills, help with walking and can increase fine and gross motor skills, according to Gatti.

“[Dylan] didn’t speak when he came to Pal-O-Mine,” she said. “One of his first words was ‘walk.’ I remember Ms. Cusumano being shocked he began to speak while he was riding.”

Despite seeing improvement, Amy Cusumano said she was forced to discontinue her son’s horseback riding lessons for a few years when financial hardship struck. She said it was heartbreaking.

“When he’s on the horse, he’s so at peace, he’s so totally Dylan,” his mother said. “So when we can give him that half an hour a week where he can just enjoy himself and have some fun, it’s money well spent.”

Cusumano said Dylan’s medical care costs run $35,000 to $40,000 a year on average between co-payments, therapy and those services not covered by insurance. The estimated $3,000 a year the solar panels will save the Cusumano family will be used to help pay for his adaptive riding, which typically costs $260 for four 30-minute sessions.

Dylan’s individually tailored plan through Pal-O-Mine has him riding Ella, a 12-year-old palomino haflinger, once a week. His mother said Dylan frequently requests to go see his horse and cares for her. Horseback riding is motivating to him, and gives Dylan a sense of empowerment and independence, according to Cusumano.

“Autism is not the primary thing we are thinking about,” she said. “Maybe we’re thinking about how amazing he is or that he can ride a horse.”

Mikey Brannigan proudly displays the United States Flag as he races down the London track during the 2017 World Para Athletes Championships. File photo

By Desirée Keegan

Mikey Brannigan didn’t roam the halls of Northport High School, he ran down them. He’d dash through the doors as others raced behind him, saying “catch me if you can.”

“Stop that kid,” Brannigan said they would shout, laughing.

Mikey Brannigan received a proclamation from New York State Assemblyman Chad Lupinacci. Photo from Assemblyman Lupinacci’s office

Brannigan battled his way to a successful high school career, and beyond after graduating in 2015. The runner is continuing to exceed expectations — being the only Paralympic athlete in history to hold simultaneous records in the 1,500-, one-mile, 3,000- and 5,000-meter events. He brought home two gold medals — in the 1,500 and 800 — and silver in the 5,000 at the London 2017 World Para Athletics Championships at the end of last month.

“Make no mistake about it Mikey wants to be the best,” his New York Athletic Club coach of two years, Sonja Robinson said. “His drive — it shines out. You see it. He loves running.”

Brannigan was diagnosed with autism at 3 years old, and began running at 8. Fast-forward 11 years, when as a 19-year-old he became the first individual with autism to win a gold medal in the 1,500. He also became the first athlete with a T-20 Paralympic classification to shatter the 4-minute mile threshold in August 2016 with a 3 minute, 57 second finish at the Sir Walter Miler meet in Raleigh, North Carolina. A month later, he competed in the Special Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where he took home the gold after a dominating 3:51 in the 1,5000.

Mikey Brannigan, at center, is surrounded by politicians and coaches as he shows off his new proclamations and gold and silver medals. Photo from Assemblyman Lupinacci’s office

Now at 20, he’s training to compete in the 2020 Paralympics in Tokyo.

“I’m taking it little by little and want to show everyone that if you take even little steps you can achieve your dreams,” Brannigan said. “Look at all you can achieve. Work hard and you can achieve your dreams. You can achieve anything.”

Brannigan was honored by local government officials at Northport High School Aug. 9, receiving accolades for his accomplishments, while the members also dubbed Aug. 9 Mikey Brannigan Day in New York.

“He’s truly our hometown hero,” state assemblyman Chad Lupinacci (R-Huntington Station) said. “Mikey’s story is nothing short of amazing. What he has accomplished at his age is unheard of. His achievements are a true testament of his hard work, dedication, perseverance, sweat and tears.”

State Sen. John Flanagan (R-East Northport), whose kids graduated from and played sports in Northport, said he was in awe, and pointed to the back of the room — the local kids that were in attendance at the press conference — as the “cool” part of the event.

“He’s truly our hometown hero. Mikey’s story is nothing short of amazing. What he has accomplished at his age is unheard of.”

—Chad Lupinacci

“What we do when we go to Albany is we brag,” he said, putting his hands on Brannigan’s shoulders. “We tell everyone how cool our districts are, we tell everyone about the Northport school district, and we’re very proud of where we live and where we represent. There’s nothing, in my opinion, nothing better than dealing with young adults, no matter what they may be doing, because they’re the future.”

Brannigan grinned as he was invited to Albany in January to be recognized by the entire state legislature. State Sen. Carl Marcellino (R-Syosset) also presented him with a proclamation.

“We’re going to bring you up to Albany, but the bad news is, you have to run there and it’s 200 miles,” Flanagan joked.

“That’s a long, cold trip,” Brannigan responded, waiving his arms no.

Flanagan said he was humbled and proud to be in Brannigan’s presence.

“These are the stories people should know about and want to hear about,” he said. “I went from a stage where I used to run, then I jogged and now I walk. On my best day, I couldn’t even come close to the accomplishments of this young man, who really is a role model.”

State Assemblyman Andrew Raia (R-East Northport) agreed the barriers Brannigan has broken are unbelievable feats.

Mikey Brannigan smiles as he shakes New York State Assemblyman Andrew Raia’s hand during a press conference at Northport High School. Photo from Facebook

“Every day you turn on the television and something bad is happening,” he said. “I want to turn on the television to see this young man. It’s a big responsibility to carry, but in just the few moments I’ve had to talk with him, I know he’s up to the challenge.”

Raia proceeded to tell Brannigan he was going to embarrass him, to which he responded: “Do it.”

The assemblyman pointed out the runner’s red, white and blue Sperry top-siders, and said he needed to find out where he got them.

“He’s such a proud American,” Raia said, to which Brannigan smiled and shook his hand. “We wish nothing but the best. Keep running, my friend.”

Lupinacci shared a similar sentiment during the conference that was broadcasted on Facebook live and viewed by nearly 3,000 people.

“Your family and friends and all of us here today are proud of you,” he said as he gave Brannigan a hug. “Younger generations will follow in your footsteps. You’re not only our hometown hero, you’re an inspiration to all New Yorkers and all Americans. You’re an inspiration to people around the world.”

By Rebecca Anzel

Melonie smiled as she watched her son Justin-Joseph, or J.J. for short, land several backflips on the trampolines at West Hills Day Camp in Huntington on Saturday. The activities at Suffolk Aspergers/Autism Support and Information’s first annual Family Fun Day — zip lines, face painting, sand art and a water slide, in addition to the trampoline park — were the perfect outlet for J.J.’s vast supply of energy.

J.J. is on the autism spectrum — Melonie is, too. “People look at us differently,” she said. “For me, it’s important for J.J. not to have that painful experience.”

SASI, a not-for-profit support group that provides special needs families with helpful resources, provides that sense of community Melonie wants for J.J. Founded in the living room of co-founder Stephanie Mendelson on Dec. 4 of last year, SASI has grown from 12 parents to over 700 families throughout Suffolk County and across the rest of Long Island in eight months.

Co-founder Priscilla Arena said Family Fun Day was meant to be an event for children on the autism spectrum to have carefree fun, and a way for families to bond.

“[I’m excited] for our kids to make friends — to see them smile. Here, they’re part of one community.”

—Priscilla Arena

“[I’m excited] for our kids to make friends — to see them smile,” she said, tearing up. “Here, they’re part of one community. They are the popular kids in SASI.”

Mendelson and Arena, both from Mount Sinai, have children on the autism spectrum. They found there was a lack of resources on Long Island for families and formed SASI as a support group to fill that void.

“Parents found themselves lost, confused, hopeless, alienated, isolated and alone,” Arena said. “SASI created an environment where they could come together and share their stories and experiences.”

To its members, SASI provides information about available resources, advocacy, financial and emotional support. On the last Friday of every month, the group hosts speakers at John T. Mather Memorial Hospital in Port Jefferson — so far, families have heard from a representative from Parent to Parent, a state planning attorney, a Medicaid broker and a parent advocate for education.

The group’s first speaker, special education advocate Danielle Brooks, was at Family Fun Day giving free advice to families. She said SASI is a special organization because it built a caring network for families in a short period of time. The event, she said, was a great opportunity for children to have fun in a safe environment.

SASI also hosts a birthday party club for its member’s children, who range in ages from kids just shy of 3 years old to adults in their late 20s. Arena said children on the autism spectrum have difficulty making friends, so sometimes there are not many others to invite to a child’s birthday party. The group is also working on a lending library, which will help members borrow books donated to the organization; a job skills program; life coach program and blue pages resource handbook, which would help parents find services they need across the island.

Legislator Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai) said she is “thrilled and excited” that Arena and Mendelson founded SASI. Instead of complaining about a lack of resources, she said, the SASI co-founders work hard to address issues.

“I think SASI will be able to address problems and advocate with a stronger, louder voice.”

—Sarah Anker

“I’m really supportive and beyond happy that Priscilla has taken this concern and made it into a centerpiece to gather around — creating this organization so people have a place to go for information and resources,” Anker said. “I think SASI will be able to address problems and advocate with a stronger, louder voice.”

The group has also gained the attention of U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley), who is sponsoring a bill to ensure Americans with disabilities have access to necessary health-care equipment.

“In Congress, one of my top priorities is ensuring that all Americans with disabilities have the resources they need to live independently and happily,” Zeldin wrote in a statement. “I thank the Suffolk Aspergers/Autism Support and Information group for their work in our community to help children and adults with disabilities.”

Family Fun Day was held at West Hills Day Camp in Huntington, a facility famous for its autism-friendly Gersh Academy. The facility donated the space for the event, which Anker said had about 800 attendees.

In addition to the attractions, the event also had refreshments from Crazy Crepes, Mr. Softee and Kona Ice. Families could purchase t-shirts or raffle tickets to win one of many donated baskets.

The event was just the first of many more to come, Arena said. “We’re new, but we’re just getting started.”

For Melonie, Family Fun Day was the perfect way to spend time with her son.

“It’s everything to see smiles on all the kids faces,” Melonie said. “They don’t get this a lot.”

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Alex Eletto crosses the finish line at the Lynn, Gartner, Dunne & Covello Sands Point Sprint. Photo by Mike Polansky

By Joseph Wolkin

Alex Eletto has been running since he was in the seventh grade, and the speed within him only increased with age.

Eletto, now 19, graduated from Ward Melville High School in 2015. Competing on the track and field team throughout his high school career, the Stony Brook-native consistently worked on improving his form.

Come Aug. 10’s annual Lynn, Gartner, Dunne & Covello Sands Point Sprint put on by the Greater Long Island Running Club, Eletto appeared as if he were the Energizer bunny. That Saturday was different than any other for him. Running the 5K course at Sands Point, he roared across the finish line in 18 minutes, four seconds for a first-place finish.

“It was pretty cool,” Eletto said of winning. “I just love running. It was really special for me to win that race.”

Eletto defeated veteran runner Keith Guilfoyle from Commack by four seconds, followed by 15-year-old Jake Meyers of Plainview.

Eletto is focused on completing the race while competing with the Northport Running Club. Photo by Tina Eletto
Eletto is focused on completing the race while competing with the Northport Running Club. Photo by Tina Eletto

“It was awesome to see him win — I saw the look on his face as he was coming to the finish line,” his mother Tina Eletto said. “I think he knew he had it. Somebody was on his tail, but he was not letting up and he was pushing through. As a mom, it’s great to see that.”

Among the 271 runners in the event, Eletto stood out by making it look like he was taking a casual weekend jog. According to one of his coaches from Ward Melville, Brian Schoen, Eletto is “doing really well” after graduating.

“Alex was very focused, determined and a very hard worker,” he said of his former athlete’s high school career. “The distance guys, because they put in so much time and effort, are an extremely tight-knit group. He did an amazing job when he was with us, and Alex has wonderfully represented Ward Melville in every way. He certainly did himself proud.”

In high school, Eletto’s best result was a third-place finish in his senior year during the St. Anthony’s Invitational in May 2015, when he set a personal record of 4:45.10 in the 1,600-meter run.

“He really developed in the 11th and 12th grade,” his mother said. “After he graduated high school, he started on a team called Rolling Thunder. From there, he is now working with coach Mitch Felced. He is running with the Greater Long Island Running Club.”

Entering this latest event, Eletto never expected to earn the victory. It’s his second first-place finish; the first coming in the Heart and Sole 5K in Plainview.

But what makes Eletto’s victory so special for his family is how he got there.

The athlete is on the autism spectrum. While it is not severe, his mother noticed he acted differently compared to others when he was a toddler, and he was diagnosed with pervasive developmental disorder, the most common form of autism, at 5 years old.

“He’s definitely an athlete, and he’s very into staying in shape and eating correctly. He just has such a great passion for the sport.”
— Tina Eletto

“He is very high functioning,” Tina Eletto said. “He has a driver’s license and has his own car. He’s such a nice person that it never really affected him during school with his peers because he was always involved in sports and he was always really friendly, and everybody was the same back.”

The disability has ended up being one that has pushed him to succeed, whether it’s in the classroom or on the field.

“He works through everything,” she said. “His perseverance and determination are so strong that he bought his own car. He worked at Stop & Shop and at a bagel store; so it doesn’t really affect him too much.”

Training during the late evening in the summer, Eletto is constantly focused on improving his skills.

“It’s a great feeling,” Alex Eletto said of being able to overcome his disability to excel in the sport he cares so much about.

Eletto is now preparing for his next venture, as he begins an internship at a nursing home in Medford, working behind the scenes.

“He loves running races,” his mother said. “He’s definitely an athlete, and he’s very into staying in shape and eating correctly. He just has such a great passion for the sport.”

Kylar Intravaia at a press conference with Girl Scouts of America CEO Anna Chavez and Sen. Chuck Schumer. Photo from Jenn Intravaia

Skylar Intravaia was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome at age 9, but never let her high-functioning form of autism hold her back.

“A lot of that has to do with how we dealt with her diagnosis,” her mother Jenn Intravaia said. “We immediately brought her to the library to learn about her diagnosis. We told her she’s not broken — she’s just different. We told her she may have to learn things differently, or learn to do things differently, but that she can do anything she wants to do. That’s how we’ve approached everything. And she’s done fabulous.”

Skylar Intravaia at her Gold Award ceremony. Photo from Jenn Intravaia
Skylar Intravaia at her Gold Award ceremony. Photo from Jenn Intravaia

So fabulously that she graduated from Rocky Point High School this past weekend, and also earned her Girl Scout Gold Award after completing 80 hours of volunteer service on a self-made project that makes a difference in the community.

Skylar Intravaia’s project was fitting for the senior. She realized that there were more students at various points on the autism spectrum in her community than she first thought, and wanted to help kids the way she was helped, in learning to adjust to and deal with her diagnosis.

“I know I had trouble socializing with other kids and making friends when I was younger, and as I got older, I was able to understand that better and I had many more friends,” she said. “Now I’m much more social, but a lot of kids on the autism spectrum don’t get that. I knew I wanted to do something.”

What resulted was the creation of a recreation night. Letters were handed out to nearly 60 kids in the area, and those who wished to attend got together to hang out outside of school, whether it were playing games and just socializing or going out to play laser tag or make plaster paintings.

“I just wanted to figure out something that would help everyone get through what I was facing, because I knew it was so hard for me to get those social skills,” Intravaia said. “I knew it would make things easier while also being really fun.”

The project became so successful that kids would come up to her in the hallway asking when the next meeting was, or she’d receive emails from parents saying how much fun their children had or how much the program was helping.

Skylar Intravaia, on right, and her young Girl Scout friends. Photo from Jenn Intravaia
Skylar Intravaia, on right, and her young Girl Scout friends. Photo from Jenn Intravaia

Although running into some difficulties, as the North Shore Youth Council stopped letting her hold meetings there, she received help from the girls at CreativeZone in Rocky Point, who let her move the meetings there for free.

“Despite some of the challenges along her journey, she was able to come up with some ways around those, and I’m very proud of her,” said Donna McCauley, one of Intravaia’s troop leaders and the service unit team registrar and Gold Award coordinator for Rocky Point. “I was really impressed with her ability to advocate for herself and problem solve along the way. I knew she was going to incorporate that into her project, because it needed to be something they’re passionate about. She’s very mature, reached out and asked for help, and I was really proud to see her accomplishments.”

Following receiving her award, Intravaia said she had many unique opportunities, such as meeting Brookhaven Councilwoman Jane Bonner (C-Rocky Point), Suffolk County Legislature Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai) and U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), and opening NASDAQ.

Anker said she was honored to have met someone so motivated.

Jenn and Skylar Intravaia after Rocky Point graduation last week. Photo from Jenn Intravaia
Jenn and Skylar Intravaia after Rocky Point graduation last week. Photo from Jenn Intravaia

“I would like to extend my sincere congratulations to Skylar for receiving her Gold Award, the highest honor in Girl Scouts,” she said. “She’s amazing. Through her hard work and dedication, she has overcome challenges in her life to help others and is a source of inspiration for her community.”

Intravaia has benefited immensely from Girl Scouts. She’s been known to always help others, whether it be offering to fold laundry for the elderly, stopping to pick up items dropped by a passerby, or beautifying her community.

“She’s been able to do anything she’s set her mind to,” Jenn Intravaia said.

Her daughter will be attending St. Francis College, where she will live this fall, and continue to help those around her.

“She’s learned about community service, how to accept people, it’s been a wonderful experience,” Intravaia said. “She was able to speak to her classmates about what it’s like to have autism, and explained how her brain just operated differently. She started speaking at assemblies and started to become an advocate. I think part of that is because of Girl Scouts. She learned not to hide. She’s a very strong-willed girl. It’s allowed her to be successful.”

A scene from the Gersh Academy’s field day at West Hills Day Camp last Friday, June 10. Photo from Corbett Public Relations

More than 120 North Shore students with autism, in grades K through 12, attended a field day at West Hills Day Camp in Huntington last Friday, June 10. The event was designed to give students with autism the chance to experience fun athletic and recreational activities within a safe and positive environment, while providing them a forum that fosters growth and development.

Celeste Gagliardi, principal of Gersh Academy, said the day was a complete success and a wonderful experience.

A scene from the Gersh Academy’s field day at West Hills Day Camp last Friday, June 10. Photo from Corbett Public Relations
A scene from the Gersh Academy’s field day at West Hills Day Camp last Friday, June 10. Photo from Corbett Public Relations

“Today is the day they get to show how much they’ve grown,” Gagliardi said after the event on Friday in a phone interview. “It was wonderful to watch all of these kids just be themselves.”

Students were able to access numerous athletic and recreational facilities, including several swimming pools, ziplines, supervised rope activities, bounce houses, a playground and an arts and crafts center. The different activities helped develop students’ mental and emotional growth among their peers, while learning skills in athleticism, socialization, teamwork and hand-eye coordination.

The day also included Gersh Academy students enjoying a barbecue lunch prepared and served by individuals with autism between the ages of 18 and 23, who are participants in Gersh Experience. The program offers young adults on the autism spectrum life skills, along with social, psychological and educational support, while they develop their independence. Three of the students will be working at the West Hills Day Camp this summer.

It’s beautiful to see them interact … it’s the cherry on top of the year,” Gagliardi said.

Gersh Academy is a private school for children with special needs in K-12. They have several locations across the Island, including Hauppauge and Huntington.

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