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Autism

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.

Matthew W. Surico stars in a sensory-friendly performance of ‘My Christmas Elf: The Musical’ on Dec. 5 at 11 a.m. Photo by Kristen Digilio

By Melissa Arnold

For a child with special needs, the world can be overwhelming.

The things many of us take for granted — a trip to the mall, stopping for a coffee or going to a show — can be frightening and confusing to children with sensory processing issues.

A sensory processing disorder affects how someone experiences their surroundings. Their senses might be too dull, or heightened to the point of discomfort. The disorder, which impacts at least 1 in 20 children, according to the SPD Foundation, can vary widely from person to person. The foundation also reported that 80 percent of people with autism experience symptoms of SPD, though not all people with SPD are autistic.

One thing is shared among them, however: SPD can make life’s little pleasures nearly impossible, not just for those with the disorder, but for their families and caregivers as well.

This year, the Noel S. Ruiz Theatre at the CM Performing Arts Center in Oakdale has been hard at work adapting their children’s theater program for audiences with sensory difficulties.

Office manager Terry Brennan was inspired to bring sensory-friendly shows to the theater after reading about it in a magazine. Broadway theaters occasionally offer an adapted show, but CM is the only theater to do so regularly on Long Island.

Brennan, the former owner of the now-closed Airport Playhouse in Bohemia, is sympathetic to families and children with SPD. “It’s hard when you see a child in the theater who is extra vocal or likes to move around. It can be challenging for their families,” she explained. “We don’t want them to feel embarrassed. I thought, ‘Why don’t we do something, even if it’s just one performance per production?’”

Using brief instructional videos as a guide, Brennan educated the actors and theater staff on what makes sensory-friendly theater work.

“First, as people come in the door, there are sensory-friendly toys in the lobby, like Koosh balls and blocks, that the kids can play with while waiting for the show to start. They can bring the toys into the theater with them,” she said. “Families may also use cellphones or tablets with children who need distraction throughout the show, as long as the volume is turned off.

The key to an adapted production is to tone down elements of a show that may be disturbing to viewers with SPD. The house lights, which are normally off during a show, are kept on to prevent sudden darkness. Strobe lights, fog machines and most other special effects are not used. In addition, there is typically no intermission, as it can disrupt focus and peace for people with SPD. Most shows will run about one hour straight through.

The volume for sensory-friendly shows is lowered, and actors tend to avoid physical interaction with audience members unless directly approached first.

Beyond that, audience members are welcome to sing, dance, yell and move around to their hearts’ content. They can also meet cast members after the show if they’d like.

The theater held its first sensory-friendly performance, “Pinocchio Jr.,” in the summer of last year. At the time, there were just three families in the audience. But Brennan wasn’t measuring success by audience size, she said.

“To me, success is when a parent comes up to me and says, ‘Thank you, I didn’t feel like I had to leave or feel embarrassed at all.’ She could let her son stay and enjoy. It was wonderful.”

Today, sensory-friendly shows at the theater can bring in audiences of more than 100 people.

Kristen Digilio, director of the children’s shows and an occasional cast member, was working in the light booth during “Pinocchio.”

“Getting to see the kids waving, clapping and getting vocally involved was really exciting,” she recalled. “It was easy for them to get up and dance. We encourage audience participation in all of our shows, and this was special.”

She added that learning the basics of sensory-friendly theater was a breeze for the actors.

“It was really cool to learn about, because as a junior production, we were working with young actors,” she said. “There was even an actor in that show (‘Pinocchio’) with autism, so he was pumped for the changes and was really able to share why it made a difference.”

The theater is currently celebrating 38 years of children’s productions, and they plan to hold one sensory-friendly show per production from now on.

There are two upcoming sensory-friendly shows this season, including “My Christmas Elf” on Dec. 5 at 11 a.m. and “The Musical Adventures of Flat Stanley” on Feb. 27, 2016, at 11 a.m.

Sensory-friendly shows for “Schoolhouse Rock,” “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” and “James and the Giant Peach,” in the spring and summer of 2016, will also be held. Dates for those shows will be announced soon.

The CM Performing Arts Center is located at 931 Montauk Highway in Oakdale. Admission for all children’s performances is $12. To learn more about the theater and its sensory-friendly productions, call 631-218-2810 or visit www.cmpac.com.

Business employs other local disabled individuals

Pictured, Brittney (left) and Logan (right) Wohl, co-owners of Our Coffee with a Cause, with their mother Stacey Wohl (center), company founder/president. Photo from PRMG New York

The sister-and-brother team, Brittney, age 18, and Logan Wohl, age 16, of Northport, are the newly appointed co-owners of Our Coffee with a Cause Inc., a business that employs individuals with cognitive and developmental disabilities and funds local charities that support them. These siblings with autism have dedicated their time to helping other special-needs teens and adults by providing gainful employment opportunities in a supportive business setting.

Our Coffee with a Cause was founded in 2012 by Stacey Wohl, mother of Brittney and Logan, in response to the growing concern for special-needs individuals on Long Island who are aging out of schools to find job opportunities and a learning environment to acquire real-life skills. The employees package coffee, apply labels to the bags and coordinate shipments. Additional opportunities are available during Our Coffee with a Cause’s sales and informational events, during which employees work with an assistant to sell coffee and products using a custom-designed iPad app and interacting with customers.

A portion of the business proceeds benefit Our Own Place, a non-profit organization that Stacey Wohl founded to provide unique opportunities to special-needs children and their single parents. The organization’s ultimate mission is to open a weekend respite home for families of children with cognitive disabilities that will provide job training and socialization skills to its residents and will feature a café at which Our Coffee products will be brewed and sold.

Stacey Wohl and her mother and business partner, Susan Schultz, bring to the company a combined 50 years of business experience, along with the knowledge of addressing the unique needs of teens and adults with disabilities.

“Our Coffee with a Cause is dedicated to employing special-needs adults and showing that there is ability in disability,” says Stacey Wohl. “I am proud to name Brittney and Logan as the owners of this business, which provides careers to people with disabilities who may not otherwise have the opportunity.”

Although 53 million adults in the United States are living with a disability, as many as 70 percent of this working-age population are currently unemployed. For many, the current systems in place to support both young adults and their families disappear once the teen “ages out” of the education system, typically when they turn 21. In 2016, nearly 500,000 autistic persons will enter this category, in addition to adults with Down Syndrome and other cognitive conditions.

For more information, visit www.ourcoffeewithacause.net.

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