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Autism

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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