For people who love to eat pizza, having oregano as a pizza topping may not seem like such a big deal. For me it was a big deal lol. I did not like oregano as a topping on my pizza at all. If there was oregano on the pizza, I would pick it off my pizza slice so I wouldn’t have to eat it. If my parents took me out to a pizzeria or ordered pizza on the phone for takeout, they would always tell the pizzeria workers not to put oregano on the pizza. This started to occur when I was about 7 or 8 years old. My dad would always get on my case whenever I started picking at the oregano and taking it off my pizza slice. Sometimes he would joke around with me and tell me that if I continued to pull the oregano off, I would not get any more slices of pizza. Eventually I stopped picking off the oregano when I was about 12 or 13 years old. Once I took a bite of a slice with oregano on it I realized that it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would taste. Also, seeing my dad and my brother eat their pizza slices with oregano really helped me see it in a different way. I can now say that I enjoy eating pizza with oregano as a topping on it.
When I was very little I used to be very afraid of getting shots at the doctor’s office. This phobia started after I got my first shots when I was a baby. I think it was because I conjured up this thought after seeing a hypodermic needle for the first time. Around the time when I was 5 years old was when the fear really got worse. My mom would always take me to get an annual physical at the pediatrician office. I was fine whenever I was waiting in the waiting room area and when I went back into the exam room. However, once the pediatrician told me and my mom that I needed to get shots that was when I lost it. I would literally scream and lose it and told everyone that I wanted to go home. In order for me to get my vaccinations, I had to be held down by at least three people (my mom, the doctor, and a physician assistant). In order for me to be reassured, I was always told “It’s just like a bug bite.” That would always calm me down and then the doctor would administer the injection. They would then place a little band aid over the spot and then I would be given a piece of candy (e.g. lollipop). This went on until I was about 8 or 9 years old. Over the years, my fear of needles gradually diminished as I started to realize that it was an irrational fear. I saw that needle injections didn’t hurt as much as I had originally thought. Instead of having to be held down, I would just hug my mom while the doctor was giving me the injection. I am so grateful that my mom was so patient with me over the years and for her constant reassurance whenever I went to the doctor’s office to get my annual physical. If you have a child with ASD or work with a child with ASD as a teacher, please be very patient and reassuring with them because they need just a little extra support and love. When they see that, they’ll start to take more risks later in life and their fears will gradually fade away because they’ll feel more confident and upbeat whenever they overcome any obstacles they may be facing.
When I was three years old I remember getting lost when I was at a shopping mall with my mom and members of her family. It was at the Smith Haven Mall in Lake Grove, NY on Long Island. I believe it was during the summertime. I remember going into the stores and enjoyed seeing all of the big signs and the smells coming from the various food establishments. When we were almost done with shopping for the day, my mom and her cousins took me to an arcade room. I remember seeing all of the arcade games and then all of a sudden I started walking out of the arcade room and into the mall. I’m not sure how this happened but I walked out of the arcade room for some reason. I strolled around the mall and eventually stopped into an actual Burger King establishment located inside the mall. What’s interesting is that I don’t remember crying or getting scared at all. All I remember was seeing other people and employees inside. My mom and her cousins eventually found me there just standing in the middle of the restaurant. Luckily, the Burger King was not that far away from the arcade room so they didn’t have to walk very far in order to find me.
When I was a young boy growing up, I was known to have a great memory with certain things. Two areas where my memory was strong in were giving directions and naming baseball players on every Major League Baseball team. An estimated 0.5 % to 10 % of individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) show unusual abilities, ranging from splinter skills such as the memorization of trivia to the extraordinary rare talents of prodigious autistic savants. While my memory today is not exactly where it was when I was much younger, I still can remember a lot of things that took place when I was a kid, teenager, and young adult.
I was once given the name “WestQuest” because of my remarkable ability to give people directions on how to get to places via automobile. This was a pun on the word MapQuest. When I was a young boy, I remember coming across Hagstrom road maps that my father and grandfather had in their vehicles. The maps covered all of the counties of Long Island and the five boroughs of New York City (Manhattan, The Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island). This was back in the 1990s and long before we had smartphones or GPS navigation systems in our vehicles. One of my hobbies I loved to do during my spare time as a young boy was looking at the maps and studying them. As a result of this, I learned all of the major roads, expressways, parkways, and route numbers. I also remember getting an atlas of all 50 States and enjoyed scanning the pages of that as well. Whenever members of my family needed directions to get to a particular place, I would be the one who they would ask. If I was riding with my grandparents, aunts, or uncles in the car and they needed help getting somewhere, I would be their GPS and give them turn-by-turn directions on how to get there. I remember them being so flabbergasted and surprised at how well I knew my surroundings and sometimes they would exclaim, “West! How did you know the way to get from this place to that place?” I remember feeling very happy whenever I would get a compliment like that. It made me feel good that I was able to help people get to their destination without them getting lost and having to call for help.
Another area that I was extremely gifted in was naming all of the baseball players on the rosters for every Major League Baseball team. This came about because I watched a lot of baseball games on television as a kid when I grew up. My family and I were big New York Mets fans and we watched a lot of baseball games on our television. I also would watch national baseball games that were televised on Fox or ESPN. Around the time I was 12 years old was when I started memorizing the names of baseball players. I would log onto the Major League Baseball website and scroll through the rosters of every team. This was another favorite hobby I loved to do during my spare time. What was so unique about this was that I was able to remember the position of every player on the roster. Positions in baseball include first baseman, second baseman, shortstop, third baseman, pitcher, catcher, left fielder, center fielder, and right fielder. Whenever my dad or my grandfather wanted to know who played a particular position for a particular team, I would be the one to automatically provide them with an answer. I remember a few times my dad or grandfather would ask me to name every player on a particular baseball team and I would be able to do it easily. I remember their faces of surprise whenever I would say every player on the roster. They would be like, “Whoa! How do you know that?” I stopped memorizing the names of players on rosters when I was around the age of 15 or 16. I do not follow baseball a whole lot today compared to how I used to many years ago so if you currently asked me to name all the players on the New York Yankees or Atlanta Braves, I would not be able to. However, if you need good directions you can guarantee that I can still be able to help you out with that.
When I was five years old, I remember watching the movie Apollo 13 when it came out on VHS. One night my parents had family over and we ate dinner on our sofa while watching Apollo 13 on the television. There was one scene in that movie that really captured my attention. It was the scene where Jim Lovell’s wife Marilyn was taking a shower in her motel room on the morning of the Apollo 13 launch. In that scene her ring falls off her finger while she is taking a shower and the ring falls down the drain. When she sees her ring fall down the drain, she gasps and tries poking her finger down the drain to try to get it but is unsuccessful. As a result, she loses her ring. The part that really stood out to me was when she gasped. For some reason I developed a phobia due to that particular scene and I could not bear myself to watch that scene again. When we watched the movie a second time, I remember just walking out of the television room and going away to my bedroom where I would shut the door so I wouldn’t hear any sound associated with that scene. My grandfather had the movie on VHS and I would sometimes watch it whenever I would stay at his house on a Saturday afternoon. Whenever the shower scene approached, I would fast forward the tape so I wouldn’t see anything related to that scene. Eventually, when I turned 12 or 13 years old I realized it was an irrational fear that I had and I wanted to not be afraid anymore. In order for the fear to go away, I first watched the scene without any sound. I saw there was nothing major to be afraid of and then I watched the scene with sound. I made it through both without running away to another room or fast forwarding to another scene in the movie. I can now say I enjoy watching Apollo 13 without having to skip over that particular scene.
Individuals on the autism spectrum usually don’t handle loud noises very well and it can be very uncomfortable for them. Intense sensitivity to sound is a common autism symptom. Loud noises may be very difficult for some individuals to handle. When overwhelmed, people on the autism spectrum may cover their ears to try to block out the noise. They may also start up self-soothing behaviors such as rocking or shaking their hands. Some people with autism also have central auditory processing disorder (CAPD), a condition that makes it difficult for them to perceive subtle differences in sound and language. For me there were three sounds that bothered me a lot. These were fireworks, thunder, and fire alarms.
My earliest memory with sound was fireworks on the Fourth of July. I believe I was three years old at the time. My mom and dad had a big party at our house and invited friends and family over for a Fourth of July BBQ. I can recall fireworks going off later on in the evening and as soon as I heard the sound of the fireworks, I got scared. I’m not sure if I hid somewhere in my house or not. As a result of that experience, I had to wear earmuffs every year on the Fourth of July. I remember going to a relative’s home one year and I remember asking my mom if she could give me the earmuffs when it was starting to get dark outside. Several years later when I was around 9 or 10 years old was when I eventually stopped wearing earmuffs on July 4th. A lot of shaping took place in order for me to get fully used to the sounds of fireworks. When I finally went a whole Fourth of July without wearing earmuffs, I believe I was rewarded. I can now say that I enjoy watching fireworks and I am grateful that I was able to have a victory in this area. I can now enjoy going out on Independence Day or New Year’s Eve with people and watch the beautiful sight without having to put earmuffs on.
Thunder was another sound that I absolutely hated. I think I started to become afraid of the sound of thunder around the same time that I was afraid of the sound of fireworks. I remember thunderstorms occurring a lot many times during the middle of the night when I was a young boy. I would be sleeping and whenever I heard the sound of thunder, it would wake me up and startle me. I would sometimes put my head underneath my pillow to block out the noise and I would shut my eyes so that I wouldn’t see the flashes of white light from the lightning. Another thing that bothered me was the flashes from the lightning. When the thunderstorms were severe, the sound of the thunder was very loud. There were times I would get up, walk over to my mom and dad’s bedroom, and sleep on either their floor or in their bed with them. Eventually, I stopped doing this when I was around 10 or 11 years old. You might be surprised at this but I actually still struggle with thunder and lightning to this day. I mostly struggle with the flashes of lightning. If a thunderstorm comes in the middle of the night and wakes me up, I sometimes will have a hard time falling back asleep. I will turn on the light in my bedroom so that way the flashes of lightning don’t bother me. When the storm starts to dissipate I will turn off the light and fall back asleep.
Fire alarms were also another source of discomfort for me as well. I hated the sound of smoke detectors and fire alarms whenever they went off. I particularly hated fire drills whenever they occurred at school when I was a student growing up. Back in the 1990s, the fire alarm was a clanging bell at the elementary school that I attended. I remember the first time hearing the sound of the bell going off. I immediately covered my ears as I was walking out the classroom and kept them covered while I was walking down the hallway until we got out of the building. Eventually, my teachers would inform me every time there was going to be a fire drill on a particular day so that I would be prepared and ready for it. I remember my heart started to beat very fast whenever they told me but once I heard the sound of the clanging bell the fear started to go away once I put my hands over my ears. Eventually this stopped either after the end of my 3rd grade year or the end of my 4th grade year. I was no longer told when a fire drill was going to occur and I eventually stopped covering my ears when the fire alarm would go off.
Individuals on the autism spectrum can sometimes have an intense interest in something. For me this was trains. Starting when I was about two or three years old I was fascinated by trains. One of my earliest memories was going to a store that had actual model train sets. I remember the joy that came on me whenever I saw the model train moving on the track in the store. Another reason why I became so fascinated in trains is because I grew up in a place where there were a lot of trains. I grew up on Long Island in the state of New York and one of the main modes of transportation for people who live on Long Island is the Long Island Rail Road. The house that I grew up in was about a mile away from railroad tracks and we would drive over railroad tracks all the time whenever my parents had to go to the grocery store, the bank, or if we were traveling to go see family on the weekend. When I was much older, my mom told me that if our car was approaching a railroad crossing and no train came, I would have a fit and lose it. I am thankful that my fits decreased when I got older.
My mom worked for many years as a hairdresser in New York and the first hair salon that she worked at had train tracks right behind the actual building she worked in. There was also a railroad crossing about 50 meters from the back of the building. Growing up my mom would sometimes take me in to work, especially during the summer months and during breaks when I was not in school. There was a break room in the back of the salon where I would sit and read books. When I had free time on my hands, I would go out the back door and wait for a Long Island Rail Road train to pass by so I could see it as it sped on by. Whenever I heard the sound of the crossing bell that was my cue that told me a train would be coming. I would immediately get up and walk out the back door and wait for the train to pass by. It felt like I was living in heaven and I remember it always being a thrill for me whenever a train passed by and the train horn blared as it went through the crossing.
Another thrill for me growing up was getting an opportunity to go inside an actual train simulator for the Long Island Rail Road when I was seven years old. This train simulator was located at a maintenance facility for Long Island Rail Road employees and was located about 20 miles away from Manhattan. You must be thinking, “How could he have gotten special access to a train simulator at just seven years old?” Well, it turns out that my mom knew someone who worked for the Long Island Rail Road and she was an actual client of my mom who would come in to my mother’s hair salon on a regular basis to get her hair cut. The lady knew that I was fascinated with trains and the Long Island Rail Road in particular. This lady talked with her boss and arranged for me and my mom to come take a trip down to the maintenance facility so that I could have special access inside an actual train simulator that train operators use for practice and training before operating a train for the first time. I got the special opportunity to go inside an actual motor cab of a Long Island Rail Road train. It was the thrill of a lifetime for me. I remember being on cloud nine when my mom and I first arrived at the maintenance facility. As soon as I got in the simulator, I felt like I was in heaven. I got the chance to feel what it was like to operate a train and learned how to use certain features (e.g. brakes, train horn, etc.). This was a memory I will never forget from my childhood and I was happy that my mom’s client was able to make this dream become a reality for me.
As an adult I still love trains but I am not as obsessed with them as I was when I was much younger. I do not have fits whenever I approach a railroad crossing and a train doesn’t come. I can now appreciate and understand certain fascinations that individuals with ASD have and it’s easy for me to understand why because of my fascination with trains when I was much younger. If you are a parent and have a child with ASD, please try to make an effort to appreciate these fascinations that your child has and try to find ways to bring them joy like my mom and her client did for me when I was much younger.
One of the earliest memories I can remember was when I was about two years old. My mom was pregnant with my younger brother. I was playing in my brother’s bedroom one day with blocks or some other toys. In his bedroom on top of the dresser was a lamp. The lamp fell off the dresser and plummeted to the ground. As a result, the lamp broke and shattered into pieces. The light bulb blew out and fumes of smoke went up into the air. I remember seeing the light bulb blow out in front of me. Because there was smoke, my brain was telling me there was a fire when in reality there was no fire. I then remember walking out of my brother’s room and walking downstairs to try to get an adult. As I was walking down the stairs, I saw my mom sitting on the couch. I walked over to her where she was sitting and was trying to communicate to her that there was a fire. I remember having a difficult time saying the word “fire”. Individuals on the spectrum can sometimes have a hard time communicating and articulating their feelings. At first it came out as “Fff fff.” I couldn’t say the word but instead I was making the initial sound of the word. Then, I was able to say the words “Fire. Fire.” My mom immediately got up from where she was sitting and walked upstairs to my brother’s room and saw the broken lamp in pieces. She went ahead and cleaned up the mess and that’s the end of the story. This story would then be told to me hundreds of times as I grew up so it’s pretty remarkable that I still have this memory to pass on to other people.
My name is West Miraglia and I am an individual living with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). I was diagnosed with ASD when I was three years old. Individuals on the spectrum often experience difficulties with social communication and interaction and may exhibit restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities. Symptoms are typically recognized between one and two years of age. Long-term problems may include difficulties in performing daily tasks, creating and keeping relationships, and maintaining a job. I have a milder form of autism known as Asperger syndrome and I am high-functioning. Asperger syndrome differs from other forms of ASD in that individuals who have Asperger’s tend to have normal language and intelligence.
Growing up with ASD was not easy for me. I was afraid of loud noises and hated the sound of thunder, fireworks, and fire alarms. Around the time when I was about two years old was when my parents recognized symptoms that I displayed that were reflective of those typically shown in individuals with ASD. My parents placed me in a preschool setting when I was three years old and the teachers who worked with me noticed that I struggled in the area of social skills and communication skills. The teachers decided that a formal evaluation should be conducted on me. After my evaluation was conducted, the results revealed that I was eligible for special education. Shortly after that, an IEP was developed for me.
From preschool up until my junior year of high school I received special education services at every school that I attended. I was placed in a program where I was mainstreamed with non-ESE students and received individualized instruction from special education teachers who worked alongside the general education teachers. It was a struggle for me when I was an elementary school student because I wasn’t always the best at communicating with my classmates and I wasn’t the best at making eye contact with both adults and my peers. It wasn’t until I reached the end of middle school that I started to develop confidence in my communication abilities. I started to develop friends and once I got to high school I started to naturally overcome some of those obstacles. In my sophomore year of high school I started taking honors classes and I was excelling in my classes. It was also during this time that I was able to obtain my first job. After my sophomore year was over, it was determined that I no longer needed an IEP during my junior year of high school because I was meeting all of my goals and objectives on my IEP. I eventually graduated from high school and it was time to head off into the real world.
I went away to college for the first time. Throughout this time I got an opportunity to meet new people for the first time and enjoyed going to social events. I held down some part-time jobs and worked very hard in all of my classes during a period of four years. I eventually graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology. After graduating with my Bachelor’s degree, I was unsure of what I wanted to do. Two years after I graduated I entered into the field of education by becoming a substitute teacher. I subbed in all grades from kindergarten through 12th grade. As a substitute teacher, I had the amazing opportunity to work with many students and loved being in various classroom settings. However, I particularly loved working with ESE students. I discovered while working with ESE students that I had a tremendous amount of patience working with them and really connected well with these students. It felt very natural for me being in this setting as a substitute teacher and I soon discovered that this was a career that I wanted to pursue. I am now currently enrolled in a teacher certification program and am pursuing a Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) degree in Exceptional Student Education. I am looking forward to graduating soon and using my gifts to help teach, support, and encourage students with disabilities.