Growing up was a challenge for me on the autism spectrum. In one of my previous blog posts I mentioned that middle school was a challenge for me. I had a difficult time making friends in middle school and I was bullied a lot. High school was a different story for me. There were a lot of great victories that took place for me in both my academic and social life.
In regards to my academic life, I started out my freshman year of high school taking very basic classes. There was one quarter in which I earned a D in one of my classes. However, as the year progressed I started doing better in all of my classes and got good grades. My sophomore year I started taking several honors classes. Some of the honors courses I took were the following: Biology Honors, Chemistry Honors, U.S. History Honors, and English 4 Honors. My senior year of high school I also took two Advanced Placement (AP) classes. Those were AP Government and AP Environmental Science. As a result of taking these classes and getting excellent grades in them, my cumulative GPA was much higher at the end of my senior year compared to the end of my freshman year. Also, as a result of working harder and getting good grades it was determined that I no longer needed an IEP. At the end of my sophomore year my IEP was dropped and I no longer needed ESE services. For children on the autism spectrum it is quite possible that they can exceed expectations when they decide to take risks and put in hard work.
As for my social life, this was an area where I also saw gains take place. I started socializing with people during lunch and in my classes. Most of the people I hung out with were individuals who took the same types of classes I took and were in some of the same clubs that I was a part of. The best part about the high school experience for me was having fun and getting an opportunity to be a part of amazing events throughout the school year, such as pep rallies, football games, homecoming parades, homecoming dances, and the prom.
The four years flew by so fast and there were many amazing memories that took place. Eventually, graduation day rolled around the corner. In the middle of my senior year I applied to three colleges (University of Tampa, Jacksonville University, and Florida Gulf Coast University). I eventually got an acceptance letter from FGCU right around the time of graduation. All of my hard work paid off and I was ready to walk across the stage to get my diploma. I graduated on May 31st, 2009 with honors. It was the end of one chapter and the beginning of a new chapter for me all at the same time.
In this post I am going to talk about my first time driving a vehicle in traffic. I remember getting my learner’s driving permit at the age of 15 back in July of the year 2005. I was very excited and eager to get experience driving. During the first month I practiced driving locally on my neighborhood streets and in parking lots of shopping centers. This experience prepared me for when I would be driving longer distances. A month later the big test came for me.
The day finally arrived when I would be driving for the first time on a road for a long distance. I remember that day very clearly. At the time my mom was a Real Estate Appraiser and she would travel to locations across the state of Florida to appraise homes. The locations ranged from Tampa all the way down to Fort Lauderdale. On this day we traveled from Tampa to Vero Beach so my mom could appraise a home in that location. Since it was still the summer time and I was not back in school yet, I decided to accompany her on that particular day. At the halfway mark to our destination my mom decided to pull over her car and asked me if I wanted to drive the rest of the way to Vero Beach. I complied and was thrilled since this would be my first opportunity driving a very long distance since receiving my learner’s permit.
When I got behind the wheel I noticed that my mom’s car was running very low on fuel. The fuel level wasn’t on E but it was almost there. I decided to stop at the next gas station but soon realized that there was not going to be another gas station for another 30 miles since we were traveling out of a developed town and into a rural area. The fuel level was literally on E and my mom and I thought the car was going to stall on the road and that we would have to call up AAA. By a miracle we made it to the next gas station and we were able to fill up the car with gas without having to call up AAA. Moral of the story: Don’t ever allow your teenager to drive a car for a long distance for the very first time when you know you’re running low on fuel.
After my mom’s appraisal it was time for us to drive back home to Tampa. I drove back the whole way from Vero Beach to Tampa. At about the halfway mark I almost got into an accident with another vehicle. I was approaching a traffic light and there was a landscaping company truck in front of me with a trailer attached to it. The light turned red and I put my foot on the brake pedal to slow down. However, I accidentally put my foot on the gas pedal instead of the brake pedal. When I realized this I immediately put my foot on the brake pedal quickly and was able to stop the car just in time. I narrowly avoided hitting the truck and was just inches away from getting into my first accident. Talk about my first experience driving a car for a long distance in traffic! I learned a lot of lessons my first year of driving and am a much better driver today as a result of getting all that practical experience.
On my birthday one year I had the amazing opportunity to fly a small Cessna airplane with a commercial pilot. This was when I was around 17 or 18 years old. My mom arranged it all for me to experience this once in a lifetime opportunity. I always loved flying airplanes as a young boy and for me this was a thrill of a lifetime. We went down to the local municipal airport and signed papers before me and the pilot got into the airplane. The pilot and I sat together in the same seat. We then taxied onto the runway and prepared to take off. While we were taking off the pilot allowed me to take control and I helped him with getting the plane up into the air. It felt like I was a pilot in the moment. We then flew over my hometown and actually flew over my neighborhood and I got to see my house from up in the air. The flight only lasted about 45 minutes but it felt like two hours to me. I then thanked the pilot when our private flying session ended. It was one of the best experiences of my life.
When I was 14 years old, a new beginning occurred for me and my family. We decided to pack up our bags, sell our home, and move to a brand new state. My parents decided to move to Florida because we had family who lived down in Florida and we wanted to be closer to them. We also wanted to get away from the freezing winters. I was very excited because I would always come down to Florida to visit my grandparents every single year and the house my parents bought was in the same subdivision that my grandparents lived in. However, I also was a little nervous because I knew that I would be going to a new school and meeting new people for the very first time. As I mentioned previously, transitions can be a challenge for individuals on the autism spectrum. Leaving New York also meant leaving behind all of my classmates from middle school along with people in my family (e.g. aunts, uncles, cousins, etc.). After months of packing stuff away in boxes, putting stuff into storage, and selling our house, it was time to depart the Empire State and head on down to the Sunshine State.
I can’t remember the exact date we got in our car and left but it was in December of 2004. The drive took about 17 hours but we got to Florida the next day after staying over in Georgia for a night. When we arrived at our new house, I was excited. The house my parents had bought was a brand new home that was just constructed and we were the first people to live in that house. Over the next few weeks we transitioned really well into our new surroundings and I was happy that we were starting a new chapter in our lives. In January my mom took me down to the middle school I would be attending to enroll me. I then resumed 8th grade at this school. Surprisingly, this transition was much easier than the transition I had made to the middle school I attended up in New York. It took me a couple of days to get used to my surroundings but I slowly adjusted and was able to easily navigate the school campus. My peers were also very friendly to me and no bullying occurred at all.
This blog post is going to be one of the most hardest ones I think I will ever write. The reason why I say this is because I’m going to talk about a period in my life that was very difficult for me. This stage I’m referring to was the transition from elementary school to middle school. To give you a better understanding I will start off providing some context for you. I graduated from elementary school in June of 2003. Back in the day elementary school in my school district up in New York went from kindergarten through 6th grade. Middle school went from 7th grade through 9th grade and high school went from 10th grade through 12th grade. It was very different from how schools are set up primarily today. Also, the elementary school I attended was not my local neighborhood elementary school. It was in the same school district but it was in a different zone. I attended that elementary school because the special education program there was a perfect fit for me in regards to the goals and objectives that were outlined in my IEP. When I graduated from elementary school, I enrolled in my neighborhood middle school instead of the school that was in the zone where I attended elementary school. As a result, I left behind a lot of my classmates that I went to elementary school with. There were a few students who I went to elementary school that attended this middle school but there were a LOT of people that I didn’t know when I entered 7th grade.
My 7th grade year was probably one of the hardest years I ever endured as a student. For one, it was a learning curve for me because I had to learn where all of my classes were, walk to those classes without being late when the bell rang, and learn how to use a locker. Transitions can be very hard for individuals on the autism spectrum but I slowly learned to adjust over a period of time. However, the biggest struggle that I had was making new friends. My peers realized I was different right away. Most of them never had me as a classmate when they were in elementary school and I think several of them knew something was different about me because of the way I interacted and communicated with them. I was not the best at communicating and making eye contact so I think they may have realized I was not the “typical” kid. I would get teased at and kids would make fun of me while I was sitting down at a table at lunch. This would occur whenever I would try to strike up a conversation with the people who sat at my lunch table. There were two boys who I always tried to avoid during lunch but no matter what they would always bully me. One of them actually took a piece of straw wrapper, crumpled it up, put it in his straw, and blew into the straw so that the wrapper would hit my face. This occurred not just once while sitting down at the lunch table but many times. It continued on for the rest of the week I believe. It got to the point where I had to make an appointment with the school psychologist and report the bullying that was taking place. Slowly but surely he started to back off and not do that anymore. Another boy who sat next to me at lunch would take his hand and pinch my arms multiple times while teasing me and calling me names. This left multiple red marks on my arms. I also reported what he was doing as well. Eventually, he stopped doing that. I stopped hanging out with the people who sat at that table and eventually started to sit with some of the students from 8th grade during lunch instead of my classmates from 7th grade. It was a struggle the rest of the year trying to make friends in 7th grade but it got better as the year started to come to a close.
The next year in 8th grade was SO much better for me than my 7th grade year was. I took classes with some new people that I didn’t have in my classes the previous year and also had people in the classes who were in my classes from the year before in 7th grade. Kids were much more nicer to me because they had seen me from the previous year and had started to know me better. It was easier to strike up conversations and I started to develop confidence in myself. It was the best feeling ever. Also, lunch time was much better for me than the previous year. There was no bullying that occurred while I sat down at the table and for the first time I felt like I was free to be the person I wanted to be without having to worry so much about what others thought of me. Unfortunately, I only got to spend half a year with my classmates from 8th grade up in New York because my family and I moved to Florida in December. I will talk about this more in detail in my next post.
One thing that I loved to do when I was a young boy was watch movies. I would sometimes watch the same movie at least 3 or 4 times. It was definitely a stereotypical behavior that I had. Not only did I love to watch movies but I would also, from time to time, quote lines from movies and share those lines with either my friends or family. I will never forget one such instance when I shared a line from a movie while my mom, dad, brother, and I were out eating at a restaurant for dinner. The quote was from the movie Nutty Professor 2: The Klumps with Eddie Murphy. The quote that I shared had a word that was kind of crude. When I said the word my mom and dad gave me a strange look and said “West.” They were both embarrassed because the people sitting at the table behind us overheard and looked at our table with a weird look on their faces. LOL. At the time I wasn’t aware that the word I had said was crude and meant what it meant. I was 11 years old when this occurred. It wasn’t until after my parents explained to me in the car what the word meant that I understood why the people gave us a strange look. My mom and dad would always bring this up whenever we would be riding in the car or if we were having dinner years after this took place.
When I was very young, I loved going to theme parks. I remember going on the kiddie rides and enjoyed them so much. Every time I would go on a new ride my parents would praise me and tell me how proud they were of me. I will never forget the first time I rode on a roller coaster that was not designed for little kids. We were at Busch Gardens, a theme park in Tampa, and I was with my parents, brother, and grandparents. There was a roller coaster called Scorpion and it was not a baby roller coaster. It was a roller coaster that had a vertical ascent, descent, and a single loop. Nothing like one that has multiple loops or a dive coaster so it was pretty basic. I asked my grandfather if he would be willing to ride it with me and he said yes. I remember feeling such excitement and thrills when I rode it and when the coaster went through the loop. From then on out I loved roller coasters and would always try new ones with my mom or dad whenever we would go to amusement parks.
In one of my earlier posts I talked about how I was passionate about trains. Not only did I love going for rides on the train into Manhattan but I also enjoyed flying on planes as well. My first time flying occurred when I was about 6 or 7 years old when we all traveled from New York to Florida for a family vacation and to spend time with my grandparents. For the next 3 years we would fly down to Florida once a year for our annual vacation. The best part about flying for me was that I would always sit at a window seat. I loved the window seat because I always enjoyed to look outside and see nature’s surroundings, whether we were on the ground or in the air. Whenever my mom and dad would order plane tickets, they would always make sure that I was assigned to a window seat due to the routines that I mentioned about before in previous blog posts. I also enjoyed whenever the plane would ascend into the air and the sensation that I felt as the plane was rising into the clouds from the ground. When I turned 10 years old, my grandparents invited me to come down to Florida for a week in the summer to spend some quality time with them. This meant that I would be flying on an airplane all by myself for the first time. I was beyond excited and could not wait.
The morning of July 1st, 2000 arrived and it was time for me to get ready to go to the airport. The night before I don’t think I even slept that much due to the excitement that was building up inside of me. My mom drove me to the local airport in the town that we lived in (Long Island Islip MacArthur Airport). When we got to the airport, my mom and I walked to the ticket counter where I dropped off my suitcase and checked in. The airline that I flew on was Southwest Airlines. Because I was flying all by myself, the ticket agent printed out a special badge that I had to wear around my neck. What was so cool about this is that I had the special privilege of being one of the first groups of passengers to board the plane. The neat thing about Southwest Airlines is that they allow passengers to choose any seat that’s available when they board the plane. This guaranteed that I would be getting a window seat. My mom walked me down to the gate and stayed with me until my boarding group was called. We then hugged each other and said our goodbyes.
When I got on the plane I noticed that the first row of seats was empty and the window seat was not taken. I put my carry on suitcase in the compartment above and then took the seat next to the window. That was the first time I sat in a seat nearest to the cockpit. Two other people sat in the two seats beside me. As I was sitting in the seat, I kept thinking to myself “This can’t be real. How could my parents not be sitting next to me? These are strangers lol.” However, I knew that I was going to be safe throughout the entire flight and that I would see my grandfather when I got off the jetway at the terminal in Tampa. The flight was a very smooth flight from Long Island all the way to Tampa. The person sitting next to me was very friendly and noticed that I had the badge around my neck. The person asked “Is this your first time flying by yourself?” I said “Yes, this is my first time flying by myself. I’m going to spend time with my grandparents.” At last the plane finally landed at Tampa International Airport. I got up from my seat, got my suitcase from the flight attendant, and walked on to the jetway. When I walked out into the terminal, I saw my grandfather waiting for me. I noticed him right away and saw a smile turn on his face when he saw me. We then left the airport and my vacation began.
Growing up on the autism spectrum was not always easy because of the challenges that I faced when it came to socializing and making friends. However, in elementary school I participated in the school band and in the school chorus. It was a huge step of faith that I took when I made that decision. I am glad that my mom and dad supported me whenever I was trying out something new for the very first time. My father grew up playing the saxophone and I wanted to learn to play an instrument. I eventually decided to learn how to play the clarinet during the middle of 3rd grade. Mr. McNally was the elementary school band director at Sycamore Avenue Elementary School and I remember practicing and learning how to play the clarinet during band practice that we had. I learned how to play “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” and “Hot Cross Buns” along with other classic songs. My parents even had me take private lessons with an instructor so that I could sharpen my clarinet playing skills. I am so glad that I joined the band because I got to play in at least 6 or 7 concerts at Sycamore before I made the transition to middle school. Not only did I get the opportunity to play in the band but I also got to join the elementary school chorus as well. Mr. Truglio was the music teacher at Sycamore and the chorus director. I enjoyed singing holiday songs at the winter concerts with the rest of my classmates. It gave me a sense of satisfaction and it was the first time I really truly believed in myself. The experience of joining the chorus and the band would eventually set me up to take further risks and overcome obstacles in the future.
As a little boy, my mom would always take me to the grocery store whenever she needed to go shopping for food. The best part about going to the grocery store was that my mom would allow me to ride on a mechanical animal ride that was outside of the King Kullen grocery store if I behaved well while shopping in the store. A specific routine that I had was walking down the food aisles in a particular direction. For example, if my mom and I were walking south down an aisle the next aisle we would walk north. There would be times when my mom would make a u-turn with the shopping cart instead of continuing straight down the aisle. When that happened I would usually start to freak out and start a temper tantrum right in the middle of the grocery store. This would sometimes end up in me losing my privilege in going on the mechanical ride after we were done shopping. Individuals on the autism spectrum sometimes have a difficult time adjusting to a change in their routine. With autism, the difficulty with making transitions is not intentional. Instead, the child struggles with making the cognitive adjustments necessary to move on. As a consequence, transitions are often plagued with stress, anxiety, and frustration in individuals with ASD. Although transitions can be challenging for kids on the autism spectrum, there are strategies that can help to make them smoother including:
1) Give advance notice before a transition is going to occur.
2) Use visual supports.
3) Use structure and consistency.
4) Use reduced language.
5) Provide light praise for good transitions.
With all that is happening with COVID-19 right now I am chuckling a bit because all of the aisles in the grocery stores are meant for customers to shop in only one direction as a way to keep people safe. If COVID-19 occurred in the mid 90s, the experience at the grocery store would have always been a great one for me. It’s funny how what we’re all doing now is something I did many years ago long before we ever had to deal with the pandemic. I might have been a seer back then. Who knows?