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Autistic, and on the Airwaves
from The New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/14/ny...eard.html?_r=0
By COREY KILGANNON
The participants at Lifestyles for the Disabled do not exactly seem like naturals as radio personalities.
There is Anthony Cossentino, 29, a huge “Jeopardy” fan who for years has been arriving at Lifestyles, a daytime occupational program on Staten Island for developmentally delayed adults in their 20s and 30s, every morning with a self-written question of the day, to pose to anyone who will listen.
Or take Michael Halbreich, 32, who has an uncanny ability to remember the birthday of anyone he meets, and to instantly name the day of the week that any date in history fell on.
“He has yet to get one wrong,” said Burak Uzun, a staff supervisor who runs the media program at Lifestyles, which offers vocational, social, recreational and educational services geared toward independent living.
And then there’s Anthony DiFato, 22, who is well known at Lifestyles for his obsession with mystery novels, films and television shows. He is known as the Mystery Man because he is never without a whodunit book.
“Ever since I was a kid, I was always into mysteries,” Mr. DiFato said at Lifestyles one recent weekday while holding a paperback copy of a book in the Mrs. Jeffries mystery series by Emily Brightwell.
But these quirky skills and interests can make for good radio. Just over two years ago, Mr. Uzun, along with another staff member, Joel Richardson, began recruiting participants at Lifestyles with varying degrees of autism to record brief talk show segments on a laptop. The segments were posted online as podcasts, mostly for friends and relatives of participants and staff members to listen to.
Soon, a modest radio studio was installed and more participants began asking to record shows. Now, the program is taking to the real airways: In February, Lifestyles began broadcasting on WSIA-88.9 on the FM dial, the radio station for the College of Staten Island.
Every Tuesday, three participants are taken to the nearby college campus and in the studio they engage in a discussion for a recorded hourlong show to be broadcast that afternoon at 1 p.m. — reaching most of Staten Island and parts of Brooklyn — and archived through links on the Lifestyles Web site. They also continue to record podcasts in the Lifestyles studio.
Roughly 30 of the agency’s 170 day program participants have radio shows, said Mr. Uzun, who credits the program with building confidence and self-esteem, and giving participants a break from their jobs at the center’s woodworking and jewelry shops, laundry room and greenhouse.
Many chose D.J. names and themes that correspond to interests or skills — which, as is common with autism, tend to be an extensive knowledge of a particular subject.
For Chris Bungay (Totally ’80s Chris), 31, it is his love for 1980s pop culture. Steve Filoramo (Stevie Data), 39, talks about his knowledge of computers, and his love for British soccer. Michael Mignemi (Piano Mike), 33, who since childhood has been able to deliver keyboard renditions of any song he has ever heard, devotes part of his show to requests, from Mozart to Joplin to the Beatles to Lady Gaga. Joe Pellecchia (Joey Nitro), 43, talks about his culinary skill, honed by working in the kitchen of Lifestyles Caffé, the center’s kitchen staffed entirely by participants and open to the public for breakfast and lunch.
For Anthony Pabon (A-Train), 28, a New York Fire Department enthusiast of the highest order, the discussion centers on department trivia. “When you get them on their favorite topics, they’re great to listen to,” said Mr. Richardson, 32, a stand-up comedian who goes by the nickname Soul Joel. “I have friends, professional comedians,” he said, “who tell me they can’t believe how entertaining these guys are to listen to.”
On a recent broadcast, Mr. Pellecchia bantered with Mr. Richardson, who helps participants with their on-air delivery. He often pairs with them on their shows and peppers them with questions. During this session, he was asking three of the men whom they would invite on a dream date.
Mr. Pellecchia named the reality TV star Snooki and said he would invite her over to show off his cooking skills. Then Mr. Richardson turned to Mr. Bungay.
Mr. Bungay, on his “Totally ’80s Show,” has discussed his favorite musical artists — Journey, Fleetwood Mac, Elton John, Billy Joel — and listed his top five cartoons from his favorite decade. To answer Mr. Richardson’s question, he naturally picked a star with some ’80s hits — Madonna.
Joey Jones, who usually discusses sports on his show, said he would stick with his girlfriend.
Mr. Bungay writes his own content. Other participants need strong guidance from a staff member just to continue a dialogue.
The shows are far from polished, but they are often entertaining, as well as a bold forum for integrating developmentally delayed adults into the public.
Mr. Uzun and Mr. Richardson often have to draw out the participants. They choose songs that highlight the themes. Before Mr. Halbreich wows listeners with his knowledge of dates, he is introduced by the Rolling Stones song “Time Is on My Side.”
The radio program exemplifies the center’s practice of fitting participants with the job and program that suits their individual interests and strengths, Lorraine Millan, a behaviorist at Lifestyles, said. It gives participants valuable cognitive stimulation, and practice at understanding how people are perceiving them, Ms. Millan said, and guides them to stay on topic and not to just seize the conversation.
Mr. Richardson is a vital part of the program. A producer of comedy shows and festivals who also manages other comedians, he runs the Saturday comedy night at the Looney Bin in the Travis-Chelsea neighborhood on Staten Island and often has the participants come down, on their own time. He spreads the word about the radio program at his shows and among his performers and friends and fans.
“I’m chasing my dream and I’m helping them chase theirs,” Mr. Richardson said before a recent broadcast. He then turned to Mr. Pabon, who can rattle off the ladder and engine numbers of every firehouse on Staten Island, and the equipment they use. He has toured each of the houses, and for one portion of his radio show he names the firehouse that would respond to an emergency at any given location on the island.
Mr. Pabon was wearing his regular baseball hat and jacket with the insignia from Ladder 87/Engine 166 in the Bulls Head neighborhood on Staten Island, where he knows many members. He pulled out the radio scanner that he listens to incessantly for emergency calls.
Now it was Frankie Romano’s turn. “You’re obsessed with height, right?” Mr. Richardson asked. “You’d give anything to be the tallest man in the world?”
Mr. Romano, 34, agreed and pointed out that the title currently belonged to Sultan Kosen, of Turkey, at 8 feet 3 inches.
Mr. Romano is 5-foot-10. He asks the height of anyone he meets, and tries to keep track of who is the tallest person in the room at any moment.
Mr. Romano was the first participant to host his own show without staff assistance. He talks about rap music and professional wrestling, and is fascinated by celebrity. The staff began having him conduct radio interviews whenever possible, of staff members and people at outside events. He is trying to get an interview with the reality TV personality Big Ang, a star of the show “Mob Wives.”
Mr. Uzun said he hoped the program, which began as a social and recreational outlet, might prepare some of the higher functioning participants for a job in media.
“Why couldn’t Frankie get a job with something like ‘Entertainment Tonight?’ ” Mr. Uzun asked. “You could make his backstory a selling point, and say, ‘Look, we have this guy with Asperger’s on our staff, and he can do a great job.’ ”
“People with autism,” he said, “need to be represented in every part of the world.”