When the oars are working together in perfect rhythm, the boat seems to glide on the surface. In Michael Kessaris’ peripheral vision, the passing landscape he sees is the only indication of how fast the crew pushes their boat toward the finish line. There is no conscious thought. Instead, the mind falls into hypnosis while the body independently repeats the mechanics of the perfect stroke. Crossing the finish line, especially when the boat is first, is always a thrill. But the actual getting there is where Michael finds his nirvana.
He can also find happiness when he is cutting sharp, deliberate lines on a double diamond ski slope or in the kitchen, where he locks into his own groove with every task. He thinks about these experiences at night, when he is with his roommates in their Southampton home.
He would love to explain this all to you, but 24-year-old Kessaris doesn’t have that ability because he lives near the nonverbal side of the autism spectrum. As a result, his speech is limited to primarily single-word answers, and often they are out of order. However, those who know him understand what he is saying, and he expresses his emotions in the best way he can.
When Michael’s parents Dr. Lisa Liberatore and Dr. Dimitri Kessaris, met their second-born son, they did not see any troubles. It wasn’t until he was 2 years old that a doctor recommended early intervention for Michael. He was slow to speak and meet other milestones.
“In reality, the signs were there, and we noticed them when Michael was six months old,” Lisa says. “But denial is an amazing thing.”
Dimitri and Lisa are well-known physicians with thriving practices. Lisa is an ear, nose and throat physician who has been in private practice for more than two decades, and Dimitri is a urologist. But no amount of education, training and experience in the medical field prepared them for what Michael would need in his life.
“We had no experience in medical school with autism or any other intellectual disability. So other than Rain Man, there was just no real exposure,” Lisa says.
As a baby and toddler, Kessaris only wanted to be with his mom. He was finicky, she explains, didn’t startle and only liked certain foods. When he reached school age, he began in public school, but it was not the place for him, Lisa says. So instead, he found what was needed through AHRC New York City and attended school in Brookville. That is, however, only a tiny part of what Kessaris and others facing the same challenges will need if they are to experience a life of their own.
“They need a real plan to transition to adulthood,” Lisa says.
It starts with identifying with your child. “Don’t try to bring him into your world. Instead, look at things from his perspective so you can understand what he likes,” she continues.
Kessaris grew to love cooking after spending time with his mother in the kitchen. As his interest grew, Dimitri and Lisa saw an opportunity to help their son pursue something that could help him have a job or even a career. Unfortunately, culinary schools would not take him due to his neurodiversity, so his parents hired a graduate of the Institute of Culinary Education and working chef as a private instructor. As she taught Kessaris, she seized upon the strengths he possessed. For example, he likes precise work: measuring, weighing and mixing.
So began the journey to establish a program that would provide the life skills and experience that Kessaris and other individuals in his world will need to live with as much independence as possible. First, finding a name would be easy.
“Michael loved to make granola, and as a way to teach him gratitude, he began to give it out to his family and friends, with a card signed “Luv Michael,” Lisa explains.
Luv Michael is a nonprofit organization that produces high-quality, organic, gluten-free and nut-free granola without all of the harmful chemicals and toxic allergens. All proceeds go to provide training and sustainable jobs for individuals on the autism spectrum.
“Individuals on the spectrum have a challenging time finding work,” Lisa says. “They are often hired and fired. It was becoming impossible to imagine Michael getting and keeping a job.”
The granola made by Luv Michael is available in stores throughout New York, Pennsylvania, Vermont and Delaware.
In 2019 , Lisa and Dimitri founded US Autism Homes. This public/private partnership provides housing choices for individuals with autism. The group has purchased two homes in Southampton, to assist seven young men, one of which is where Michael lives. There are caregivers in each to assist when needed. Still, there is an emphasis on independence and, most importantly, socializing with their friends.
“It gives parents comfort that their child is being cared for and they are living a full life,” Lisa says. “We have had many backyard barbecues this past summer with Michael’s friends and their parents, and it provides a new life. One mother told me that, as her son was with his friends, that this was the first time she has felt relaxed in 27 years.”
Some additional programs in development could become a landmark in the care and education of people with neurological variations. Lisa admits that much of the efforts are a way to find some control over a situation that is far beyond any medical degree or experience she has had in her profession as a physician. But the result is a better life for Kessaris and other young adults with autism.
“Michael and his friends need acceptance. They don’t need to feel like they are broken,” Lisa adds. “They just need our help.”
Todd Shapiro is a award-winning publicist and associate publisher of Dan’s Papers.