Faces of Long Island celebrates the uniqueness of everyday Long Islanders. In their own words, they tell us about their life experiences, challenges and triumphs. Newsday launched this social media journey into the human experience to shine a light on the diverse people of this wonderful place we call home.

‘To write a book was my lifelong dream, and it’s even better to have it be about the subject that I love the most.’

Debra O’Fee, Massapequa Park

“At the age of 3, Ryan was diagnosed with Pervasive Development Disorder. At the time, I didn’t realize that PDD was autism. When my son was 4, I wasn’t sure what his abilities should be. I decided to keep a journal of what was going on with Ryan. Later, when I would read back, I’d be crying or laughing, or I’d be frightened because I couldn’t believe we had lived through the experience.

“We eventually learned that Ryan would elope, which happens in 48 percent of children with autism. He’ll wander or disappear. There was one episode when he was 5 and he was missing for 20 minutes. It was terrifying because he is nonverbal and unaware of things like cars, streets and bodies of water. Luckily, it was resolved. Later that day, I went to find books on children who wander and I couldn’t find any. There were plenty of books about autism parenting, but none focusing on our immediate concern. I took my journals and turned them into my book, ‘I’m Sorry Jimmy Muscle: Why My Son with Autism Wanders.’

I feel like the book is a love letter to my children. This, along with my children, will be my legacy, no matter how many people read it.

“Readers are telling me they laughed so hard they cried and that they learned so much from it. To write a book was my lifelong dream, and it’s even better to have it be about the subject that I love the most: helping special needs children and their parents. Plus, I got to write it about my two sons.

“What I find even more fascinating than Ryan and his autism is watching my older, neurotypical son, JT. He doesn’t have pre-conceived notions or judgments. When something was going on with Ryan and we wouldn’t know how to deal with it, sometimes we would look to JT to see what his natural response was.

“‘I’m Sorry Jimmy Muscle’ is named after a boy that I grew up with. I believe he has autism, but we didn’t know about autism when I was growing up in 1982. Jimmy Muscle got that nickname because he would come up to us and say, ‘Can I feel your muscle?’ Many kids would be mean and run away screaming. I hadn’t thought of him for more than 20 years. Then I had Ryan and all of those memories came back. Now, Ryan is 11 and JT is almost 13. I feel like the book is a love letter to my children. This, along with my children, will be my legacy, no matter how many people read it.”

‘I’m so incredibly thankful for how far he’s come, because I know we’re one of the lucky ones.’

Massapequa Park

“I was 20 weeks pregnant and went to my regular OBGYN and they told me the baby’s not cooperating, you have to go somewhere with better machines. I didn’t think anything of it, so I went to a specialist and they had me there for six hours because again, the baby wasn’t cooperating. On the sixth hour, one of the technicians saw something that didn’t look right. It was one of those moments you’re on the outside, looking in. I was like, ‘what the hell did you just say?’

“All of a sudden, there’s two cardiologists, two specialists and six techs in the room. They said your baby has transposition of the great arteries. It was one of those moments you’re on the outside, looking in. I was like, ‘what the hell did you just say?’ They explained he had a heart defect and he wouldn’t be able to survive unless they repaired it at birth.

“When I had him, I couldn’t jump into the mommy role. I wasn’t allowed to change his diaper. He was on a feeding tube so I couldn’t feed him. I didn’t hold him until he was 9 days old. It’s a different experience when you have a baby and they take him away immediately. I held him for 10 minutes and then he was put into a seven-hour open-heart surgery.

He went through so much but alongside him I went through so much, and I almost feel that we healed together.

“Fast forward and he’s the light of my life. There’s something about him, he pulls on the heartstrings. He’s 20 months old and for the most part, he’s been developing as a normal average baby. They did tell us to expect cognitive delays as he gets older. He’s still not speaking. He hasn’t said ‘mama’ and that’s hard for me. He went through so much but alongside him I went through so much, and I almost feel that we healed together. I feel like him saying ‘mama’ is the light at the end of the tunnel for me. I feel like I’ve earned it at this point.

“He goes to the cardiologist every four to six months and he will for the rest of his life. There’s a 20 percent chance he’ll need another open-heart surgery. We take his life appointment to appointment. But I’m so incredibly thankful for how far he’s come, because I know we’re one of the lucky ones.

“I think out of my entire family, I’m the one healing from it the most. I want him to be proud of what he’s gone through and in him being proud of what he’s gone through, it’s helping me heal. I’m so proud to be his mom.”