For Anthony and Sammy Taormina, there are two dates that define their lives as people with Asperger’s syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder.
For the twin brothers who were born four minutes apart (Sammy came first), the first date was one they don’t remember, when they were diagnosed in October 1990 at the age of 3.
The next date came sometime in 2002, when the brothers seemed to fully comprehend the syndrome and the challenges it presented in their daily lives.
“You would always wonder, ‘Why do you struggle in sports, or why do you struggle at certain things?’” Anthony Taormina said. “Whether it be academics or athletics, you always want to be where other people are. You didn’t understand your limitations.”
While there have been, and there always will be challenges, and with Autism Awareness Month here, the brothers hope their story can serve as inspiration to those worried about autism or living through the realities.
Seeing things others don’t, and vice versa
Today, the brothers are 36-year-olds, graduates of Oakland University and they reside in their hometown of Lake Orion, Michigan, where they are involved in several tasks.
Both help out in the athletics department at their alma mater, Lake Orion High School, performing functions such as working clocks, announcing or bookkeeping stats at games. Anthony also works full-time at Scripps Middle School, while Sammy is a staff associate at Oakview Middle School.
They also do some work at the local cable TV station, have a podcast, write blogs, coach middle school track and field, and regularly speak to students about not only their accomplishments, but all the hurdles they’ve overcome, in getting to where they are, despite dealing with Asperger’s syndrome.
Both were recognized as Orion Township Citizens of the Month two years ago, and Anthony last year was named winner of both the Scripps Middle School and the Lake Orion Community Schools Support Staff Person of the Year Awards.
They said a few examples that the general public might not know about people who suffer from autism are:
- Having a different outlook on certain parts of life. “Just the ability to maybe not see things other people see, or maybe see things that other people do not see,” Anthony said. “For example, you can think that something is happening when it’s not.”
- Trying to be perfect. “We tend to try and be perfectionists, even though nothing is perfect,” Anthony said.
- Dealing with negative stereotypes. “Often we get perceived as clumsy and that we don’t know what we’re talking about,” Anthony said. “Those (are the) types of negative stigmas.”
- Trying to stay calm in tense situations. “I get stressed in really tense situations,” Sammy said. “When something bad happens, I get real tense. When you feel like (you) don’t have anything in control, I tend to freak out.”
- Maintaining consistent employment is a challenge. Anthony said for people who suffer from autism, finding something that’s enjoyable for a career to where it doesn’t feel like work is essential. “You have to really love doing it,” Anthony said. “It’s really hard to keep a job with autism.”
Throughout their lives at all levels of schooling and while playing sports (in high school -- both were throwers on the track team while Sammy played football), those were examples of ever-present obstacles to overcome in order to earn degrees and function in everyday life.
Then when the pandemic hit in 2020, all those challenges ramped up seemingly a million times when restrictions were handed down and outlets were taken away.
“I talked to others with disabilities like mine and the restrictions were so hard,” Sammy said. “It was difficult when you are looking at your dreams and hopes being taken away. It has a negative effect on someone with Asperger syndrome. I felt that.”
Anthony said he did have a little different perspective than his brother when it came to the pandemic, saying that it was especially hard on Sammy because sports were taken away. But he was able to cope a little better because he was able to preoccupy his time with other interests.
“I have other topics I like. I like history and I like creative writing,” said Anthony, who is often more so the “spokesman” for the two. “For me, writing kept me busy during the time we were off from school. Having those interests really, really helped me during the pandemic.”
Never going about it alone
The brothers have had the obvious advantage throughout their lives of leaning on each other as they battled Asperger’s syndrome. But they had many other support systems in place, starting with their parents.
Anthony used the analogy that their mom was a drill sergeant, but he doesn’t mean that in a derogatory or critical way.
“Repeating things, repeating things, repeating things,” Anthony said of what their mom made sure to do.
They also had supportive teachers, and most importantly, through having friendly and engaging personalities, established a good core of friends.
“We never felt we were alone,” Anthony said. “When friends started to know we had it, they started to want to learn more about it and it enhanced that feeling of not being alone.”
Taking that one step further, not only were the brothers learning each day what Asperger syndrome was like, but so was the community, in trying to support them.
“Back then, it was not as well-known,” Anthony said. “There’s a story out there of bringing people into your world. We were able to bring our friends pretty much into our world and they came out better. I’m not trying to sound cocky, but that’s what happened. There were some really good friends out there who wanted to learn.”
The day their brotherdom almost ended (OK, not true at all, but it’s a funny story)
Anthony and Sammy’s father grew up a huge Detroit Red Wings fan, but each brother had a desire to be different and follow his own NHL team growing up.
It’s pretty well-known in the community and through good-natured Twitter jabs how rabid a Dallas Stars fan Sammy is, and how much Anthony loves the Colorado Avalanche.
Sammy said he loved watching the old Minnesota North Stars and the start of Mike Modano’s career before the team moved to Dallas, while Anthony loved the players and uniforms on the old Quebec Nordiques before they moved to Denver.
In the summer of 2020 when the NHL playoffs resumed, Dallas and Colorado met in the Western Conference semifinals, and Anthony and Sammy watched each game of what turned out to be a seven-game series together.
There was no thought of watching in separate rooms or going over to the homes of different friends to tune in.
During games six and seven, the two huddled up by themselves in the family’s cottage further north in Caseville, which is right on Saginaw Bay/Lake Huron, to watch the games.
When Colorado won Game 6 to tie the series at 3-3, Anthony couldn’t resist a celebration.
“I went outside and celebrated like an idiot,” Anthony said. “We had no other family up there. It was just Sammy and I watching Game 6.”
A couple days later, Dallas beat Colorado in overtime in Game 7 in both the most exhilarating of finishes if on the winning side and the most gut-wrenching of defeats on the losing side.
Sammy, of course, had to celebrate somehow.
“I went outside and celebrated like an idiot,” Sammy said.
It didn’t take long for Anthony to congratulate Sammy on “his win.”
On social media, some friends dubbed the series “The Battle of the Taorminas.”
But of course, those friends and community members know the real battle the Taormina brothers have faced with Asperger’s syndrome, one that has seen them become an inspiration and example that if they can do it, so can anyone else.
“I go by the model of three things -- understanding, accepting and embracing,” Anthony said. “If you realize those three things and have autism, you are going to be just fine.”
This story was first published in 2021. It has since been updated.