Aleteia

A 20 Year-Old with Autism Describes His Childhood “Prison”

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His path to communication and communion with God

“My name is Federico. I was born in 1993. As of the date of this letter, I am just 20 years old.” 

Federico has autism and cannot speak. When he was just a year old, his parents Paola and Oreste noticed that their beautiful, lively son with blond curly hair began to pass over them with his gaze, he refused contact, and he didn’t turn around when he was called. At the age of 3 he was diagnosed with autism. Years of therapy followed. Federico clung to the love of his parents and siblings Arianna and Leonardo.

It was going to school that really did the trick, however. When he was 8, he began to take his first steps in trying to communicate through a computer. In fact, at the keyboard his syndrome seemed to recede. Finally, there was an opening, a window into into his “prison.” He wrote only with the index finger of his right hand. He began to form words, then sentences, and then thoughts and feelings seasoned by a strong sense of irony. He discovered friendship, love, faith. Thus was born his autobiography, entitled What I Never Said (St. Paul editions). It is a work full of profound, rare and precious observations about autism.

A LONG-DESIRED JOY

“Today I share with you a great joy,” Federico writes. “After 20 years of silence, a life passed without being able to speak, and 12 years struggling to learn to write, my book arrived in the bookshops. In my book I tell my story. I explain my autism. And finally I can say how I see the world and what I believe in. After a life spent in silence, communicating is finally the long-desired joy that I have attained.”

I BELIEVE IN GOD

The lines in which he opens up about his faith are profound. On the Eucharist, for example, he writes: “When I receive Communion, I feel that I am entering into a relationship with God and I find peace in my heart.” On the Passion of Christ: “Jesus reaches every person who is suffering. He is close, and he loves and suffers with us. And again: “God lets himself be found slowly, by those who seek him sincerely.” He also says the choice to open oneself to love and life with God “is like hearing the music and joining the dance.”

Then, there are his reflections on believers and non-believers: “I believe that faith and atheism are two complementary mysteries of human life. Whether believers or atheists, we are all on a journey along the path of life. The fact that everyone has his own personal and unique path to travel doesn’t mean that we can’t feel like fellow travelers, even among atheists and believers, in solidarity but also in full respect for the convictions and beliefs of others.”

‘NO’ TO USELESS PIETISM AND NOISE

Federico describes what a young man in his condition experiences, so that we may understand it better and change our approach: “If you think that we who are autistic are handicapped, please just let us be.” If this is your idea, don’t waste your time, he seems to say. “Don’t put too much stress on my perceptual faculties. I hate noisy environments, with many lights and a lot of people talking. For a walk, I prefer the hushed atmosphere of a forest over the chaos of a shopping center. Give me a input a little at a time. I can understand you, but communicate slowly and in simple sentences. Explain to me calmly where we are going, what we are doing, and how. For you things may seem obvious, but for me, not so.”

BE SILENT

A few quick phrases are enough to disarm the reader: “I think the world has a dramatic need of silence, both individual and relational, in order to learn to sense, hear, and feel things with the heart. Instead, the world seeks to exorcise this need by making even more noise. I don’t know how to speak, but are you able to cultivate relationships by remaining silent? 

There are things we “neurotypicals” don’t know how to do, which Federico does. “For example,” he says, “ I know how to do things which, for all of you, are difficult, like speaking and listening at the same time, or hearing and understanding two people who are speaking about different things simultaneously. In short, my mind works in a different manner from that of others, and it causes me some difficulty.”

PLANS FOR THE FUTURE

Today Federico studies percussion, has many friends, helps people with autism and has many plans for the future: “Now my life has found its course,” he writes, “thanks to those who taught me the method [of communicating]. And thanks to my parents who enthusiastically threw themselves into the adventure, today I am happy with my life it is largely due to them.” His thoughts, however, also turn to others: “How many mentally autistic people were lost who could have been another Federico, if only they had been diagnosed early, well-supported during the age of development, and well-loved?” But his strongest desire is but one: “I want to go around the world to visit women who are pregnant to see if their children will be able to speak about and treat autism. I will play with their children to help them grow in learning to speak. When a child needs me, I will be there to help him.”

“I DREAM OFTEN AND MUCH”

Even today Federico says nothing, though sometimes a word escapes his lips or he mumbles to himself. But letter after letter, he manages to portray his inner world with impressive depth and clarity. He continues to live in Rome, and he dreams, “often and much.”

“A recurring dream of mine is a sunny day when my feelings and thoughts flow like a river or spring of words for all my friends. How lovely it must be to be able to talk.”

Translation by Diane Montagna of Aleteia’s English edition.

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