A Voice Out of Silence: Hope for Nonverbal Communicators

hope for nonverbals

The world is filled with sound. Everything from our footsteps to our breath makes an audible impact on our environments. Most notably, these human sounds come in the form of words spoken to one another. Unfortunately, this aspect of reality is not one that all individuals get to experience.

For twenty-year-old Federico, silent participation marks the entirety of his world. Diagnosed at age 3, Federico lives his life on the autism spectrum. One of the most marked distinctions of this handicap is limited language capability, both in terms of its spoken quality and understanding. For Federico, this impairment is extreme: he is nonverbal; in other words, he cannot communicate by speaking.

Over the past decade, there has been a great rise in augmentative and alternative communication devices that have allowed verbally limited persons the ability to speak. It may not be in their natural voice, but such devices grant people like Federico the autonomy to form their own words and sentences via computers.

Federico first happened upon such technology when he was eight, and it has made a world of difference. Since then, Federico has learned to technologically verbalize his needs and thoughts. Recently, they have adapted to even imbue a sense of feeling into the automated voice, which he controls via his device.

Recently, Federico used his newfound voice to publish his autobiography entitled “What I Never Said.” In it, he details his spiritual journey along the path of surmounting the limitations his diagnosis has placed on him. He opens with the following words:

“Today I share with you a great joy. 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.”

He makes a point of explaining his autism while at the same time instructing readers not to think of it as a handicap. Federico describes it as something much more profound, and describes his gratitude for the other skills of listening and understanding that have been strengthened in the absence of his voice.

Nevertheless, he dreams of 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.”

Federico has big plans for the future and hopes to one day help young children come to know their inner narrator just as he has over these past 20 years.

Sara Power, Fordham Univeristy