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For 25 years of his life, Gregory Tino didn’t speak in conversation, express his thoughts or verbalize his needs. Tino, a resident of Havertown, has autism and although he was able to recite memorized lines from videos that he had watched, he was unable to communicate his most basic wants and needs.
Three years ago, a “Spelling To Communicate” workshop completely changed the lives of Gregory and his parents, Gregory and Linda Tino, as well as the rest of his family. Now, at age 27, he not only possesses the means to communicate, but Tino has also self-published a book to help educate the world about autism.
The program that taught Tino to communicate was Inside Voice, hosted by AALIVE (Adults with Autism: Living with Independence, Value and Esteem), a Springfield-based nonprofit organization founded by Colleen and Frank Foti, that helps to provide resources and support for adults with autism.
In 2017, AALIVE invited Elizabeth Vosseller of the Growing Kids Therapy Center in Herndon, Va., to host a workshop and share some of the fascinating Assistive Technology that the therapist uses to educate and teach students. From her years of working with individuals with complex communication disabilities, Vosseller developed Spell to Communicate, a communication method that gives non-speaking people a method to communicate through spelling, using a letterboard. The first time Gregory spelled words on a letterboard, his mother Linda said she cried. Those first spelled words eventually turned into full sentences, then paragraphs, and now a full-fledged book.
During the progression, Tino graduated from a long letter board with big letters when he first began communicating to a laminated board of 8 ½ X 11 inch size with smaller letters. The goal is to shrink the letterboards with time and eventually transition the skill to a computer keyboard.
Throughout his school years, Tino was unable to communicate effectively. He attended the Timothy School in Berwyn, Elwyn’s Davidson School in Middletown, CHAAMP in Downingtown and a life skills program through Haverford School District.
“Looking back, we now realize, that all through each of those schools, he was taught way below his intellect level,” Linda said about her son.
Once, Tino, at age 23, finally found a way to communicate with others, he was able to express the feelings and opinions that he has had held in for so long and those around him were stunned by his intellectual abilities.
With the help of his mother Linda, Tino began blogging on WordPress (https://inautism.wordpress.com/author/tinogr21/). Many of his blog posts express how it feels to have autism.
“I enjoy meeting different people with differing views on life,” a blog post states, “I think it shows me how life can be lived in so many ways. Autism and I like that we are not like everyone else and that we are put on this Earth for a reason. What that reason is will become evident as time goes on. For me, I believe that my purpose is to be an advocate for the others who don’t have a voice. Also autism and I are here to forge a path for autistics and their families. I take this as a very solemn purpose. I take this as my life’s goal. The autistics that I help will then help others. What a beautiful legacy to leave.”
“Autism and I were put here for a reason,” another blog post says. “And I am beginning to see why. We were put here to open peoples’ minds and hearts to a different kind of life. Autism and I are living that kind of life one day at a time.”
Tino is using his new voice, not only in his blog, but also in his new book, to help change people’s perception of autism. “The Autistic Mind Finally Speaks: Letterboard Thoughts,” released on Oct. 19, is a compilation of his thoughts and insights into behaviors of autistic people, as well as creative stories and beautiful poetry. He also gives advice on how to interact with people with autism and how to include them in life.
Aided by his mom Linda and his aunt, Lori Hayes, Tino poured through his blog posts to compile them into the new book. Staying home-based during the pandemic, he had the time to write more often and he took full advantage of the opportunity. Tino writes his blog and wrote his entire book on his letterboard.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Tino worked at Kohl’s in Havertown and had just started a new job at Giant in Broomall, working three days a week aided by a job coach. Tino also attended an enrichment program at Peaceful Living in Newtown Square for two days each week.
In the U.S., autism is the fastest-growing developmental disability, impacting 1 in 54 births. Current data shows 3.5 million people in the U.S. are on the autism spectrum. Tino said he wrote the book to let the world know that there is depth to people with autism that they sometimes have difficulty conveying.
Linda expressed that one of the best parts in finding out that Gregory could communicate his thoughts was finding out how intelligent her son is.
“Gregory’s use of a letterboard gave us the biggest awakening of our lives,” Linda said. “At the time, even though Gregory was an adult, we were still reading Barney and ‘Sesame Street’ books to him. Elizabeth read him a passage from an adult book, and Gregory answered questions about it. I was stunned!”
Linda said that she has since found out, not only what Gregory has been thinking and feeling all his life, but also that her son could do complex math in his head and understand Italian from listening to his father and grandmother converse when he was younger.
“For whatever reason, the hands of God were in this from the beginning,” Linda said. “I was able to see immediately that this simple method would change my son’s life forever. He can now make his own decisions and be verbal about them, from what he wants to wear and eat for lunch to if he needs to take a Motrin because he has a headache. We still have our struggles, but being able to communicate now has just made his life so much better. He has such an improved quality of life in every single way!”
“The Autistic Mind Finally Speaks: Letterboard Thoughts” is available on paperback through Amazon.com. The book is illustrated by four of Tino’s peers with autism who are not only gifted artists but also non-speaking. Proceeds from the sale of the book will benefit the Inside Voice program. For more information on Tino’s book or blog, email firstname.lastname@example.org.