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People With Disabilities

The World Begins to Open for Staten Island Autistic Young Man

Vincent Tucci is honored with the Duval Award. Credit: Catholic Charities New York

Vincent Tucci of Staten Island is a 19-year-old with a busy schedule. A typical day begins at 7:30 a.m., and includes all-day classes, a quick dinner with family, followed by either an extensive gym workout or a shoot-the-breeze gathering with other young adults.

The last one he considers vital.

“I like to hang out with my friends,” he says.

Vincent doesn’t actually verbalize those sentiments. They are delivered via a letter board. He points out the letters and forms sentences with the help of a facilitator.

He is largely non-verbal, the result of autism. Despite obstacles, Vincent enjoys a rich social life with his family and friends, a process augmented by his participation in the Supplemental Day Habilitation After School Program at Mount Loretto, a program operated by Catholic Charities of Staten Island.

For three hours each weekday for the past seven years, Vincent comes via bus to Mount Loretto from the Eden II School, which serves autistic children and young people on the island. At the Catholic Charities program, Vincent exercises, learns cooking and other skills, and has developed a social network through activities such as Halloween and Christmas parties.

“Vincent goes everyday with a smile on his face,” says his father, Anthony Tucci. The Mount Loretto program allows Vincent and his autistic friends “to act like regular kids. They have a d.j and get to dance,” says Valerie Tucci, Vincent’s mother.

“I love it there,” says Vincent, speaking through the letter board system.

The Tuccis have long worked on autism causes. Vincent was recognized last year at a Catholic Charities fundraiser on Staten Island for the progress he has shown through participating in the Mount Loretto program.

Their story is repeated worldwide. In the United States, according to the CDC, one in 44 children are on the autism spectrum, experiencing various degrees of disabilities. There are four times as many boys as girls with autism. In New York State, more than 342,000 adults are considered autistic.

Vincent is helped by his family, which includes his parents and two older brothers. Anthony, an attorney, is preparing for Vincent’s transition to adult life. Anthony and Valerie are now legally Vincent’s guardians, backed up by Vincent’s brothers, named successive guardians as they prepare for a time during which Vincent will require help.

Meanwhile, his education is a painstaking task in which Vincent learns basic skills. Vincent has a few words he verbalizes, such as yes or no, and Mom or Dad. Otherwise, he communicates via an IPad and the letter board.

The letter board technique is a contested approach in the autistic care community, with questions raised by some about whether it is true communication or whether it is a vehicle by which facilitators provide leading cues. In Vincent’s case, for the past year-and-a-half he apparently does point out letters forming words that answer questions. He regularly joins a community of autistic peers who also try the same approach, known as Spelling to Communicate. While some programs for autism education discourage the approach, the Mount Loretto program allows him to communicate via the method.

The Tuccis say their son has been understanding thoughts and concepts his entire life yet he has been unable to communicate because of how autism affects the connections between his thoughts and actions. That is why there is a premium placed on physical development in his education, including in the Mount Loretto program.

Since Vincent has started communicating through the letter board, his parents say they have discovered how much their son has taken in through the years. He is conscious that he wants to lose weight and be in shape. He is aware that the family often takes trips to New Jersey, and that their stop is at Exit 63 off the Garden State Parkway.

Small things, perhaps, but in the world of autistic development, they are large items.

“To me, it’s been like a revelation. We’ve been getting to know him,” says Anthony.

“I can speak up for myself,” says Vincent, again speaking by pointing out letters on a board which simply displays 26 letters, an alphabet which his parents believe can open up an entire world.