I Am in Here: The Journey of a Child with Autism Who Cannot Speak but Finds Her Voice

I Am in Here: The Journey of a Child with Autism Who Cannot Speak but Finds Her Voice

by Elizabeth M. Bonker, Virginia G. Breen

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I Am in Here: The Journey of a Child with Autism Who Cannot Speak but Finds Her Voice by Elizabeth M. Bonker, Virginia G. Breen

She looked into my eyes and blinked hers slowly and deliberately, like a stroke victim, to show me that although she couldn't speak, she understood what I was saying to her. I stroked her hair softly. 'I know you're in there, honey,' I told her. 'We'll get you out.'"
Despite the horror of seeing fifteen-month-old Elizabeth slip away into autism, her mother knew that her bright little girl was still in there. When Elizabeth eventually learned to communicate, first by using a letterboard and later by typing, the poetry she wrote became proof of a glorious, life-affirming victory for this young girl and her family.

I Am in Here is the spiritual journey of a mother and daughter who refuse to give up hope, who celebrate their victories, and who keep trying to move forward despite the obstacles. Although she cannot speak, Elizabeth writes poetry that shines a light on the inner world of autism and the world around us. That poetry and her mother's stirring storytelling combine in this inspirational book to proclaim that there is always a reason to take the next step forward--with hope.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781441237842
Publisher: Baker Publishing Group
Publication date: 10/15/2011
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 1,126,061
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Elizabeth M. Bonker is a teen with autism who cannot speak but who writes deeply revealing poetry, which was featured on PBS's Religion & Ethics Newsweekly.

Virginia G. Breen is the mother of three children, two of whom are profoundly affected by autism. She has spread Elizabeth's message of hope on television with PBS, Fox News, and The 700 Club, and through a TEDMED talk at the Kennedy Center.

Visit www.iaminherebook.com for more.
Elizabeth M. Bonker is a thirteen-year-old young lady with autism who cannot yet speak, but who writes deeply revealing poetry, which was featured on PBS's Religion & Ethics Newsweekly. She excels in mainstream public school with an educational aide.
Virginia G. Breen is the mother of three beautiful children, two of whom are profoundly affected by autism. Besides working to heal her children, Virginia is a venture capitalist investing in high-tech companies, and she sits on both corporate and nonprofit boards. Previously she studied computer science at Harvard, business at Columbia, and eastern philosophies in Singapore. She now studies relentlessly at the School of Autism.

Read an Excerpt

I Am in Here

The Journey of a Child with Autism Who Cannot Speak but Finds Her Voice
By Elizabeth M. Bonker Virginia G. Breen


Copyright © 2011 Elizabeth M. Bonker and Virginia G. Breen
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8007-2071-1

Chapter One


The Quiet Miracle of "How People"

We read to know we are not alone. C. S. Lewis in William Nicholson's play Shadowlands

Beauty bursts forth in the most unexpected places. Tiny flowers push their way through cracks in the asphalt of city streets. And often we glide past these quiet miracles without paying them much heed.

But I can't anymore, because I live with one of those miracles: my thirteen-year-old daughter, Elizabeth. She is profoundly affected by autism and cannot speak. Yet she has summoned the courage to remain optimistic. She has shattered the silence of autism and found an escape from its shackles in the beauty of her poetry.

Bright Future

When you see A tree Think of me Growing strong and tall.

When you see The sun shining brightly Think of me Tough and mighty.

When you see The water on the lake Think of the future I plan to make.

Me Strong Mighty Free

Even with all of her challenges, Elizabeth's determination and optimism never cease to amaze me. At each stage of her life, she has defied the labels assigned to her. Although she was diagnosed by the so-called experts as mentally retarded at age two and a half, her intelligence has now been tested in the genius range. Her poetry tells us about the inner world of autism and shines a light on the world around us.

Because of autism, Elizabeth lacks the fine motor skills to write with a pen or pencil. She types out one letter at a time, hunting and pecking with her forefinger. This process is slow and tedious, so beyond her schoolwork, she seeks the efficiency poetry affords. Each of Elizabeth's poems, and the accompanying brief reflections on them, is a treasure for us. They have been virtually our only way of understanding who Elizabeth is, what she believes, what she feels, and what hopes and dreams she has for her life. This is what we share in this book.

When I asked Elizabeth how she wanted to introduce her book, she wrote:

I want people to find peace in my book. I want them to read my prayers with understanding. Be at peace. God loves you.

As usual, her words are better than mine, and for that reason we have put all of Elizabeth's writings in boldface so that you can easily pick them out. The stories in between are written by me, from the perspective of a mom, with lots of help from some dear friends.

The genesis of this book was a group of friends who love books. Every year for the past seventeen years, the whimsically dubbed Select Literate Friends (or SLF for short) stage a virtual gathering of members on paper, which consists of the members' annual letters, copied, bound, and distributed for all the members to read. The irony of SLF is that it is not "select" at all: anyone can join, and many of us are barely "literate." Each person's entry ticket is their list of top ten favorite books. The sharing has now evolved to an annual baring of our collective souls, including painfully honest chronicles of what is happening in our lives.

For the past five years, I have shared with SLF our journey through the daunting maze of autism. Elizabeth's older brother, Charles, also has autism. But in an ironic contrast to Elizabeth's struggle to speak, Charles rarely stops talking. Both children have made great progress over a full range of social, language, and behavioral issues. Both are in mainstream public school with the help of wonderful, dedicated aides. However, the shadow of autism still hangs, in unique ways, over both children, and I cannot and will not rest until they are well.

Each year the response of SLF to each new chapter of our story, and in particular to Elizabeth's poetry, has been overwhelming. To my knowledge, none of these friends has a child with autism, but every one of them knows someone touched by this epidemic. However, I think the response has been about much more than autism. We are all fighting our own battles, and by allowing ourselves to be vulnerable enough to share our struggles, we find hope and gather strength from each other.

Our journey has been full of surprises. Elizabeth's poetry pierces the seemingly impenetrable walls of autism and challenges the stereotypes those walls create. To the observer, she may appear to be disconnected, somewhere off in her own world, but through her poetry she tells us that she is deeply concerned about the people and natural world around her. Although her face is usually expressionless, her writings reveal a mischievous side and a wry sense of humor. She may display few emotions, but deep currents of compassion, frustration, and joy flow just beneath the surface.

God Is Everywhere

I could not find the sea So I sat by a tree To think of all the wonderful things God has made for me. The birds of the air The animals everywhere Flowers in bloom My own bedroom Food on the table Poetry and fables Just to name a few.

God is great. He gives us so much. I know all things are gifts from God. I am thankful for all that he has given me.

Elizabeth has become my teacher, and I am learning to think about life, faith, and relationships in a whole new way. I have come to see the world as divided into "Why People" and "How People." Why People cannot be at peace until they answer the question of why suffering has befallen them. They look backward and ask, "Why me?" How People, on the other hand, ask, "How can I move forward?" Having been dealt their hand in life, their focus shifts to how they can find whatever healing and wholeness is possible.

Our community of How People lifts me up on gloomy days. These courageous How People face their own great challenges with grace and inspire me to carry on. Their determination, like Elizabeth's poetry, reminds me that the light of God's love can brighten even our darkest hours.

The Things I Know for Sure

There is a God. I am loved. The sun will shine. I will survive autism.

I hear a loud "Amen!" from the autism parents of the world. You know deep in your hearts that Elizabeth speaks for your children who can't yet speak for themselves. They want you to remember that they are in there and to keep trying to reach them. Have faith. They are. You will.

In our How community, this little poem has become a mantra beyond autism. I have shared it with others who have told me they have put it on their refrigerators, substituting their own struggles in place of autism. For some it is "I will survive cancer." For others it is "I will survive depression, an ugly divorce, alcoholism, loneliness, poverty, or unemployment." On any given day, each of us is fighting a battle that none of us was meant to fight alone.

I cannot explain why our children bear the burden of autism. I'm no philosopher or theologian, just one of thousands of guilt-ridden mothers scratching and clawing to get our kids back from the tar grip of autism. This book seeks to look beyond that daily struggle to find joy and meaning in our journey.

You will meet some extraordinary How People in this book. Together we are mounting a quiet revolution of hope. We refuse to let our circumstances dictate our destiny. We see each new day as an opportunity to move our lives forward. We celebrate our victories, big and small. We pray for the strength to continue the battle. The How People in this book show us the way.

Elizabeth is a How Person.

This is her story.

Chapter Two


We All Fight a Battle

Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle. attributed to Philo of Alexandria


I sometimes fear That people cannot understand That I hear And I know That they don't believe I go To every extreme To try to express My need to talk. If only they could walk In my shoes They would share my news: I am in here And trying to speak every day In some kind of way. (age 9)

I wrote "Me" to let people know that even though I don't speak, I feel and understand the world around me. I want to be heard and respected. I want that for everyone, especially for people like me.

What is your great battle?

Mine is autism. For more than a decade, I have fought a great battle to heal Elizabeth and Charles. Elizabeth lost her ability to speak at fifteen months of age and fell into silence, but I refused to accept that she was lost, because I could sense her keen intelligence, even when she was a toddler. She had communicated with us, using her sparkling eyes and a growing vocabulary, until the day she was given a battery of routine vaccinations. Within a week, her voice was silenced and all the energy and mischief in her eyes drained away.

Elizabeth was officially diagnosed with autism at the Yale University School of Medicine's Child Study Center on May 16, 2000. It's a day I will never forget.

After my husband Ray and I watched our children complete two full days of testing, we sat in the cramped, windowless meeting room as the Yale doctor joined us and said, "I have good news and bad news for you."

We looked at him breathlessly as he continued without emotion, "The bad news is both Elizabeth and Charles have autism. The good news is you live in New Jersey, which has the best autism schools in the country."

We felt as if the building had come crashing down on us. To this day, I still wince when I hear someone say "good news, bad news."

The doctor talked about the need to get the children into an intensive, one-on-one educational program immediately. Every day mattered.

Searching for any other scrap of hope, I asked him what we could do for the children medically. His answer was essentially "nothing."

At that moment I knew virtually nothing about autism, but I could not accept this answer. We would seek medical help.

That night I took Elizabeth in my arms and cried. "Don't worry, sweetheart," I told her. "Everything will be okay."

She looked into my eyes and blinked hers slowly and deliberately, like a stroke victim, to show me that although she could not speak, she understood what I was saying to her.

I stroked her hair softly, saying, "I know you're in there, honey. We'll get you out. I promise you that with all my heart."

Our journey has been long, and at times I have been in despair and wondered whether I could keep my promise to her. That is why her poetry is so precious: it is her glorious, life-affirming victory. She has always been in there.

Autism manifests itself very differently in Charles. It always has. He did not have the sudden regression but developed language very slowly. According to my mother, I didn't speak until I was two and a half. Charles's older sister, Gale, didn't speak until she was two and a half either, so we weren't too worried when he wasn't speaking at that age. But when he wasn't speaking at three, we were concerned and took him to a local developmental pediatrician who declared that he had a "language delay." For us, as with so many other parents, the A word was not the first diagnosis but the last of a long, agonizing list. Once Yale gave us the A word for both children, the battle was joined.

Every educational and biomedical intervention that we have used with Elizabeth, we have also used with Charles, many times with very different results. That is why this battle can be so maddening for parents. Every child is so different.

Charles is our chatterbox, whereas most of the time Elizabeth appears to be locked in her own silent world. But we have learned through her writing that she misses nothing happening around her. She writes that she is "in agony" because of her inability to speak. Often the only way she can cope is by hitting her head repeatedly with her hand in frustration. The force of her frustration is sometimes so powerful that I feel compelled to put my hand on her forehead to cushion the blows. Times like these are when I most share Elizabeth's agony. I thank God that she has found a voice through her poems, such as this one where she projects herself into a beautiful future by dreaming it into being:


I am a dreamer. That is me. The south of France I want to see. To travel to a distant shore. There is something more I want to visit a place where I can Help people in need Maybe to feed Or plant a seed. These are my dreams. I want to do this in my lifetime.

I want to travel and see other lands and people, not only to sightsee but to make a difference. I would like to teach people how to improve their lives, make their space a better place, and be happy and healthy. This is very important to me.

You may wonder how such a young girl with autism and unable to speak found a way to communicate at all, much less with poetry. Seven years ago, in our desperation to connect with Elizabeth, we traveled to Austin, Texas, to see Soma Mukhopadhyay, who had taught her own son, Tito, to "write" by pointing out letters arranged alphabetically on a piece of laminated paper (commonly referred to as a "letterboard"). Tito is now an accomplished author who remains nonverbal and severely affected by autism. We found Soma because she and Tito were featured on the television show 60 Minutes.

Soma has developed a teaching methodology called the Rapid Prompting Method (RPM), which is being used by hundreds of children and adults with autism. She starts off by assessing the student's primary learning channel (visual, auditory, kinesthetic, or tactile) and proceeds to teach them interesting, age-appropriate lessons. The student first answers her questions by selecting choices and ultimately uses a letterboard to write complete sentences.

For those of us who have been blessed to make this monumental breakthrough, Soma is a hero. In the pantheon of How People, she is at the top.

Over the course of several visits, Soma taught Elizabeth to write single-word answers and then full sentences with a letter-board. Soma has found that most of her students are so bright that they have taught themselves to read, but the simple act of pointing to each letter, the initiation of creating words, is a monumental challenge for them. That's why a special approach is needed.

When Elizabeth finally learned to compose complete sentences, one of her first was, "I finally got to talk." Such a simple sentence, but for Elizabeth it represented the end of years of tantrum-filled, lonesome isolation. For me, it was an intense moment of both joy and heartbreak. It was like Helen Keller's signing "w-a-t-e-r" for the first time.

Our children are complex and misunderstood. Elizabeth wrote the "Me" poem included at the beginning of this chapter after one particularly frustrating week with a matched set of speech-language pathologists. The first was an expert in apraxia (disorders of motor planning) and the second was an expert in initiation (getting speech started). After hours of evaluation, the apraxia expert said that Elizabeth's main problem was initiation, and, of course, the initiation expert said that the main problem was apraxia.

These experts, and many others before and after them, could not tell us how such an intelligent child could read words and write poetry but not speak. One even suggested in Elizabeth's presence, "Maybe she just doesn't want to talk?" I wanted to scream. The "Me" poem was her response. When I saw those words "I am in here," I cried tears of pain and delight. She was taking a stand for all those afflicted with autism. Years later, Elizabeth wrote a second "Me" poem in which she tries to explain her daily battle:

Me Revisited

I can't sit still. What's wrong with me? My body is doing things I can't explain. My dignity I am trying to maintain. People stare at me When I rock and shake. I don't know how much More I can take. So much to deal with Going on inside me. I wish I could get better. I want to be set free From my silent cage.


Excerpted from I Am in Here by Elizabeth M. Bonker Virginia G. Breen Copyright © 2011 by Elizabeth M. Bonker and Virginia G. Breen. Excerpted by permission of Revell. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


1. Hope: The Quiet Miracle of "How People"....................13
2. Autism: We All Fight a Battle....................21
3. Preschool: Buried Treasures....................31
4. Wall Street and Autism: Living in Two Worlds....................41
5. Poetry: On Her Own Terms....................65
6. Elementary School: Looking for Ability, Not Disability....................75
7. Community: A Little Help from My Friends....................91
8. Nature: Listening to Trees in Harvard Yard....................107
9. Hopes and Dreams: Relentless Parenting....................119
10. Middle School: Be Flexible....................137
11. Families: We All Have Our Stories....................149
12. Suffering: A View from Tibet....................161
13. God: Learning Each Other....................175
14. Healing: A Wing and a Prayer....................193
15. Joy: The Secret of How....................209
"How People" Gallery....................235

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I Am in Here: The Journey of a Child with Autism Who Cannot Speak but Finds Her Voice 4.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 10 reviews.
thekristencarol More than 1 year ago
I found this book fascinating, inspiring, and moving. It was a quick read which was disappointing because I would have liked to have stayed with Elizabeth and the Author and mother Virginia a bit longer. This book is a worthwhile use of your time, it made me look at my own challenges with more faith and resolve to never give up. Thank you Virginia and Elizabeth!
chalkdust423 More than 1 year ago
A retired former educator, with forty years under my belt, I wish this book was required reading when I was majoring in education in college. Though the focus of this amazing book is about one family's continuing fight to find solutions and coping methods, while facing the challenge of autism, it also provides insight into life lessons about many different situations facing children, parents, and educators. This book has applications towards bullying, peer pressure, self-confidence, and persevering through all challenges one confronts. Through acts of kindness the author discovers the "how people". They are individuals who share their knowledge with the author about issues they are coping with or have coped with for many years. This book is about connections of all sorts! The gifts of friendship and the power of prayer and faith are life changing concepts. It is about ALWAYS putting one foot in front of the other even while the caregivers are worn out, drained (physically and emotionally), and feeling full of despair in one's attempt to create an atmosphere of caring, warmth, nurturing love, tough love, hope, and listening, both to one's own inner "voice" and the voice both spoken and unspoken in others. This book is so important, so inspirational, so necessary that I made it a point to bring it to the attention of the Superintendent of Schools in the district where I spent most of my forty years of teaching. It should be a gift from the Board of Education to EVERY teacher and administrator. It should be on the shelf in every library for parents, students, and people in all walks of life and of all types of employment! The authors live and learn, daily, the need for co-operation, understanding, patience and that love, caring about one another, and being supportive of each others needs are a given, always.
luluLM More than 1 year ago
This is a book that will touch you as you follow the journey of young Elizabeth who is trapped within herself because she cannot speak. Have you ever lost your voice? It's terrible not being able to communicate, can you imagine never being able to speak your thoughts, how would you feel, how would people treat you? Once Elizabeth found her 'voice' she wrote beautiful poems and was able to tell how her thoughts and feelings...thoughts and feelings that really are quite powerful, this is an amazing young girl and a book that will leave it's mark on you and make you want to reach out and hug not only Elizabeth but others who suffer like her. *I received this book in exchange for review from Revell, a division of Baker Publishing.
DorianSD More than 1 year ago
I read 'I Am in Here' while on a road trip, and it gave me regular doses of perspective as I went through it. It helped me understand how much I depend on my words, and the words of my family. I'm recommending 'I Am in Here' for anyone that has been touched by autism, and for those who have no direct connection to autism, I encourage you to pick up a copy too. I don't think someone who hasn't looked autism in the face can really understand what goes through those that deal with it every day, but Elizabeth's thoughts and poetry will certainly have you thinking about it anew or differently than you have in the past.
ddmm More than 1 year ago
This is a story of hope,courage but mostly love. A mother's love combined with her daughter's unique gift makes this truly a blessing to any one who reads this book.
DON40 More than 1 year ago
Since i have a great grand child who has this disease i can relate to this and it tugged at my heart also people who do not understand look down on these children it brings tears to my eyes.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
MomsChoiceAwards More than 1 year ago
I Am in Here is the recipient of the prestigious Mom's Choice Award. The Mom's Choice Awards honors excellence in family-friendly media, products and services. An esteemed panel of judges includes education, media and other experts as well as parents, children, librarians, performing artists, producers, medical and business professionals, authors, scientists and others. A sampling of the panel members includes: Dr. Twila C. Liggett, Ten-time Emmy-winner, professor and founder of Reading Rainbow; Julie Aigner-Clark, Creator of Baby Einstein and The Safe Side Project; Jodee Blanco, New York Times Best-Selling Author; and LeAnn Thieman, motivational speaker and coauthor of seven Chicken Soup For The Soul books. Parents and educators look for the Mom's Choice Awards seal in selecting quality materials and products for children and families.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Poetry and Elizabeth's explanations were wonderful...didn't care as much for the rest.