Rosa María Fernández changed continents so that her highly intelligent autistic son — who can teach himself different languages but is incapable of tying his shoes — could develop skills to survive when she is no longer around.
Yet a year after leaving Spain for America, Fernández, 51, and her 14-year-old son, Julio Muñoz, live in a rented room in Kendall — the fourth place they have lived in since they arrived in South Florida — struggling to make her dream come true. The room serves serves as bedroom, dining room and kitchen for both. Because Julio doesn’t have medical insurance, he cannot receive the therapy he so badly needs.
“Sometimes I ask myself what have I gotten my son into. He tells me: ‘I have lost everything, my school, my friends, my country, and here I have nothing,’” Fernández says outside the house while Julio is inside playing video games. She doesn’t want to speak when he is around because he gets angry and says, “Don’t say that!” when someone talks about him or his problems.
“But I can’t go back,” Fernández says. “I will find a way to have my son make progress.”
Fernández says her son is a Formula 1 racing fan, and loves the soccer team Futbol Club Barcelona, or Barca. He keeps posters of the team on the walls of their room in Kendall.
Even more, she says, he loves Vivaldi and learned English while still living in Spain.
Julio started learning languages like French, Finnish and even Basque by playing car-racing video games. He would memorize them first in Spanish, then repeat the games in other languages.
Once, while living in Málaga, Spain, he was watching a program in Catalonian.
“I asked him, Do you understand what they’re saying?” Fernández said. “And he said, ‘Of course, mom.’”
Her son is slow and deliberate - not hyperactive, she says. Julio uses the family computer to learn and to understand everything around him. Recently, it broke down.
His mother borrowed an iPad from acquaintances because she said her son spends hours navigating online and cannot be separated from the Internet.
“He searches all information there, news from Spain, the world,” Fernández says.
Her wish list includes a computer, a desk and a chair, so that Julio could be more comfortable during the hours he spends on the computer.
Julio has difficulties understanding his surroundings. If someone speaks to him very fast, he is not able to grasp the meaning of the words. If he sees children playing, he won’t get the rules of the games. And if the kids mock him, he gets upset and leaves. But he still wants to have friends.
“He wants to help and see that he can do things for others,” Fernández said. “One day he told me: ‘Don’t worry, because when you get old, I am going to take care of you.’ ”
A DIFFICULT ASSIMILATION
Fernández, originally from Cuba, moved to Spain 17 years ago with a daughter from a previous relationship and her new husband. The marriage later fell apart following Julio’s birth. Her son’s psychologist told her that Spain had no specific programs for highly productive autistic persons and that she should try to get him to the United States.
Without little money, Fernández arrived in Miami through Mexico with her two children. Although she received state assistance, she cannot get medical insurance from the Department of Children and Families for her son because he is a Spaniard.
That means her son is not getting any therapy for his autism and she does not have the means to pay for an evaluation. Julio needs stability in his life and he has already been through two schools, she says.
He and his mother live on a $500 monthly pension she receives from Spain, where she worked for several years before she broke her hip. She also receives food stamps and occasional gifts from friends.
Julio can attend public school, but needs special schooling. In his school, he can only attend one class for autistic children of low productivity. Several psychologists have told her that her son must go to normal classes but with an assistant.
“He doesn’t want to go to school. He says he can’t stand that class because children scream and bother him,” says Fernández. She says she has had to call the police to force him to go to school. And there have been when she felt she has had no other option but to let him stay home.
Fernández wants instructors to see how Julio learns by himself, then apply that technique to help him in the classroom.
She is applying for resident status in January and hopes that her son will have access to the programs he needs. Congressman Joe García (R-Miami) promised to look at her case.
“He will have his dentist and all,” Fernández said.
She’s already making plans to find a decent job when her son is in the proper school and receiving therapy. She would like to work in the field that she was trained in - as an epidemiology technician. But she’s not sure she’ll have that opportunity and is willing to take she can get until she can do better.
Inside the house, Julio plays his car-racing games. His eyes light up when he is asked if he would like to have a computer: “A laptop, please, please, please.”