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Watch: Quiet Alessia, 13, absolutely masters the piano

A teen living with autism comes out of her shell

Video: Matthew Mirabelli

Moments after lifting her fingers from the piano keys and receiving a round of applause, Alessia Bonnici retyped the piece of music from memory on her laptop.

She hit the playback button and beamed at her awestruck audience, who had followed her from the sitting room to the study.

Throughout the whole process, she did not utter a word.  The aspiring pianist, who is preparing for her first concert with international performers, has been struggling with autism for 13 years.

Her mother Cynthia Bonnici explains that to date, her social and verbal skills are significantly impaired.

Alessia Bonnici: She speaks through music instead of words. Photos: Matthew MirabelliAlessia Bonnici: She speaks through music instead of words. Photos: Matthew Mirabelli

But music has helped her come out of her shell and shine in her own way, so much that it is nowadays part of her identity. Music gives her confidence and, is in a way, a means of communication for her.

She is now gearing up for a concert with some of the influential people who have made her musical growth possible. These include Spanish tenor Borja Gómez-Ferrer, Maltese musician from local band Bee Squeeze Kriz Haze, Malta-based British composer Jess Rymer, pianist Tricia Dawn Williams and London-based pianist Marcelle Zahra, who is also Alessia’s aunt.

Ms Bonnici and her husband Duncan realised that Alessia had communication difficulties from a very young age. Initially they thought she had hearing difficulties, but she was eventually diagnosed with the condition when she was around 15 months old.

They immediately tried to expose her to things that opened up some window of hope and could help her grow in a more complete manner – such as gymnastics, swimming, art, horse riding and anything that could be therapeutic for her.

As the years rolled by they realised that she was really keen on music and responsive to it.

“We tried different approaches to music but initially none of them worked. However, we persevered when she continued to show an interest in music.”

When they finally found a way that she was comfortable with, they were left amazed at her learning pace, and Alessia has now passed her grade four exam with a distinction.

We would like more teachers to be inspired by her and open up to teaching children on the spectrum

Ms Bonnici initially tried to learn the piano herself but she could not keep up with Alessia. She finds support in her sister, Ms Zahra, who often Skype calls her niece throughout the week to help her with any difficulties that might arise in between classes.

Her mother believes that her Malta School of Music teacher Rosetta Debattista was a catalyst in Alessia’s development.

Ms Debattista, who is a trained pianist, music educator and therapist, “teaches in an inclusive, vibrant and fun way, and I wish there were more therapists like her,” Ms Bonnici noted.

“My concern remains: what next? I’m seeing her grow up into an adolescent and it seems that local opportunities become more limited the older she gets.

Ms Bonnici appealed for “veritable inclusion”. As a parent she is grateful for the authorities to provide the opportunity to children with difficulties to get mainstreamed education, while receiving the necessary support to follow the curriculum alongside neurotypical peers, however she feels that we are still far from a total inclusive educational environment.  

Not being able to communicate her needs in detail is still very frustrating for Alessia, but she seems to find some comfort when she sits behind her piano and ‘speaks’ to those around her through music instead of words.

Cynthia Bonnici, Alessia’s mother, and Marcelle Zahra, a London-based pianist who is her aunt.Cynthia Bonnici, Alessia’s mother, and Marcelle Zahra, a London-based pianist who is her aunt.

Ms Zahra draws inspiration from her niece, especially because she has to think outside of the box and be more creative when communicating with her.

Ms Zahra and Ms Bonnici would like to provide a peek into the life of a child with autism.

“We would like more teachers to be inspired by her and open up to teaching children on the spectrum,” Ms Zahra said.

Ms Bonnici also hopes the concert will serve as an inspiration for other parents. “Growing up with the condition is challenging but we always tried to focus on her potential.” Ultimately they hope that by seeing Alessia doing what she can do best, more people will embrace autism.

Alessia’s concert will be held in Palazzo De La Salle in Valletta on September 16 at 5.30pm. All donations collected upon entrance will be presented to the Equal Partners Foundation, which supports people with disabilities.

Log onto the Facebook page www.facebook.com/musicspeaksmalta or send an email on cyn.bonnici@gmail.com for more information.

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