An Otter in the Mind of a Man without A Voice

Story by Cassidy Francik, serving with VHCB

On May 27th and 28th, SerVermont hosted the National Service Conference at the Common Ground Center in Starksboro, VT. The event was filled with many inspirational and informational sessions, but one session stood out to me like no other, “More alike than different.”


This session started with a film, followed by a discussion that was initiated with this question: “If you were an animal today; what would you be and why?”

One audience member answered, “An otter!” Everyone around laughed as the audience member explained that an otter always seems happy and playful. Not to mention, they hold hands when they sleep.

Photo belongs to VSA Vermont: "Mark types on an iPad while Emily provides support by touching the back of his arm."

Mark Utter has a boisterous laugh, one heard multiple times throughout our discussion, but he can rarely use words as his autism prevents him from expressing his thoughts verbally. However, if you were to watch him closely, you could practice as he preaches: learn to read another human being’s energy. Energy can be seen in how a person moves or presents their body, or it can be read in their eyes. If you were to watch Mark closely, you’d find an intelligent man tucked inside.

This story, Mark’s story, was the inspiration behind his own film, “I am in here.” With the help of Emily Anderson of VSA Vermont and many others, Mark was able to produce his film and share his story. Emily not only produced the film, but she is also Mark’s assistant for Facilitated Communication. As the discussion goes on, you see Emily squeezing Mark’s arm to provide a grounding touch while Mark types on a laptop which then reads out the words; this is Facilitated Communication. Painstakingly slow, Mark is able to type what he’s been longing to say all his life; he is able to express his thoughts.

Mark’s movie covers a day in the life of him and his brain. He can hear us, and he can process all that is going on around him, but he cannot verbally communicate with us. People assume his lack of words simply means he lacks intelligence; they assume he’s stupid. They assume wrong. Mark’s story is truly eye-opening and inspirational, but what shocked me even more than his story was his display of cognitive ability. He is clearly a very creative and poetic man given his film and his writing style. Despite his inability to speak, he has an remarkable ability to connect with people.

After the film was shown, Mark, Emily and Sarah initiated a group discussion. Ironically, most people were at a loss for words at this point in the presentation. Maybe they were in awe just as I was, or maybe they simply weren't feeling like any animal besides a human being. After a few more questions, people were more willing to open up, and a discussion got underway.

Before Mark left us for the day he wanted to leave us with some closing statements. I believe his remarks instilled a sense of inspiration and duty in every one of us, a duty to make sure we see everyone as “more alike than different.” One quote of Mark’s that I will carry with me as if it were the words of Buddha himself is:

“People do many things but rarely do they feel the pleasure the otter couple feels, holding sleepy hands.”

The idea is said over and over again, quoted and reworded by hundreds of people, and I repeat it to myself over and over again, “be true to you.” But, how often do I practice what I preach? Meeting Mark, listening to his story, and watching him practice what he preaches has given me new meaning to live by; he has relit a dying flame in my heart. If I cannot do it for myself, I will at least do it for you, Mark. I hope to go forward, doing many things for many people, but I hope at the end of each day I find the pleasure the otter couple finds, holding their sleepy hands.


Wish to learn more about Mark's story? Follow this link.

VHCB AmeriCorps is a program of the
Vermont Housing & Conservation Board.

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