My brother is four years younger than me. And growing up with a younger brother was sometimes a hard pill to swallow. It was not from the typical annoyances from a younger sibling but from a condition that, as a child, I did not fully understand. That condition’s name is autism. And having an adult sibling with autism, I’ve learned a few things about myself that I would not have never known.
According to AutismSpeaks.org, “Autism is a complex neurobiological disorder that typically lasts throughout a person’s lifetime. It is part of a group of disorders known as autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Today, 1 in 150 individuals is diagnosed with autism, making it more common than pediatric cancer, diabetes, and AIDS combined. It occurs in all racial, ethnic, and social groups and is four times more likely to strike boys than girls. Autism impairs a person’s ability to communicate and relate to others. It is also associated with rigid routines and repetitive behaviors, such as obsessively arranging objects or following very specific routines. Symptoms can range from very mild to quite severe.”
Unfortunately, Google and AutismSpeaks.org did not exist when my brother was diagnosed with autism in the early 1980s. Back in the day, most people at that time classified my brother as “slow” or “different”. And he is different, but he is far from slow. To me, he is quite fascinating.
With autism, my brother tends to give extreme focus and obsession to certain objects and routines. When we were kids, he knew about all of the Presidents of the United States, both living and dead, their birth dates, their dates of death, and how old they would be on any given day. Even now his capacity with dates and facts of interest are impeccable. But if you were to ask him the answer for two plus two, he may say four. Or he may say six. It’s like there’s a misfire going on in his brain in some areas but is at genius capacity in others. And observing this taught me a valuable lesson. Everyone is gifted in something. But discovering that gift requires a journey.
Another common symptom from autism is the inability to show simple signs of affection. I love to hug my family and friends. But with my brother, there is an emotional wall between us that was built by autism. Through that wall, autism somewhat robbed us of that relationship. While growing up, it made me angry that my brother didn’t want to hold my hand or give me a hug. But then there were those rare moments when that emotional wall provided a hole to allow him to briefly escape and receive my embrace or give me a simple smile. Those times were and still are rare but cherished. He taught me to be grateful for those simple expressions of love because those expressions are actually more complicated for someone to express or receive.
Sadly, there is no known cure for autism. And growing up, our family was told that my brother would need some sort of supervision for the rest of his life. However, he was never treated differently at home. He now lives independently and works part-time. He’s a coach’s assistant with a high school football team in our home town. But he does require some supervision. And we are fortunate that it is minimal. Through the help of a community of neighbors, family and friends, my brother is a testament of hope and divine grace. I’m blessed to have a brother to teach me to never underestimate anyone’s full potential. To see every gift in every person. And to simply love.
This post was inspired by Bittersweet by Miranda Beverly-Whittemore, a novel that exposes the gothic underbelly of an American dynasty, and an outsider’s hunger to belong. Join From Left to Write on May 20 we discuss Bittersweet. As a member, I received a copy of the book for review purposes.