Like a lot of other people, I have a little brother.
He’s been one of my best friends for as long as I can remember. That kid is the brightest ray of sunshine I know. Most adolescents lose their bubbly sheen as their teenage years loom before them, but not my brother—in fact, he’s as cheery as ever as he prepares to enter ninth grade.
He’s got a fluffy head of blond hair along with freckles dotting his nose and the space underneath his eyes. Since he was little, he’s blown my entire family away with his memory. In kindergarten, he memorized the name and number of every U.S. president just days after we bought a placemat with their faces on it. Football and basketball are his main muses, and he spends hours watching games and filing statistics into infinite cabinets in his brain. He plays basketball, golf, and tennis, and he was the stats boy for the West Ranch football team last year. He loves his family and will choose to spend time with us over his friends, especially if it means he gets to hang out with our dog. He’s everyone's friend; he’s a jokester but is also responsible.
Those are the big things you should know about him.
A few other minor things? He loves Harry Potter, and he just finished reading the series. His room is adorned with a giant NFL hat collection, he’s on the autism spectrum, he’s unhealthily obsessed with barbeque sauce… hm? You’re surprised that his autism is only a minor detail? Well, if you met my brother, you’d realize how insignificant this fact truly is.
I typically don’t feel the need to tell people my brother is on the spectrum. I’ve never been asked if he was. And if I ever mention it to someone, they’re always slightly taken aback. “Really? I would have never known!” is the common response. Most of the time, this is a massive compliment and relief. But when people repetitively deny that he is and deprive him of supportive resources, it does represent a lack of knowledge about the autism spectrum.
Autism, like most things in life, isn’t black or white. To be diagnosed as autistic, an individual doesn’t need to exhibit all of a list of certain traits or act a rigid way. Everyone on the spectrum feels differently, thinks differently, and finds their strengths in weaknesses in different areas. Doesn’t that sound just like you and me? Yes, yes it does.
Here is a great illustration by Rebecca Burgess that paints what the autism spectrum looks like.
Let’s relate this overwhelmingly colorful wheel to my brother. Motor skills are not his strongest suit, but throughout the years he has become more adept in this area. Coloring inside the lines is rare for him, and his penmanship is uneven and scattered. However, he has practiced writing for long hours to keep up, and his efforts have paid off.
Language is probably his weakest area. Writing doesn’t come naturally to him. Connecting words and elaborating on ideas is pretty taxing on his mind. Every week his tutor teaches him how to write all different types of texts; gradually the writing process is becoming easier for him.
Understanding the motives and emotions of others is an aspect of social life that tends to go over his head. The ability to perceive what kind of intentions another person has isn’t at the forefront of his head. If someone else is blatantly taking advantage of him, he won’t realize until it is too late. He may also seem selfish at times, even though he isn’t in the slightest; he can carry through with actions without realizing how they affect other people.
Change is one of the only things that can alter his emotions completely. A shift in the schedule often overwhelms him, sucking all of the comfort and security he’d built up that day.
He can be a stimmer—he is frequently performing fidgety actions to comfort himself. Whether it’s rubbing his hands near his mouth, crumbling his food, or repeating phrases to himself, he finds solace in actions done over and over.
But all of these things are truly very minor thanks to the therapy my parents invested in when he was at an incredibly young age. I’ve watched him blossom and grow through adversity, and I’m so proud of him.
The logical side of his brain is a well-oiled machine. If you ask him what happened in a football game three years ago, he’ll tell you who ran for a touchdown and how the game progressed. Everyone who knows him knows not to argue when trying to recall something—he’s always right. He’s in the highest level of math possible for his grade level thanks to hours of hard work; he set a goal to skip a certain path to get on the most advanced track, and he is passing with flying colors.
He is the most happy-go-lucky friend you could ever wish for, one with infectious laughter and a palpably loving heart. In his presence, it’s obvious all he wants is to be your friend and have a good time. He isn’t caught up in material things and is content with what he has. My little brother has taught me so much about the meaning of life, and his carefree attitude helps me positively adjust my perspective on the world.
I remember the first time my mother told me what was special about my brother. Told me not to speak of it to him, because he didn’t need to know then—it didn’t define him. He was so young, I was so young… I didn’t feel like completely processing the information and carried on playing with my brother like normal. Yes, everything was normal. We played Mario Kart, dressed up like spies, built a giant city for our figurines, giggled until our faces went numb, and raced each other on our bikes. Life was beautifully normal to me, with a few other additions. Nearly every day, a new friend would come over to play with my brother. That’s what it felt like to me, anyhow. Friend and therapist became synonymous in my head. I remember Amanda’s wide smile, and my favorite Mr. Brett and his goofy attitude. Most of the time, it was just my brother and these friends in our playroom while I busied myself elsewhere. My favorite days, though, were the ones where we went on adventures with them. Going on a walk, to Disneyland, to Dairy Queen, it didn’t matter the destination—I loved my brother’s helpers and I never questioned what they did with him in the first place.
I remember when the Wheat Thins in my cupboard were replaced with gluten-free crackers, and when the freezer was divided between my normal Annie’s mac and cheese next to the gluten-free kind. My mom just said my brother needed it. I took her word for it. After a while, however, all those things disappeared. When I got older and decided to revisit the topic with my mom, she explained that doctors proposed gluten created issues in the body that could worsen the symptoms of autism. She noticed that he was chugging along just fine and decided that gluten was alright for him to have.
I remember getting special passes for lines at Disneyland. I remember going to a giant room full of toys that I just thought were fun for me, but they were also useful for his sharpening motor skills.
I also remember the sinking feeling of watching a group of kids gang up on my brother. That one is the easiest to remember; it happened the other week.
When I was younger, I was too timid to do much about it. As I grew and mustered up the courage, I trained myself on what to say to teachers and how to stand firmly in front of his oppressors. And even how to take a handball from the meaty hands of bullies.
Growing up in the shoes I did indeed molded the path those shoes would take. I’m a quieter individual and one who doesn’t need to be the center of attention. If my brother came home with a B on an English test, it was an instant call for celebration in my house, not because this was a seriously impossible feat, but because the constant encouragement for him was necessary. I didn’t deny this and still don’t—he works immensely hard to achieve the same results that others do without putting in much effort. We never celebrated the same way when I received high scores on my tests. They only really honed in on the details of my brother’s life. As a young girl I remember staring up at the ceiling, letting the thought sink in that I wasn’t the favorite child. This obviously wasn’t true, but in my young mind, it seemed like it at times. The relative lack of attention used to ache, but I grew to appreciate it. Now, too much attention is burdensome for me and something I’m not completely equipped to handle.
Having a brother on the spectrum is bittersweet chocolate.
It has given me many headaches throughout the years. My ears have heard the ruthless remarks of other boys, my eyes have seen tears roll down his freckled cheeks, my hands have felt his shaking back as he cried. I’ve been frustrated when he didn’t consider my feelings, and I’ve had to exercise great patience.
But the luscious sweetness overpowers the bitterness.
I’ve never truly fought with my brother. Sure, little siblings can be annoying; that’s their job. But never once has he held a grudge—not against me, not against his friends, not against anyone who has dragged him mercilessly through the dirt. He loves so unconditionally that it’s almost unfathomable. He supports me with curiosity and encouragement in everything I do, coming to my tennis matches when he could be doing other (probably more fun) activities. That little guy makes me laugh every day. He’s so determined and willing to try new things, more so than I ever was. My brother is a brighter, more radiating positive spirit than those who haven’t dealt with half as much pain as him.
Yes, my emotions have been tested because of my brother, in more ways than one. But all the fighting for him makes me love him harder. I’ve offered him a shoulder to cry on, but I’ve given him space when he needed it. I’ve tried not to dismiss his feelings even if I didn’t understand them.
For a long time, however, I wasn’t quite sure what I could do to help. When he fell prey to depression in fifth grade, I looked on in complete and utter disbelief. Depression was not my brother, depression was not the consistent ray of sunshine I knew. I was stunned and didn’t believe he was truly that sad. But he was, and once I figured out how to help him, I’ve never balked at his feelings since.
If you’re wondering how to support an individual on the spectrum in your life, visit the video I put together via this link.
Individuals with autism are hardly different from you and me, and the ways they are different are not ones you should be afraid of. The only way to get closer to anyone is by looking at the many ways we are the same instead of zeroing in on the few that we are not.
I can’t imagine a more perfect brother. Not in a million lifetimes. The fact that he is on the spectrum doesn’t negate any shred of his potential and isn’t a big part of him. It’s a minor detail.