Her Brother’s Keeper

When Lucas was first diagnosed with Autism, my mind immediately sprang to his sister. Just three years older, Olivia was excited about getting a younger brother to play with. Upon hearing the news, I felt she wouldn’t have that. It was easily one of my biggest worries at the time.

I imagine that’s a common reaction for many new parents to a special needs child. After all, you’re just entering this new situation. For many, Autism is defined by characters on television or a story about your neighbor’s nephew. Like anything, you don’t know much about it until you live with it.

A big part of my worry was that he would ignore her and she would resent it. After all, he enjoys doing things by himself a lot of the time. I’ll come running into the living room and attempt to join in as he plays his See and Say. I’ll feign interest with a pull of the string and he will respond by picking up the toy, walking four feet away from me, and continuing to play with his back turned. Yeah. There are many times when Lucas is the definition of “tough crowd.”

Yet, over the years, I watched in awe as my daughter broke through to him in ways we never imagined. To her, Autism meant nothing and had no limitations. She just wanted to play with her baby brother and worked hard to make that happen.

When Lucas was just over one, I remember he had a number of toy blocks. As he was playing with an electronic toy, Olivia came over and placed one of the blocks on his head. Mesmerized, he didn’t seem to consciously react as he instinctively swatted it. She quickly pulled it away, laughed hysterically, and continued the process four more times.

blockOn the fifth try, he sprang to life, reached out, and suddenly grasped the block in his hand. Shocked, she let go and he looked her dead in the eye. Without breaking his glare, he flung the block over his shoulder and across the room before going back to his toy. It was a surprising (and bad-ass) moment, but one that told me they were going to be just fine.

For every moment when he showed apathy towards her excitement, there was another where Olivia found what he liked and tapped into it. She’s managed to create versions of “hide and seek” and “tag” where he chases her. On a regular basis, she can pull him away from the grip of a TV show or iPad to come and dash after her through the house. It’s not an easy task, but she succeeds every time where most others fail.

Just like the rest of us, Olivia doesn’t see Lucas as anything different. To us, he’s just a kid in the house who does kid things. The fact that he’s non-verbal only makes finding common ground more challenging. While many may see the word “challenging” as having a negative connotation, I don’t mean it that way. I mean that the challenge of getting through to Lucas requires us to try many different things. It’s a positive and has led to some memorable moments along the way.

While we all see my son the same way, my daughter does have one advantage on the rest of us. At the time of his diagnosis, she wasn’t saddled with over thirty years of misconceptions and fear. She wasn’t worried about what could be for the future. All she knew was that she had a little brother and she loved him. She set out to bond with him and, before pretty much anyone else, she did just that.  While we were honest with her about why he doesn’t speak, it has never been an issue. The tiny little person who we were most concerned about in terms of dealing with her brother’s Autism pretty much schooled us on how to deal with her brother’s Autism.

She includes him when playing with her friends but will also allow him to have his space. She rarely gets angry at him and will read his stories before bed. To put it plainly, I couldn’t have hoped for a better relationship between my kids. It’s the complete opposite of every doomsday scenario that played through my head all those years ago.

For every parent worried about how their kids will react to a sibling with special needs, there is usually a much better reality on the horizon than they can imagine. Children have the advantage of seeing the world as new and letting each experience guide them. While the enlightened adults might have preconceived limitations, the blissfully ignorant brothers and sisters don’t. To them, this is how it is and they’ll make it work.

Sure, you can worry about worst-case-scenarios. You never predict the good things and you never picture the wonderful moments. They happen, though. In many instances, they happen more often. When they do, just make sure you’re not too distracted with worrying to notice.