Like many younger siblings, I spent my early years in school following in the shadow of my older brother. Trying to be the best, prove myself and succeed. Except one thing was different than all my classmates around me. Every teacher looked at me in one of two ways: either apologetically or with annoyance and disgust.
My brother, Christopher, is two years older than me, and growing up we did almost everything together (people even thought we were twins sometimes). We grew up watching PBS, which eventually turned into "Harry Potter." We ran through the sprinkler and jumped in leaves together in the backyard. But there was always that one thing that made teachers look at me differently.
Around the age of three, Chris was diagnosed with PDD-NOS (Pervasive Developmental Disorder - Not Otherwise Specified.) That’s a lot of scientific mumbo jumbo, but in plain terms, my brother is autistic.
Growing up, I tried to create this image of a perfect child. I put pressure on myself to succeed and to be perfect. I wanted to succeed, not only for myself, but for my brother. I wanted to do things he would never be able to. I felt pressure to get good at and succeed in everything I did because my brother would never have those chances or opportunities. I wanted to be the perfect child for my parents that my brother couldn’t. In reality, this pressure wasn’t coming from anyone but myself; my parents couldn't have cared less.
I never knew anything was ‘wrong’ with my brother until I started school. People treated him differently and then started treating me differently. 20 years ago, we didn’t know nearly as much about autism as we do today, which affected the way both of us grew up. His teachers, my parents, everyone was flying blindly, not knowing what to expect or what the right versus wrong thing to do was. My friends didn’t understand and it was nearly impossible to explain.
“What could you possibly learn from him?”
Believe it or not, I’ve heard this question too many times to count. My answer is simple: a lot. He’s taught me so much, it’s impossible to put it into words or explain it to anyone, but here are just a few things I think we can all learn from him:
My brother does the best he can, but he has difficulties interacting with people, sharing his and reading other people's emotions.
He doesn’t say “I missed you” or give very many hugs. Growing up, I thought this meant he didn’t love me, but it was far from that. I learned he just didn’t know how to show it to me. When I moved away to college, I didn’t think my brother would miss me at all. As I got busier throughout high school, we hung out less. After being at school for less than a month, I remember my mom calling and actually saying Chris wanted to talk to me. I was stunned - not only does he have a hard time communicating in person, but talking on the phone is something he has struggled with for years. The conversation wasn’t very long, and we didn’t talk about much, but it was one of the best phone calls I have ever had. That moment showed me that there isn’t one ‘right’ way to show your love and affection to someone. Just because you don’t say it, doesn’t mean the love isn’t there.
One of the biggest things there is he can be annoying (a lot) and really embarrass me in public (way too often), but if you sit and be patient, and really try to understand him, there is a lot to learn. My brother is one of the smartest people I’ve ever met. He remembers everything he has ever read, watched or heard (and trust me I mean everything …). My brother can list off everything Abraham Lincoln did the day he was assassinated and the details of every case from every episode of "Bones." And even when I want to roll my eyes when he talks about "Dr. Who" (again), I still try to listen. There is a lot of wisdom in what he says. For example, my brother is the least judgmental person I have ever met. He doesn’t care if someone is Black, white, purple or blue (he will still talk your ear off). But it’s something that just puts me in awe. In a world filled with so much hate and judgement, he shows me there is still good in this world.
Things Don’t Go Your Way (a lot)
This is something I think almost everyone learns throughout life, but it’s something I think I learned much earlier in life. My parents always tried to show both my brother and me unconditional love, but it was hard to treat us the same. I can’t tell you how many nights I would go to bed screaming and crying that my parents loved my brother more than me, but that was so far from the truth. The fact of the matter is that there were, and still are, things my brother can’t do on his own. I was furious when we had to leave Magic Kingdom early because he was overwhelmed and stressed. I felt that everything was about him and in that moment it was, but only because it had to be. It didn’t mean my parents loved me any less, but in that moment what I wanted just didn’t happen. And it’s okay to not get your way.
Take Life One Day at a Time
The future is unknown for my brother. We have no idea if Chris will ever be able to live on his own, have a relationship or anything else. It is a very real possibility that someday in the future, my brother will become my responsibility. That reality used to scare me to death, but now it’s something I will willingly accept and something I will enjoy every moment of. I won’t give my brother up for anything, not a boy, a friend - nobody. It was a deal-breaker for me growing up, and will continue to be. If you can’t love my brother unconditionally, then you don’t have the right to love me.
I would be lying if I said I wouldn’t have traded my brother’s disability for an easier life, not only for myself but for him as well. He had to deal with so many difficult things that I can’t even imagine. It was hard, I had to grow up faster than those around me, and those around me didn’t understand what I was going through.
But because of my brother, I am a better individual. He changed who I am as a person, and how I grew up - that part I wouldn’t change for the world. Without him, how would I ever know every detail about "Titanic" or remember what I said two months ago (yes, he really does remember that)?He’s shown me how to be strong in times of adversity, and taught me what true unconditional love is. I believe that because of him I am a stronger person than I could have ever imagined. I am lucky to have the weird, smart and amazing brother that I do. I don’t see him as someone with special needs, but I do see him as someone who is truly special.