Autism and Me (The Sibling)

For approximately five years, there have been various support personnel in my sphere – from DHS home visitors to medical doctors – who have asked me if I had any questions or needed any information. The one thing that I have repeatedly asked for and never actually received is information about how to talk to siblings about their brother’s special needs/autism. (Granted, the autism is a “new diagnosis”, but it has been there all along…) I haven’t known how to address it and avoided the topic much longer than I should, because I didn’t want to tell the sibs (especially AJ, 6): “Look, your older brother really needs to be treated like your youngest sister.” I didn’t want to tell them he’s “slow” or “retarded” or some other language that belittles him so they’d be ashamed of him, but I also didn’t want to make being “special needs” seem really special.

For quite awhile, AJ has been jealous of Olin and the ‘favored treatment’ that he gets: Olin gets out of school early, he goes to lots of specialist doctor’s appointments where he gets (from AJ’s perspective, I suppose, and because they’re mostly a minimum of an hour’s drive away):  time out of school, lots of stickers, toys, lunches out and time alone “going somewhere with Mom.” I’ve tried to counter this by spending time with AJ as much as I can – taking only him to visit his rich aunt, etc. He’s still jealous of the extra attention Olin requires on any given day.

Tonight, that kind of came to a head when AJ found Olin’s “mower” (a little toy John Deere riding lawn mower that Olin has been sorely missing) under the couch and brought it to me.

I said, “Oh, good! You found Olin’s mower! Thank you! Can you give it to him?”

AJ gave Olin the mower and said, “Look what I found!”

Olin responded with no expression whatsoever, “I’ve been looking for this.”

I said, “Say thank you.”

Olin said, “Thank you.”

Aj frowned and said, “He didn’t mean it. He didn’t mean thank you.” He was disappointed and offended.

And then, the conversation was forced. Olin had already wandered of to “mow” the carpet and was completely oblivious.

I said that Olin meant, “Thank you,” really, but didn’t say it the way other people would. I tried to associate Olin  with the couple other “special needs” kids in the elementary school, two very challenged girls in robotic chairs with minimal functioning and profound deficits. (It’s a small school….) AJ had never met or seen them, so it wasn’t relevant. I thought about looking up someone on the internet, but didn’t want to shock him too much.

So, I tried to reinforce AJ’s position with affirmations about how smart, capable, and how much of a leader to his siblings he was. I actually whispered a ‘secret’  to reaffirm him that he was my favorite because he was the most like me. (And he really is the most like me, but not always in a good way. Leader? Yes. Obedient to authority? No.) He appreciated that, but didn’t really understand Olin’s response tonight and was still offended, so I tried to explain that even though Olin was older, his reactions were more like Seraphine’s (who is 2 and AJ’s “favorite sister” at the moment).

That seemed to register better when coupled with reinforcement about how I trusted him to be the leader and not hurt his siblings. (Seraphine’s climbing up the chair at that exact moment to give him a big hug out of nowhere and then pull his hair, giggle, fall backwards off the chair and then [after he comforted her] wander off  may have had something to do with it) We strayed along the way into the story of Cain and Abel, playing “chase me” without making siblings cry, and how some kids “pushed him down” in tag in first grade at school, but I think I may have very clumsily made the beginning of my point.

He has been more tolerant and taken on a noticeable ‘caretaker’ role of his siblings…. Tonight, anyway. We’ll see what tomorrow brings.

This article is one that I wish I had known about beforehand. After the fact, of course, I looked all this business up on Google and found that link. It’s not precisely directed towards our situation, and won’t help me in the conversation I’ve already had, but the idea of explaining the ‘autistic response’ can work pretty well if the ‘special needs response’ is included, and can maybe help me the next time that AJ feels too much like the unappreciated second child. I hope.

In addition and possibly related, last week I submitted an application to the local Helping Services Mentor/Mentee program for AJ (and only AJ) to have a completely different adult come and ‘hang out’ with only him for a few hours a month.

I had been given the application twice within a month’s time, from two different home visitors in two completely different programs, and both suggested AJ for the program. I figured that was a reason to at least fill it out and find out more. AJ really needs some time with someone safe who has no obligation to involve other siblings, I think. “His friend only”, as it were. Being part of a formal program makes me more optimistic that it will work out. The fact that no one else is in it may also help. I don’t know. [I had initially intended to take him to tae kwan do myself, but the timing is poor, and I’m not sure I want him learning (and practicing) fighting skills on his already-weaker siblings….]

I am hoping they’ll match him with someone great for him (not necessarily for my ideas of what he needs). When the coordinator came to talk to us about it, I didn’t think he was paying much attention. She came at about bus time, and he walked in with five minutes of non-stop talk about everything imaginable that had nothing to do with my telling him, “Come and listen, AJ, this lady is here for you….”(which was actually sort of uncharacteristic for AJ – maybe a big day?)  Eventually, we got him to sit very restlessly through the initial interview and required paperwork. I didn’t think it amounted to much… He barely noticed the coordinator leaving, it seemed.

Today, though, when he got off the bus, the first thing out of his mouth was, “Have they found a person for me?” He was paying more attention than I realized.

I hesitantly replied, “Not yet, but as soon as they find someone,they’ll let me know and I’ll tell you.”

I hope they find someone. I hope it works, and I hope that what I learned from this article will help the next time Olin’s response doesn’t make sense to his “normal” sibs and I need to pick up the pieces.

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