The Extraordinary Bond of Siblings in Special-Needs Families
I always wanted that for my own sons, Liam (7) and Eliot (4), but I worried that because Liam has autism, they wouldn't be able to have a real relationship. But this video — about two brothers, one who has autism and one who does not — changed my mind. (Watch it. I guarantee you'll cry with happiness!).
There's a lot out there about being a sibling of a child with special needs, and when Liam first got his diagnosis, I heard things like: "His brother will resent him" and other such things. But, almost five years into their lives together, that couldn't be farther from the truth!
Although my younger son wonders sometimes about autism ("Will I have autism and not be able to talk when I'm 6 years old?"), when I asked him what he thought about Liam, his silence on his brother's special needs spoke volumes.
Me: "Eliot, what do you think about Liam?"
Eliot: "I like Liam."
And that's all there is to it for now.
To celebrate and honor other siblings, I asked some parents (and fellow bloggers) raising kids with and without special needs to share the sibling relationships in their households.
Zachary (age 10) and Alex (age 8)
Zachary thinks that having a brother with autism "just feels normal." Zachary and his little brother, Alex, are best friends. They like to play video games together, and Zachary laughs at Alex's funny jokes. Zachary says autism can do "cool things" and that his little brother "remembers things a lot longer than I could." When they go out in public Zachary helps take care of Alex by making sure they stay together because "he doesn't always know what could hurt him." Zachary hopes that everyone will be nice to people who have autism or are different because, "I don't want them to feel like they don't have any friends." For their mom, parenting this dynamic duo is definitely not boring, and she thinks that special-needs siblings are heroes who deserve to be celebrated. Read more about how proud she is at Seriously Not Boring.
D (age 14), A (age 11), and H (age 7)
The relationship and love between 14-year-old D (who has autism) and his younger siblings, 11-year-old sister A and 7-year-old brother H, is a lesson in true friendships and fierce sibling love. His sister has been D's biggest cheerleader and supporter since she could barely walk. She and H have seen the best and worst in our autism journey and have dealt with and lived with their brother's struggles with a grace and good humor that is truly admirable. To them, D is not defined as "their autistic brother," but as their most awesome brother.
Ashley (age 21), Sophia (age 14), and Marky (12)
(Written by Ashley)
I'd like to preface this letter by acknowledging the determination and dedication our mother has for you. She has been able to start a movement in your name and everything you stand for.
As your sister, I feel blessed to have the opportunity to know someone as kind and innocent and gentle as you. You do not see the cruelty in this world, and that is something everyone is not able to claim. Sometimes I am scared for you and your future, I innately want to protect you from the evils and hardness of real life. Although I know that we only have control over ourselves and cannot control the forces of nature that surround and influence our everyday life, I also realize there will be people who come into your life that don't know about the gifts that you teach and all you do. Many may not understand why you may do the things you do. Do not let their lack of knowledge and naivete taint your soul.
I know that I can only protect you when I'm with you and as you get older those moments will lessen, but you are smart and I know you will continue to change and impact this world.
You are one of a kind Marky, stay raw and stay innocent.
We, your family, will be here for you always no matter what.
Words cannot begin to explain the emotions and experiences you have taught me and allowed me to feel.
I love you so very much!
Your Sister, Ashley
(Written by Sophia)
There is an enormous difference between awareness and acceptance. Growing up with an autistic brother, I have learned and experienced things that not many people are lucky enough to. Sure, it can be really tough sometimes. However, I am so blessed to have Marky as my brother. He has taught me so much about perspective, just by being himself. Marky is different, not less. If being "less than" means you have an especially kind heart, caring soul, or the confidence to be who you really are, then we should all learn from that.
Penny (age 9), Marilee (age 4), and William (age 6)
I remember talking with a young woman who has a younger brother with Down syndrome, and I asked about her experience. She said she couldn't remember a time without a brother with Down syndrome. There was no "before" and "after" for her. I think my kids feel the same way. Our oldest daughter, Penny, has Down syndrome. She's 9, and her younger brother William, who is 6, and her sister Marilee, who is 4, don't think about their big sister as anything other than having a big sister. They fight about typical stuff--who gets to sit in the favorite seat in the minivan, who gets the blue cup at dinner, which light should stay on while they sleep. And they love each other like typical kids, too, playing Life and Sorry and Uno, practicing cartwheels, and cheering for each other at concerts. Here's a little glimpse into the little siblings' view on their big sister.
Mom: "What does it mean to you that Penny has Down syndrome?"
Marilee: "I don't know what it means."
William: "She's very flexible, but it is harder for her to do cartwheels. But she is also very good at those."
Mom: "Do you ever get frustrated with her?"
William: "Yes, but I can't think of anything right now."
Mom: "What do you like most about Penny?"
Marilee: "That she can read. Because she reads to me. I do like to do some other things with her but I don't want to tell."
William: "I like that she is so playful and that she reads all the time. We both really like the new Annie movie and we just got it on DVD."
By treating everyone in the house with respect, being honest about a child's challenges and disabilities, creating opportunities for memory-making and play, and giving each child enough individual attention, we can foster amazing sibling relationships between our kids — even if one has special needs and the other doesn't.
Images provided by Jamie Pacton and the parents of the children featured.