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Brotherly Love

A mom discusses her oldest son's autism with her youngest son.

It was almost an afterthought to throw the photo into Zach's bag. A last minute request by my youngest son to have a picture of his older brother mixed in with dinosaurs, trophies, and a few likenesses of himself, which he will use this week to tell his kindergarten class all about him.

We spent time together walking around the house, picking up items and discarding them, a book here, a toy there. When I asked him if he wanted to include a photo of his parents in their pre-child days I received a polite “No thank you”, as after all the point of the project was to tell everyone about him, not the people raising him.

So when we made it to the dining room and he stopped dead in his tracks before our photo-laden buffet, I was curious as to which frame he’d choose. Out of the many possibilities, including an adorable one of him from last year’s Halloween sporting a Buzz Lightyear costume, his hand lit upon Justin’s school picture and stayed there.

“Mom, can I bring Justin to school with me?” he asked, and I admit my heart swelled with pride that he wanted to include his sibling in his speech. “Of course” I responded, then asked again if he’d like his whole family to represent, a request which generated an encore of denial.

I popped the picture out of the frame and into a ziplock bag for safekeeping, and was then informed we were done collecting, and it was time for a snack.

Between the two boys and me it’s often time for a snack in this house.

I ask him what he’ll say about Justin to his classmates, and Zach just looks at me somewhat strangely and says “I’ll tell them he’s my brother”, a response which makes me smile by how obvious it is. I’m so pleased he thought to include him, because among the many other worries associated with having two kids with autism (Justin’s life-time care prospects, Zach’s ability to mainstream, the return of my sanity), I often consider the effects on Zach of having a moderately affected sibling.

His father and I make extra efforts to spend “alone time” with our youngest. We also take care to preserve the relationship they do have, one in which his we encourage Zach to interact with Justin, not to take care of him. I wonder constantly if we’re doing enough.

He seems to be okay with his brother having autism, and we talk about it frequently. Zach has asked many probing questions over the last few years, mainly about whether or not Justin will ever talk, and how did he get autism (which I’d love to be able to answer for him).

His queries are few and far between, generally resulting in him requiring food and juice afterwards. Zach seems to be taking everything in stride, but I wonder, because that is what I do.

We’ve recently placed him in a sibling group for children with brothers and sisters on the spectrum, and I’ve been happy to hear that he contributes, has seemed interested in what the other kids have to say. So far it seems, so good.

But I admit, I can’t wait to hear what he’ll say about Justin to his peers.

Soon enough “All About Me Day” arrives, and a little past noon my son blows by me as he runs from his bus, eagerly sloughing off sneakers as he hurries to find his Nook.

I give him his privacy in the bathroom (yes, he’s already asking for that privilege), then urge him to come to the table and eat his lunch without technology present. He slides into his chair with ease, and I turn to him as I set his plate before him, and ask him how his project went.

I get my usual “fine” in response, and try again. “Zach, what did you tell the kids about Justin?” I ask him, and hold my breath a bit as I wait. He takes his time responding, pops another piece of ham into his mouth, and says “I told them he was my big brother, and he has autism. I said I didn’t like it when he rips books. Can I have more chips?”

Like I said, food is a dominant force in this house.

I realize I’ve been holding my breath and I exhale, then reward him with a few more potato wedges. Perhaps he’s too young to articulate his thoughts on this subject. Maybe, (and I hope this isn’t true), he’s apprehensive about saying what he feels.

Or perhaps, and this is my hope, having a sibling with autism, at least at this point for him, is just not that big a deal. Maybe for Zach, Justin is simply his brother, and they love each other. End of story.

Here’s one mom hoping this last scenario is right.

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