When people ask me “What’s it like having an autistic brother?”, I seem to stumble. The words seem to get lost in translation. To be honest, having a brother who has autism is almost exactly as it sounds. Take your brother, or, if you’ve never had any siblings, imagine living with another person, and make it so that they throw dramatic temper tantrums with acts as if it were a tragedy by Shakespeare. Make it so they embarrass you in the worst possible places you can imagine, and never understand why you’re mad or crying. The truth is, they kinda just make having a sibling suck more than it already does. I know you’re probably thinking “God this kid is being harsh!” but try living with someone with Autism for 15 years and get back to me. Don’t get me wrong, there are times where I love my brother, that I laugh with him and have a good time, but the bad times have outweighed the good 3:1. Autism is what people sometimes call a “snowflake” illness, or that it’s on a “spectrum”, but all of these are just trying to say that every person affected by autism has it different. Trust me, I’ve seen it a lot worse than my brother, but I’ve also seen it better, and although I love my brother for who he is, it’s been really hard for me over the years.
No one is born predisposed to what autism is and how to live with it, but with me, ever since I could remember, autism has been with me. Since kindergarten and on, I knew my family was different. No other kids’ brother needed to go to a special school, or see a special person, or was even called the ironic adjective “special”. All I really remember from those days is just always being frustrated, always having this hate for my brother, for embarrassment for a 6-year-old is the worst thing in the world. At home, I always heard my mom complaining to our nanny that he was throwing another “tantrum”, and at the time I had no idea what this word meant, but boy, would I learn.
The first significant memory that stands out to me nowadays of my confrontation with autism was in church. Like I’ve hinted at before, at this time I didn’t understand the complexities of autism, and now I realize that one trait of autism is that you sometimes can’t understand or pick up cues when things aren’t about you, or in other words, you can’t let other people have their moment. To give you some background, besides my mother who’s “catholic” (and I put that in quotation marks not to mock her, but to suspend irony), my family isn’t that religious. One ominous Sunday morning we were at mass and I was graduating from Sunday school, so I was receiving a bible. On this cue came Street whining and screaming to my mom that he wanted a bible. My mother tried to explain to him that it was I who was graduating not he, but instead of understanding, he pushed her down in front of the whole congregation. I don’t remember much afterward, just that we never went back to church, but I do remember the sheer embarrassment and anger I felt. This seems to be a theme but is ultimately what has shaped my view on autism. My mother cried and all I could do was feel bad for her, feel bad for us that this was how our lives had to be, that he was family and there was no way we could change him.
I have to admit, I was really mean to him, for all I wanted to do was for him to change, for him to be normal, but what is normal? I feel now that normal is such a subjective, able-minded standard held to make those that don’t feel like they are subordinate, but hey, you can’t blame an 8-year-old for not understanding complex social concepts. Despite my revelations, I still get frustrated, still, get embarrassed when he screams in public or makes a scene. I sometimes hit him or scream at him for some sort of peace of mind because, to be honest, I feel helpless. Like there’s nothing I can do to change him. Maybe that’s why I and my other brother have resorted to violence or verbal abuse, or why we get frustrated because we know there’s nothing we can do to change him, and I think it’s the human condition to get scared when we can’t control something. Yes there’s therapy, but I’ve seen him go to so many specialists, and I know that they’ve immensely helped, I mean, he is so high functioning and so social it’s crazy to think how far he has come, but that doesn’t mean it’s all smooth sailing, that just because a few battles have been won, that the war is over, and that’s what still upsets me. To know that he will never have a “typical” life, that he will have to live with this, dare I say, “burden” for the rest of his life, and as his brother I can’t do anything to help him, and that he will have to struggle with all the horrible people who may not accept him or might bully or degrade him for something he had no choice over; I can’t help but feel empathy.
One last story I will tell is when we recently went on a European vacation to London and Paris. Street was very excited for this due to his obsession with both the royalty of London (especially the guards with the black hats in which he has branded as the “Grumpy Guards”) and because we were going to see the Yankees play. The entire vacation Street was being so good, so calm, and yes like always, he has his protests, but what’s new? If all of Street’s boxes are checked off of what he wants to do, he is perfectly content. Then one fateful day in Paris on the 4th of July I interrupted him recording a video on his iPad, and he lost it on me. This battle was fit with fists and screams, and by the end of it, I was terrified. I’m not gonna play full moral high ground, for I could’ve handled it better, but nevertheless, it was scary. It showed me how fast he can switch from doing so well to tackling me onto the floor, and it was a reality check on the ups and downs of his condition. I guess these ticks are what define his disability, but they also juxtapose the good times.
I would love to end this on a good note because I feel despite all of his outbursts and miss-steps, he is still my brother, and I still love him very dearly. I can speak for my family when I say that all of our lives have been changed for the better by Street’s comedic, and most of the time pleasant presence. He has taught me to appreciate my able mindedness, and that if he, with autism, can join the football team, do well in school, and get everybody in the town of Lancaster Pennsylvania to love him, then I can do anything, and that’s pretty cool.
-Charlie Spitzley, Street’s youngest brother.