The Third Parent: A Loving Look at the Role of an Autism Sibling
Sunday mornings. Although all was quiet in the world that carried on outside my bedroom window, my young ears still woke to the humming of our television set. After a sleepy-eyed glance at my bedside clock that read “6:15 a.m.” I knew Eddie was awake and ready for the morning. That meant I was awake and ready for the morning, too.
My brother Eddie never liked the sound of the organs that played during Sunday mass; he’d cry, squirm, and hold his hands to his ears until he could be freed from the loudness. Because of this, my mother would opt to leave him home. But when my father, a man who even on the Lord’s Day would not rest, was busy with getting work done around the house, it was up to me to look after Eddie.
So while my mother got dressed and put her makeup on, I joined my brother on the couch and watched whatever cartoons PBS had televised. After she’d leave, I’d reassure him that “mommy would be back soon.” But If she wasn’t back by 10:00 a.m., the hour in which Eddie deemed time to carry on with his morning rituals, I’d step in and coordinate them all.
First, I’d drag a kitchen chair over to the cupboard, then climb up it so I could reach where the Entenmann’s Donut Box sat. I’d pull out two chocolate donuts and place them in a line (always horizontally) unto a paper plate, then pour my brother a tall glass of milk. While he ate I would sneak into his room and, by standing on tiptoe to see into the dresser drawers, pick and lay out his clothes for the day. Eventually, he’d finish his mid-morning treat then meet me into his room to change.
After making sure his shirt was on straight and his socks on the right feet, I’d lead him into the bathroom to brush his teeth and comb his hair. It wasn’t until my mother would arrive home from her well-deserved time away at mass that I knew our Sunday morning ritual had come to a close.
“You’re so good to your big brother!” My mother would say to me as I made my way back into my room.
They say age is just a number, and for siblings of autism, that couldn’t be any more true. Although Eddie is six years older than me, I knew that my birthright, that taking the role of “little sister” was stripped from me long before I even knew I had it. Not only were my days spent assuming the role as “big sister” to my “big brother,” but I later found that I had become his caregiver: I’ve become my brother’s third parent.
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As years of Sunday morning rituals sped by, I began to grow older and more aware of my familiar circumstances: it became clear that Eddie was not the only person who was affected by his autism diagnosis. My father could never build race cars with his son. My mother would never get to watch her son take a date to the senior prom. My sister and I would never have the older brother to pick them up from school, or that gets all of the bullies off of their backs.
Eddie’s autism was and still is rather debilitating. Although he can speak, he will never be able to hold a fluid conversation. He will never get married nor will he ever be able to live in a state of complete independence. While this is easy to express to anyone who is familiar with or related to a person with autism, it was never easy to explain to my school friends or teachers. So I grew silent. I avoided talking about my family; I avoided making mention of having a brother.
While I admit this was partly to protect my brother from ignorant bullies, it was also to protect myself. I feared questions. I feared having to re-shape the traditional “brother-sister” image in order for someone to even get close to understanding my relationship with Eddie. In this shield of silence I’d created grew the guilt of erasing Eddie’s presence in my life as my brother: this guilt made me realize I needed to change the way I looked at my familiar circumstances.
The more I began to ponder and reflect upon the feelings I had never allowed myself to feel before, I realized that while I had never asked for my traditional role of being the “little sister” to be stripped from me, my brother had never asked to have to live with the trials and challenges his autism had created for him. Still, he accepted the life he was given, and he was happy. This happiness, this persistence and ability to live in a world that he had to constantly adjust to made me realize: I had to stop looking at my role as a sibling of autism as an unfortunate twist of fate but as a gift.
And I can confidently say that Eddie is my gift in this life. While he could never pick me up from school, scare away all of the monsters that hid under my bed or give a toast at my wedding, he has given me so much more than that. Eddie has taught me compassion. He has allowed me to learn how to live selflessly; how to give to others while asking for nothing in return. He has become the reason why I am choosing to pursue a writing career, as he has taught me that there is peace and power in speaking about the things you most believe in.
While I’m currently in college and beginning to forge my own path, Eddie has been doing the same. He lives in a residence for young men with autism now. There, he is happily thriving and continues to experience the pleasures of life in a safe, guided environment. While he visits home one weekend out of every month, I still had to learn to let go: like any brother and sister must do, I had to take a step back in order for him to live his life, and in order for me to live my own.
While I see him often, I think about him every day. And although the world outside my bedroom window is still nothing but silent in the early hours of Sunday morning, my ears still wake to the phantom humming of our television set. I’ll roll over and look at the clock: 6:15 a.m. Somewhere he is awake, and somehow I know he remembers our Sunday morning ritual.
This article was featured in Issue 86 – Working Toward a Healthy Life with ASD