Editor’s note: Northeast ARC recently held an essay contest for the brothers and sisters of kids growing up with autism.
Siblings between the age of 14 and 20 were encouraged to write about their experiences, good and challenging. There were 17 entries and according to Susan Gilroy, director of the Northeast Arc’s Autism Support Center, “All the essays moved our staff in some way. And more than a few tears were shed at our meeting when we selected the winners.”
The Salem News is proud to share the winning essays.
When my dad died three years ago, it was like the world had stopped spinning. All I could think about, all day and all night, was how are my mom and brother going to be okay? Aside from the worry over what this was doing to my brother, who was my dad’s best friend, came along with the excruciating worry of something happening to one of them also. Through the worry, I remembered something, though. After my dad’s accident, I was in hysterics. I went to my brother and hugged him so tight, I refused to let go. I just screamed and cried, and through all this, my brother, who is extremely sensitive to stress, to loud noises, who cannot even speak, put his arms around me and hugged me back. My brother who everyone deemed could not feel emotion, could not understand love or happiness or sadness, or anything really, proved them wrong. In the midst of the hardest moment of my life, I wasn’t the one trying to help my brother, he was the one who was there to help me. The boy the world claimed would never know the difference between good and bad, love and hate, or anything at all really. Every day he just proves the world wrong with his unconditional love that comes so naturally from his heart. So when I worry about losing my sunshine, my brother, I remember that he is stronger than anyone thinks, he is more than what you think.
- Ashley McKean, 17, Melrose
Eye Contact and Hope
My brother used to run away from home and jump into the ocean. We let him run, and when we noticed he was gone a walk down the street weakened the worry. Eventually the fence went up, and the dog tag went around his neck. As the twin sister, I wanted a tag. It felt certain, etched into life as the words etched onto its surface. When we were 4, our parents took Anthony and me to the aquarium. Amidst a sea of sea enthusiasts, he became swept up in the current: lost. The concern was overwhelming, but my feeling was certain. “He’s by the jellyfish.” Desperate, my parents led me down to the first level. And there he was; his blue eyes fixated on the color that weaved so gracefully throughout the tank before him. In the truest test of twin telepathy, we’ve concentrated an entire language into quick glances. The understanding that mom is being irrational, the agreement that we are ready to go home after a day out, or an “I love you,” said nonverbally in a second. Sometimes, I think I’m making it up. Recently, the silver tag has found a home in a kitchen drawer. A reminder that while shedding the tag does not render the descriptors untrue, it does free the wearer of what is associated with them. We don’t all need tags, but there is comfort in the idea that we are welcome to shed the labels that confine us.
– Lizzie Green, 18, Marblehead
Third place (tie)
I grab the camera. I am too young to fight, so I videotape it for the court. That’s my job. Jordan pulls Mom’s hair and her tears wet the carpet. It never gets a chance to dry. Katie wakes up for dinner usually chicken. She’s learned to hate it all the home services, the chicken, the screaming. God, I will never forget the screaming. I’d go to my friend’s houses and I’d hear it what “normal” sounded like. It was quiet. Why didn’t their brothers scream? One time, Jordan hugged me, but something triggered him. His nails dug into my spine. After all the screaming I’d witnessed, I couldn’t manage to produce a sound. I still have scars from that night, but I forgave him a long time ago. Things are getting worse at home. Jordan is getting stronger, the camera’s SIM card is running out of storage, and Katie is sleeping through dinner. Jordan’s teacher says the next time he attacks, we need to hide and call 911. Tonight is the worst we’ve ever seen. The police put Jordan on a stretcher and take him to a psychiatric hospital. For the first time, 7 Campbell Street is radio silent. Mom says we found normal, but the screams were my normal. I learn to hide that part of me, the scars, the videotapes. It’s time to move on. Now I am 16, and Jordan visits home every Sunday. Before he comes, I vacuum the family room carpet. That’s my job.
- Kelly Russell, 16, Lynn
Third place (tie)
My name is Catherine O’Connor and I’m 18 years old. About a month ago my younger brother, Cameron, was diagnosed with Asperger’s. We’ve known since he was 5 that he didn’t see the world in the same perspective as the rest of the family and finally, at 15, we know why. I wouldn’t call living with a teenager on the spectrum difficult, but sometimes you just don’t know how to handle every situation that’s thrown at you. Like not having a ride home from school due to his appointments, or him screaming at me for talking. It’s thrown in my face a lot that I have no authority because I’m not his parent, even when I’m just trying to help. But I think the way he processes information brings us closer as siblings and requires me to act as a third parent because I’m one of the few people who knows how to break things down for him.
Within his Asperger’s, there’s plenty of misunderstood social cues and frustration with the outside world. He can’t always meet the expectations of school because not everyone knows what expectations to have for someone on the spectrum. I say make expectations based on the student, not the average of students overall. Most days, Cameron comes home with a new story about a teacher he’s frustrated with, like every other high school student. But Cameron’s stories are about how he doesn’t understand his work or the style of teaching isn’t something he could follow as easily as others. So I sit down at the table with him and explain his homework as best I can. Even if I have to verbalize the same steps for every question, whether it takes 15 minutes or two hours, I make sure he finishes what he has to do.
There are just as many good things that come from this as there are stressful, maybe more. He can’t always express emotions through words, but if I ask him questions, he gives me answers. A lot of the time, I’m the one he trusts with emotional baggage and because we’re both in high school, it’s easier for me to relate to his problems. This brings us a lot closer than we both realize, our home life does as well, just not as much as it used to. Our parents have been divorced since 2011 with 50% custody each. Us being 10 and 7, we didn’t understand much of it, just that we had to move houses every switch day (Sunday). So that being said, Cameron is the person I spent the most time with. We did almost everything together, because we saw each other twice as much as each parent alone. Even now we both have separation anxiety. I’ve since moved in full time with my father and it’s taken a toll on Cam, but it has also pushed him to be more social at school. Sure he isn’t the most amazing brother in the world, but he’s pretty close sometimes. I appreciate him and everything that comes with him; emotional baggage, algebra homework and all. Would I change anything about him? I don’t think so, because with all of the forgetfulness and talking through movies comes silly faces, jokes so simple they’re funny, and a bond I wouldn’t trade for the world, and that’s Cameron for you.
– Catherine O’Connor, 18, Wenham