The elder of my two little brothers turns twenty-three today. I will most certainly buy him a present, likely a DVD version of a VHS tape that has worn down by now, but I also want to take a little time to honor him here. Having a brother with autism has affected my life and my personality in ways that are deeply profound and profoundly deep.
One of the most important aspects of feminism (or at least, how I define feminism) is to examine the idea of privilege, and how the advantages and disadvantages we have from the moment we’re born change and inform our perspectives. I was aware early in my life that there were certain things I was expected to do and not do because “I was a girl,” but I didn’t start actively thinking about sexism until I was in my teen years. Much, much earlier than that, I was hyperaware about the challenges and difficulties my brother would face as a person with autism in a world where people are punished for being different.
I never witnessed, and rarely heard of, people bullying or being mean to my brother because he was autistic, but I ran into many well-meaning people who just didn’t get it – and how would they, given that they had never lived with autism themselves? People told me that they felt sorry for my brother, or asked if there was a “cure” as though autism were a disease that needed “fixing.” As a kid, I took it all in stride, accepted these well-meaning statements, and wondered if, someday, there would be a cure for his disability.
I don’t remember exactly when I realized that my brother doesn’t need to be fixed. It wasn’t a single epiphany; more of a long string of realizations that took place over a period of time. I still have to come to terms with that idea when he’s having an aggressive mood swing, hitting the walls and fighting to keep himself under control, or when I long to have a real conversation with him and he can’t progress beyond a few monosyllabic responses.
But even if I can’t converse with him the same way I would with my parents or my youngest brother, I bond with him in different ways: through tickling and movie references.
My brother loves being tickled. If he’s in a silly mood, I hold my hands up in little claws and offer to tickle him. A little twitch forms at the edge of his mouth, just the hint of a smile. Then he will either say “yes” and hold my hands so that I can’t reach him, or say “no” and then lean closer to me so I can reach him more easily. It makes him laugh and he likes it, but there’s always a little part of him that’s either afraid of it, or is too overwhelmed by the anticipation of it all. Then I’ll dive in for the kill, and he’ll laugh and laugh. Sometimes I hold his arms back so that another person can tickle his stomach and he continues to giggle with anticipation.
I also bond with him through movie references. Home Alone, Mrs. Doubtfire, The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, and Toy Story are among the many movies that our entire family has memorized from beginning to end because he’s watched them a thousand times. (That’s not an exaggeration. Given his age, the number of days in the year, and the fact that he watches one movie every night before going to bed as part of his routine, I am quite certain that he has seen several movies a thousand times or more.) Sometimes, when I see that he’s in a silly mood, and see that half-smile forming on his face, I’ll sneak up behind him and do my best Buzz Lightyear impression: “You, my friend, are responsible for delaying my rendez-vous with Star Command!” His half-smile will break into a huge grin and he’ll say, “You. Are. A. TOYYYYY!” just like Woody. And then comes more tickling.
My brother is one of my favorite people in the world. From him, I learned two very important lessons about life and myself:
1) No one has the same experiences, our experiences inform who we are and shape our perspectives, and the world would be a better place if people paused to think, “I wonder where this person is coming from?”
2) Humor is a wonderful tool to bond with others.
Thank you for yourself, little brother. Which DVD would you prefer for your birthday – Mrs. Doubtfire or Home Alone?