I realize I haven’t talked a lot about our younger son, who we call Dale Jr. here. He’s now 4 1/2 years old and is exceptionally bright and observant for his age. He misses almost nothing, and is routinely telling us about all the new insights he comes to. Not a day goes by that we don’t marvel at some new bit of wisdom he’s discovered.
He also asks a lot of questions. After all, asking questions is certainly a sign of intelligence as well. However, there is one area largely missing from his questions: Why is his brother not like all of his friends or himself?
We have certainly raised him to believe that differences are a good thing, and we don’t make a big deal – or any deal at all – of the J-man being autistic. To us, it’s another way of experiencing and processing the world. We do our best to celebrate each of our two sons’ unique gifts.
If Dale Jr. were to ask questions about his brother or about autism in general, we would certainly do the best we could to answer them. But it seems to me that he simply sees him as his brother whom he loves, and that requires no explanation for him really.
We went to Dollywood over the summer – the first amusement park trip for either of them. It went better than we expected, though there were still numerous challenges. We had to keep a pretty tight rein on both of them in the crowds, but keeping close tabs on the J-man’s sensory and social stresses took up a lot of our focus. And I think Dale Jr. sensed this.
We stopped in one of the park’s restaurants to get something to eat, and Dale Jr. took his brother’s hand and led him through the line. He began narrating the food options from the menu to the J-man (he’s an impressive reader for his age). It was so sweet to watch him take care of his older brother. And never has he made a big show of it.
He has even become one of the J-Man’s ‘translators’. Our J-Man is minimally-verbal and with regard to verbal speech is roughly equivalent to a 2 or 2 1/2-year-old. When he does talk, his speech sounds can be very difficult to understand to all but a few people. Sometimes even we have to ask him either to spell out the word he’s saying or type it out on his ‘talker’ (speech device). Dale Jr. has become at least as good at understanding the J-Man as we are, and he’s more than happy to help others understand him with no hint of awkwardness or self-consciousness. It really is beautiful to see.
Lately, Dale Jr. has developed a keen awareness of when we are meeting with someone related to the J-Man’s autism, like the doctor, therapist, services provider, etc. It’s become very important to him to tell whoever we’re talking with that “my brother has autism.”
I’m not sure what thoughts are going through his head while he does this. I don’t yet know what he thinks autism is. I imagine he’s not completely sure either. And that’s ok. What is so wonderful is that he is clearly doing it because he’s looking out for his brother. And he doesn’t seem to be doing it out of any sense of obligation. He does it simply because he loves his brother.
He has a pretty keen ‘autism radar’ in public too. He has seen other autistic kids and gone over to play with them. If the child doesn’t reciprocate, he doesn’t make a big deal of it. He just innately understands. Recently he was with me at the J-Man’s school for pickup, and he had on a Wonder Pets sticker. Several of the kids at school are really into the Wonder Pets, and he loved the attention of having the kids come up to talk to him about Ming-Ming. Dale Jr. can be rather shy, but he seems at ease in situations like these.
I believe he will have amazing insights to teach his peers and adults about autism. He already is. He identifies it with someone he loves. He doesn’t fear it. That he loves his brother and autism is part of his brother is enough explanation for him.
Perhaps we overcomplicate everything when it comes to autism. Extend love and kindness to others, and let go of any fear. Take care of those dear to us. Love and value people for who they are. It really is that simple. My 4 1/2-year-old taught me that.