The gift of a neurotypical brother

Best Gift Ever 2

Image by Paul Mayne via Flickr

I want to preface what I’m about to write, by saying that I have always loved my autistic son. I have always chosen to be closely involved with his daily life and to help him with his daily struggles. But it has been incredibly hard – and sometimes dangerous – for me to be his mother. It has often be heart-breakingly sad. A lot of things got a lot better for everyone after I had his brother (who doesn’t have any signs of autism). This post is about how that brother helped me to cherish and accept my first son more, and helped his own development and happiness too.

I missed out on a lot of very positive and yearned for experiences, when I had an autistic child. The awareness of what I was missing out on, was highlighted whenever I spent time with families of other preschool children, who talk to and hug and play with their parents; which is part of why it can make you feel even more alone and misunderstood when you spend time with those other families. I couldn’t take my son to the activities and events that other parents did either; if I tried I’d be lucky to even get my son out of the car, then usually I’d have to cope with his meltdown, until the time at which we’d leave the event early (and not get invited back, no one wants that family to return).

I had so many expectations about what my son would be able to do, how much fun it would be to teach him, and how awesome it would be to hear his thoughts and feelings about the world I’d brought him into. I am not a bad mother for having expectations of my son; they were completely natural to have. Neither am I a bad mum for mourning the loss of those things when receiving his diagnosis of autism. Wondering what job he would have, where he would live, how many children he would have, became very real concerns that he would never have a job, never have children, and probably never live independently either. I thought I was so open-minded about what he’d want to do with his life – whatever he chose to do would be fine with me, I was sure I’d learn to love all his choices simply because he made them – compare that to the realisation that your child might never even be able to make such choices in the first place.

In time I came to better understand autism and my own child, and came to terms with the reality he and I now faced. But there remained that lingering sadness that I didn’t get to experience all those things every other parent around me was busy taking for granted and even complaining about: The endless chatter and questions from a preschooler; the milestones that mean you have to baby-proof your house because they become so adventurous and interested in their world; those hilarious daily antics that leave you laughing while you’re trying to tell them off.

There is a comparative joy in dealing with tantrums brought on by a neurotypical child who wants to do something he’s not allowed to do; than the endless meltdowns of an autistic child not willing (or sometimes even able) to do something he has to do just to get through each day. That makes for a very different parenting experience.

I hadn’t truly realised how much that sadness had remained, or how much those things meant to me, until I had our second son, who filled those holes in my parenting life. I now have a child I can snuggle until he squirms free, and turn upside down and throw up in the air without his having a sensory issues and resulting meltdowns. A child who babbles so endlessly that one of his grandmothers felt compelled to say “he just doesn’t shut up does he.” No, he doesn’t, and I love him for it. And I’ll not be telling him to shut up anytime soon. I can even take him on car rides and actually get out at the end location, at which point he is excited and eager to investigate the new location, not fearfully shaking.

Having these desires in my life filled, means I no longer dwell on not having had them with my first son. The pain and loss of all those wonderful things, isn’t erased, but it is eased and made less significant. I look less to the past and the losses, and focus more on the present and what I have.

Having a younger sibling in the house has also allowed me to see the competences and accomplishments of my eldest autistic son, because he teaches and cares for his younger brother. He too seems to have a new awareness since having a younger brother, of what he is good at and can do, because his younger brother is not good at and could not do those same things (such as walking, talking and eating hard foods). So the in-home emphasis very naturally shifts from what the eldest can not do, to what the eldest can do.

Quite amusingly, his younger brother also teaches him. When the youngest plays with a  toy the way it was “intended” to be played with, or investigates something previously ignored or discounted by his older brother, or wants to do a new physical skill that used to scare the eldest; my eldest son takes an interest in trying it for himself too. I suppose it’s a rather natural sort of motivating jealousy sometimes too; we praise the youngest for doing X, so the eldest wants to do X too. Or we give the youngest lots of endless cuddles, so the eldest wants some of that action too thanks.

It also allows us as parents to point out to the eldest that there are special things – special independent activities and tasks – that only big boys get to do. Only big boys can dress themselves, hop out of the bath by themselves, not have to wear nappies, eat certain foods, etc.

There was a time, early on, that I loved one son more than the other, and my awareness and knowledge of that shocked and scared me. I loved the first child – my autistic son – more. Because I knew him. Because I had been though so much with him. How could a new little baby compete with that? I loved the new baby – absolutely – but not “as much” as his brother. Quite naturally, as time went by and I got to know and experience my second son more, I came to love them both equally and beyond measure. I utterly adore my sons, just thinking about how much I love them makes me teary-eyed. They are kind, beautiful, hilarious, happy children. They both drive me nuts sometimes – in very different ways – but I wouldn’t want to be without them for anything.

If my second son had turned out to be autistic – there was always a chance of that of course – I would have coped. Maybe I would have found the same level of joy and acceptance as I currently have of them. Maybe things would have even turned out better than they did having a second son who was neurotypical. I don’t know, and I’ll never know; my story is my life, I cannot rewrite it with maybes. But as things stand, I can say that I am very glad we took the chance of having a second child, and very glad that he turned out to be neurotypical; that was what this family needed.

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11 Responses to The gift of a neurotypical brother

  1. Bill says:

    I am endowed with Asperger’s

    I am happy that you are happy with your neurotypical child, and I am only writing this in the expectation some may find intrigue or humor in the contrast. (What I am about to write is sincere, not a joke.)

    I must always write ambiguously about myself and my family, for if I were to reveal my name I would take not only myself out of the closet, but also my family members, which would be a grave violation of their privacy. My parents had about a dozen children, I had about half that many, and most in this group are somewhere on the spectrum.

    So I am grew up around a bunch of autistic brats and fifty plus years ago my father (who I now realize was probably an Aspie too) dealt with things in a “don’t spare the rod” very strong biblical sense (for instance, I remember kids biting, but it NEVER happened twice, tantrums seldom happened twice, and strangers always praised our behavior when we went out.)

    My own children are all grown now, and I must admit the more noticeable their autistic tendencies are, the more I have a strong relationship with them, not that we are exactly hyper-social, but we explicitly understand each other. The relationship that saddens me is with my apparently most neurotypical daughter; for all practical purposes, she does not speak to me in any context beyond need-to-know and cordial exchanges. She will literally talk non-stop with my wife, for hours on end, but I cannot ever get her to hold a conversation of any length with me, and trips to or from college were three hours of complete silence. I don’t think there is any problem with anger or resentment or anything like that; we just don’t seem to connect, and she doesn’t appear to make any effort to connect at all.

    Even before I had learned I had Asperger’s, I had endeavored to learn the art of conversation, and made a point of listening, and probing for things which interest the person I am talking to. I can talk for hours with one of my other daughters, though sometimes I wonder if she is humoring me, or if she is going through the same practiced routine as I am; probing for someone’s interests and acting politely interested.

    So sadly, I look on my neurotypical daughter as an opportunity lost; I have come to accept that it will probably not change. She will forever be as distant from me as any other acquaintance I meet when I am at work, the people you got along with, but never see or hear from again when you change jobs.

    • Fascinating Bill, I’m glad you shared that. I do think that in all our stories of growing up within a family, and then having our own families, there are so many diverse factors that mean a child of one type and temprement will fit perfectly and happily in one setting, but be out of place and forever feel lost in another, even though in both the love and efforts to understand are equally strong and dedicated.

      I feel like the family I have now is complete, for such a variety of factors, that it’s sometimes hard to convey them all without placing too much emphasis on one or another factor along the way; they interplay. (I’m probably not expressing that very clearly!) I wrote this post with an emphasis on autism, but it could have as easily being a post about siblings in general, or the impact of in-home socialising with younger children, or how I just like having two boys to love! For us at least, having that second son ticked a lot of boxes that had previously remained unticked in perhaps all the members of this family, and that’s worth celebrating. Some of those boxes that needed ticking were larger or more obvious because of my first son’s autism, I think that much is true, and they would have been harder to tick if the second child had had autism too (I suspect). I’ll never really know I guess.

      • Bill says:

        I am so glad I didn’t offend you (I always feel uncertain how neurotypicals will react to what I write.)

        Now I am really going to go out on a limb, and say, if you choose to have another child, I hope you have a neurotypical girl. I see how mothers and daughters bond. I see how fathers and sons bond. How often we hear the politically correct half-truth that we don’t care what gender our child is. It’s B.S. It ignores the obvious differences between the genders, and how they relate. It is so much easier to see reflections of ourselves in offspring of our own gender. Don’t confuse love and respect with same-gender bonding. I am not jealous of the way my wife bonds with her daughters, and I doubt she would be jealous of how I bond with my sons. There should never be shame in wanting to bond with a like mind, or finding sadness at the lack of a bond.

        Touching on something else you mentioned in your original post; you mentioned how your autistic child learned from the younger brother. I suspect that happens to a degree with every autism spectrum child. I suspect both in the family I grew up in, and the family I raised, that when the younger kids watched the battles and tantrums and meltdowns of their older siblings, that it created mellower younger siblings who learned by example how bad, how irrational the tantrums looked, and how they adversely affected everyone.

        I got thinking about this concept with my twisted Aspie mind, and a logical proposition emerged; if an autism parent responded to a meltdown or tantrum by feigning a full blown meltdown or tantrum what would happen? Dunno, just a thought.

      • I was discussing the issue re mothers wanting daughters with a friend just the other day: We both have two sons, we both really want daughters, we both refuse to apologise for that desire! You’re quite right that too often our true emotions (and indeed, the facts and reality that lead to those emotions in the first place) are often hushed because they are misunderstood as being backwards or offensive or cruel, when really they’re nothing of the sort. Having said all that, as much as I truly and deeply want a girl, I don’t think I can do this all over again; pregnancy, giving birth, and a year of sleepless nights (at the least), might be more than I can handle. I think I might be getting too old for all that now!

  2. Christine says:

    Thank you so much for this beautiful post.
    I, too, have two sons. One recently diagnosed with PDD-NOS and one “neurotypical”. And no one has so accurately and sensitively described the sadness and the wrenching differences, as well as the joy and beauty, as you have. My younger sib, too, has “filled the holes in my parenting life”. Indeed, that whole paragraph brought me to tears.
    Mine were born much closer together so I suppose I never had the time to get to know the older one better, to the point that I might think I loved him more, as more familiar. I DO know that I’ve wrestled with how to love them both differently, and how do deal with the flood of easy joy that infuses me when Mr Neurotypical so naturally offers hugs and explodes and giggles. I do feel very grateful for how they both shine a light on each others’ differences, strengths and weaknesses.
    I’ll be sending this post to my extended family and friends. Thank you again.

    • Thank you for such a warm and kind comment Christine!

      Comments like that really do make my day, and are one of the reasons I share my story.

      I love how beautifully you put these thoughts in particular: “I’ve wrestled with how to love them both differently, and how to deal with the flood of easy joy that infuses me when Mr Neurotypical so naturally offers hugs and explodes and giggles.” So poetic, and captures it perfectly.

  3. Sharon says:

    I really get so much of this. Even though I had two NT daughters first then my ASD son, so many of the emotions in this post connect so strongly with me. My youngest daughter has been and continues to be his greatest teacher.

  4. Emma Apple says:

    I am really loving your blog! You write so honestly and that is so needed.

    I have a 6 year old girl with Aspergers and a 4 year old boy who is being assessed currently, maybe some sort of ASD as well. My two are SO different from each other, I get hugs from my son where they are very rare with his sister, she is SO over the top in your face, aspie monologues galore, meltdowns, anxiety etc. never a dull moment and he is SO quiet and self contained, very peaceful when on his own and if you get to have a conversation with him, consider yourself lucky. They are so opposite in so many ways and so even though they aren’t typical and autistic like your two, they each make the parenting experience different and full in their own ways. 🙂

  5. Pingback: Helping a child cope with sick siblings | Make Time for Health & Yourself

  6. Larissa says:

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts about your neurotypical son. Many times we forget the neurotypical sibling because autism is so consuming. Our neurotypical son is such a gift for our family. He has taught his older autistic brother so many things and encourages him to try new things. He is a blessing and the calming force of our family.

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