My Experience Growing Up With A Brother With Autism (And What I've Learned)

April is World Autism Awareness Month—if you couldn’t already tell from the people updating their profile pictures and cover photos on Facebook with the “Light It Up Blue—Autism Speaks” filter. National Autism Awareness Day was on April 2nd, where my news feed was filled with different pictures of blue puzzle pieces—a symbol representing the diversity and complexity of autism—literally lighting my news feed up blue. Though I love to see the support surrounding autism awareness, I can’t help but wonder how many of the people sharing these images actually know what they’re posting about.

Autism can be defined as a developmental disability which affects language and communication, sensory processing and motor skills, cognition and social interaction. This may seem like a mouthful, but simply put, autism is just another way of seeing the world. For individuals with autism, the brain develops differently right from birth and affects various processes and certain social behaviors. Autism is present in 1 in 68 births, 1 out of 42 boys, and 1 in 189 girls.

I’m fortunate enough to have gained a deeper sense of understanding and acceptance in my life because I grew up with my parents and my three older siblings, two sisters and one brother with autism. My brother has a form of mild autism along with a speech impediment. In elementary school, he met with a specialized teacher to help assist with this. Despite what some stereotypes may suggest, autism does not mean unintelligent. My brother took regular level classes like every other student takes, and did well in those classes as a result. The only way his education may have been different than others’ was the way that he learned the information. My brother would work with my mom separately to relearn the information, and to make sure that he understood. This by no means meant that my brother was less intelligent than any other student—he just learned differently. My brother graduated high school like all the other students, and went on to earn an associate’s degree from our local community college. This past summer, my family had a party in our backyard to celebrate our three graduations: myself from high school, and my brother and sister from college. It felt so special to be able to celebrate all of our accomplishments and hard work, and go see how far we’ve come.

Aside from academics, my brother is very social and likes doing activities with friends as well as with our local Ray Graham Association Center. Before I came to college, I’d be driving my brother to whatever activity he had during the week, amused at the fact that he went out more than I did!  My brother was in no way limited because of autism. He’d always go on biking trips and camping trips with his field studies class. He has a great memory, and upon meeting would ask them when their birthday was (and he would remember it the next time he saw them). He even started his own small business of mowing lawns, shoveling snow and blowing leaves within our neighborhood.

I was always amazed at the amount of support and encouragement all my friends and family offered  my brother. My parents are his biggest advocates, and my mom always worked hard to help him when he was struggling and to make sure that he was treated fairly. Even at college now, there are so many people who have similar experiences to my own. I was sitting in a group of four or five of my friends, and were very surprised to discover that we all have brothers who are on the autism spectrum. My sisters and I always treated him like our brother, because that’s who he is, and you bet normal sibling bickering is part of our relationship, too. If someone ever asked me if I treat my brother any differently because of his autism, I just say that I treat him like my older brother. I talk to him the same way that I would anybody else, with respect and understanding. My brother is now 25 years old (Happy Birthday Brett!) and is living his best life because of all the support and encouragement in his life. This is extremely important for anyone with a disability.

If you or someone you know is interested in learning more about Autism, looking for volunteer opportunities or are interested in donating, here are some awesome organizations that you can look into:

Autism Women’s Network: https://autismwomensnetwork.org/

Autism Society of Minnesota: https://www.ausm.org/about-ausm.html

Autism Society of America: http://www.autism-society.org/

Autistic Self Advocacy Network: http://autisticadvocacy.org/

Autism Acceptance Month: http://www.autismacceptancemonth.com/

Autism Network International: http://www.autismnetworkinternational.org/