I’m the oldest of four kids, and my youngest brother has autism. He can’t talk, and he requires a lot of help with even the simplest things. He’s a blessing, and I love him with everything I have.
Growing up, my other siblings and I had to learn how to be a sibling, as all siblings do, but we also had to learn how to be a sibling to a brother with special needs.
Of course, siblings are siblings. We’re related; we love each other, and we’re all a little crazier when we’re together. But, when one sibling has different needs, needs that need a little more attention, the sibling dynamic can be different.
Like I said, we love each other no matter what (just like every other sibling), but there are a few differences to how we operate and in the things we learn along the way.
1. Your sibling is hard to explain.
People will ask how old my siblings are; I tell them, and then they get super confused when I tell stories of how my 14-year-old brother likes to watch Elmo a lot.
Normally, when people ask about siblings, it’s an easy response: This is how old they are; this is where they go to school; this is what they like to do, etc. With a special needs sibling, it can take a little more explaining and patience.
In the end, I'm happy to explain because my brother is an amazing human, and the more people know about him, the better they will be able to understand him.
2. You learn to laugh at everything.
The things that happen in my house are absolutely ridiculous. Toys get thrown down the stairs daily.
At one point, different things in our house were labeled with picture cards that read “refrigerator” or “bathroom.” At restaurants, my brother used to go around stealing French fries off of other people’s plates.
It’s all become our normal, and while we could choose to be mortified by it, instead, we choose to laugh about it.
We laugh about everything in our house because it is what it is, and life is too short to get upset or embarrassed by the little things. We laugh a lot, and because of it, my brother is always laughing, too. That makes it all worth it.
3. You know that much of the time, you’re not going to get your way.
My brother is stubborn. If we’re in the car and a song comes on I like but he doesn’t, then we’re not listening to that song. He doesn’t understand enough for me to argue with him, and so much of the time, he gets his way because that’s what he needs.
Having any kind of sibling can be annoying, and having a special needs sibling is no different. They have a lot of needs and need a lot of attention.
You know there are going to be times where they’re going to need something that conflicts with what you need, and their needs are going to have to come first.
We grow up learning how to cope with this and how to slowly teach our sibling that accepting what other people want is okay, too.
4. They put your own problems in perspective.
We all have struggles and problems we deal with every day.
Sometimes, it feels like the whole world is falling down around me because I can’t find a job or I’m still living at home. But, then, I look at my brother and the struggles he has to overcome every day, simple things like using a fork or just trying to communicate with us.
We turn tiny problems into huge issues; when you have a sibling with special needs, it does a lot to put those “huge problems” into perspective.
5. They also show you every problem is important.
At the same time, having a special needs sibling can teach you that problems that seem little to someone else might be pretty important.
My brother gets upset over little, weird things, like if two different foods are touching or the shower curtain is left open. It seems ridiculous to us, but to him, if things aren’t exactly the way he prefers, he's too uncomfortable to function.
Sometimes, other people's problems seem stupid to us, but that’s because we’re not in their heads.
My brother has a lot of strange tendencies, but they’re important to him. If something is important to someone we care about, we should be understanding of that.
6. You know "sibling" also means "protector. "
Siblings are naturally protective of each other, of course. You’re family, and so you’re always watching out for each other. When you have a sibling with special needs, I think the protective instincts only increase.
When you have siblings who aren't able to stand up for themselves or defend themselves in the ways most people can, you, as a sibling, become extra protective in order to make up for it. You're there for anything they need or anything that’s bothering them.
You are the voice they don't have and all of the things they wish they could say.
7. You know "sibling" also means "friend."
My brother can’t talk, and his understanding is limited. He can’t just go out, join the soccer team and meet teammates and friends the way most boys his age can.
When you have a sibling with special needs, you know that for them, finding friends can sometimes be a struggle, and that’s why you know sibling also means friend.
Even if my brother just wants someone to sit in his room with him while he watches Elmo, that’s what I’m here to do. For him, friendship is simple.
He just wants people to be there for him and to understand him, and in that sense, a sibling is the best friend he could ever ask for.