What Growing Up In An Autistic Family Taught Me About Acceptance

by Matthew Hawley

April is Autism Awareness Month. About 1 percent of the world's population falls somewhere on the autism spectrum. People with autism are everywhere. For example, your physics professor could have it. That girl on the subway? Maybe (though it's less likely in females). What about your boyfriend who's not looking you in the eye? Nope, he's just weak and trying to break up with you. What about the chick in your lab who seems to have no sense of social cues? Nah, she's just a bitch.

Alright, so I guess it can be a challenge to tell them apart from the general population, and that's a good thing. It's always amazing to me how everyone expects autistic individuals to be totally different creatures, as if all of a sudden you'd see an Avatar walking down Broadway and be like, “Oh there's an autistic person! Look, Timmy, before he falls over himself in a fit of clumsiness!”

Autism Awareness Month is a bit underwhelming for me. I've already had autism awareness since my childhood. I grew up in a house where my two brothers were diagnosed with autism and so was my dad. (As a preface to all of this, all three of them are highly intelligent and high-functioning dudes, which only illustrates how wide the spectrum really is.)

Society has these misconceptions about what autism is. I think everyone assumes the autism spectrum has the guy from "Rain Man" and Forrest Gump at each end. My friends were surprised at the diagnoses, and each time new friends meet my brothers, they're always taken aback because they come across as “so normal.” But, they do.

It's because of this that my family members did not get diagnosed until they'd grown up. My older brother came home one weekend and talked about how a friend had confided in him about the recent death of her grandfather. My brother's response to her was, “Did you like him?”

We all laughed when we heard him retelling this. He must be joking or he really secretly hates his friend. After he laughed himself, he said, “No, but seriously, what should I have said?”

That's when my mom knew it was real. We booted up the old computer and found a game where you had to identify if a face was happy or sad. My mom and I got 100 percent correct while my brother got 25 percent. It was a 50-50 exam, and honestly, he would've performed better if he had just guessed.

He was soon diagnosed, and based on the doctor's description of the disorder, my mom brought in my dad and younger brothers. Both scored a bull's-eye on the autism test. What about me? But alas, no I don't have it. This was to be an autistic majority household, three to two.

When I began to do research on my brothers' people, I found that autism spectrum disorders are exhibited by “difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication and repetitive behaviors,” according to Autism Speaks.

This made sense to me. My little brother's first language was basically "Seinfeld." (Though "Chicken Run" was giving it a run for its money.) He was always able to perfectly react to a situation via "Seinfeld" quotes, or quotes from some other movie or TV show.

We always thought this was funny, but now I could understand how that might not be a normal way of communicating with others. My older brother would go up to strangers on the street and tell them he thought their shirt was dumb. Again, we chalked this up to idiosyncratic rudeness.

In retrospect, there were signs. They struggled to hold eye contact, neither of them had blossoming social lives, they were often clumsy, they took things very literally and their anxious social behaviors could come across rude. But as a family, who were we to ever judge someone as different?

For my brothers' sakes, I'm glad they did get the diagnoses. My older brother said he was grateful for knowing about his autism because he always felt people were speaking another language he couldn't understand. In a world filled with subtext, body language, social cues and sarcasm, he wasn't aware that people were communicating without talking.

Their inability to relate or know what to say to others left them feeling very lonely and isolated. I'm deeply touched that their diagnoses have enabled them to seek out help to connect with others and not feel imprisoned by their genetic disposition.

As for my dad, he pushed back against his diagnosis initially and even sent my older brother an email invitation to an autism group while they were still in the same room, instead of asking him verbally. He may have weakened his own case there, not gonna lie.

The point is, for the majority of my childhood, I thought my brothers were the same as me. We played soccer, tennis, swim team and baseball together. They did everything brothers do. But when they were outside of our family unit — a place they felt comfortable and primed to succeed in interpersonal dynamics — they felt isolated. They strived to reach out, but didn't know what the problem was. This was the secret struggle.

So maybe that person standing alone in the corner at the party isn't just a loner. Maybe that person showed up as a form of reaching out, but doesn't know how to engage further. Maybe the guy at work who always rambles about the intricacies of nuclear fission isn't a nerdy loser, but just wants to chat about your weekend instead.

Maybe they both have autism or maybe neither of them do. It's hard to tell who has a disorder and who doesn't, but the last thing you should do to someone desperate to connect with the world is send the message that it isn't worth the effort.