My phone interview last night with Mary* was an often inspiring tale of the potential bond that can develop between “normal” and “atypical” siblings. Mary, the only girl in her family, looked up to her older brother who is currently attending medical school but often worried for her younger brother Tom*. In first grade, Tom was diagnosed with PDD, and from then on, her brother’s disability has been something that her family must come to terms with and learn to adapt to. Mary impressed me again and again with her ability to see the bigger picture about her family, noting that having Tom as a sibling has allowed her to realize “what is really important and what is just less important” and to gain a sense of perspective about her family’s challenges.
Mary has certainly evolved in both her role in her family and her thinking around her brother. She described how “when I was 6 or 7, I didn’t quite know how to interact with him” and how that uncertainty eventually led her to act more in a “motherly role, helping him with homework” or “helping him calm down if he was freaking out”. She described one poignant scene during 3rd or 4th grade where she was supposed to go find her brother at the end of the school day to head home. When she walked into the office, she saw one of her friends who hurriedly told her that her brother was currently in the midst of a temper tantrum. I can only imagine the amalgamation of emotions running through Mary at that moment. However, when she reflected on these sorts of experiences, she noted that they have “made me a much more compassionate, aware person having gone through this. […] It has taught me not to judge people who behave differently from me or that behave differently from your normal person. I definitely sympathize with people whose siblings are a little different and I really admire what other people do for their families”. One of the things I appreciated most about Mary is that she extrapolated her situation to any family, noting that her behavior is representative just of “what you do for family”. Specifically, Mary described the mental shift she had to make to realize that “he has his own developmental path and we have to help him at the speed he’s comfortable with.”
It is this tight family unit where her brother Tom has really been able to grow. When describing Tom, Mary pointed to how much more comfortable he is around close family friends than around other students or acquaintances. She describes how unfortunately, when he’s with others, he keeps most of what he’s thinking inside of him because he worries that the average person wouldn’t understand him or wouldn’t want to listen. Lucky for Tom, he has a sister who not only is willing to listen but also has glowing reviews of Tom. When reflecting on his personality, she told me that “Tom’s just a really sweet kid. He’s very kind, he’s very considerate it just makes me grateful to have him as a sibling”.
However, Mary’s path was not without its own challenges and speed bumps. At one point during the interview, she described a year when Tom was truly struggling in school as well as socially. This rough patch meant night after night of tantrums and a house full of tears rather than laughter. During this year, Mary struggled to avoid crying herself, often spending time in her room simply at a loss of how to help her brother out. While she and her family have definitely made it past this struggle, it is clear that Mary feels much more comfortable talking about her brother’s triumphs than his struggles. She describes how when she talks about her siblings to her friends at college, she “felt more comfortable talking about her older brother since I knew everything was going well”. When she did talk about her younger brother, she “would never explicitly say what exactly was different about him but kind of emphasized that he needed a lot of help from my mom”. Mary’s story speaks to the wall of silence that many sibs feel between themselves and others when it comes to talking about their sibs. Since a sibling with special needs can be a complicated subject, we sibs sometime skirt the issue in order to avoid an uncomfortable interaction with our peers. However, at the end of her interview, Mary made it clear that her goal is to fight this instinct in the future. She told me that “the best I can do in terms of spreading the word about disabilities is to just not be afraid to talk about it”. I wish her the best in that and in all of her future endeavors!