Brothers Stink, Whether They Have Autism or Not

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We don't ever leave our youngest daughter Mali alone with Leo, her ten-year-old big brother. It's not safe. Leo's intense autism may complicate his understanding in some ways, but he remembers very clearly that until he was four years old, there was no Mali and he was Mommy's baby. He has no problem showing his antipathy through yelling and pushing. Understandably, Mali is not a Leo fan, though she tends to blame Leo's autism rather than Leo himself. While I know we can keep Mali safe, I worry that these two children I love so fiercely might hate each other. And that breaks my heart.

iPad: The Great Sibling Uniter

I'm struggling with helping Mali understand that Leo isn't defined by his autism, while trying to cultivate her empathy for his significant challenges. It's not easy -- she's got a spitfire, conclusion-craving personality; she needs things explained and decided on the spot. Plus, she's six. She ends up coping through declarations: "Leo doesn't have to do clean up because of his autism, it's not fair," "Leo gets to have the iPad all the time because of his autism, it's not fair," or -- if he acts out at her -- "I hate you Leo; you are a FREAK!" Cue heartbreak, second round.

Her first two accusations are not actually autism-related, so they make for easier discussion -- Leo does a great job cleaning up after himself, plus he's not a Mali-style tornado of arts, crafts, & stuffed animals, so it only appears that he doesn't have a big chore load like hers. And the iPad? It's Leo's. She gets scheduled time on it, and that is that. But calling her brother a freak? Uncool, especially because he can't help being different from her in the ways his autism expresses itself. She is welcome to tell Leo that he can't push her, she can yell it in his face if she wants to. But she may not insult him, at home or in public.

Rational explanations only help if Mali is calm enough to listen to them. When she's mad because her brother is unpredictable and doesn't like her and does things differently and she can't even talk to him about it because he doesn't have conversations, we get lots of "I want Leo to not have autism!" alternating with "I want Leo to go AWAY." Then we have sit-downs about how he doesn't have any problem with his hearing, so while she can be mad about what he does, it is not OK for her to make him feel bad about who he is -- and why retaliatory meanness makes Leo think that being mean is acceptable.

Thankfully, Mali hasn't yet started complaining that we rarely have her friends over. Leo considers all smaller children potential status usurpers, and the extra small kids means extra Leo monitoring and an extra helping of exhaustion for this already guilt-riddled mom. I'm happy to delay that talk.

Mali's strained relationship with Leo is complicated by his lovely relationship with their big sister. Iz is twelve, only 21 months older than Leo, and has always been part of his reality. Leo loves his big sister, and she both protects and encourages him, plus she volunteers for autism sibling events and camps. Mali doesn't get any of that love from Leo. It hurts. I can't blame her for being resentful.

But even Iz can't help the occasional gripe about our how our family life is molded by Leo's needs -- our travel and outings have to be Leo-friendly or they can't happen, her parents rarely attend church together, we tend to socialize at home or in wide open spaces like beaches so Leo doesn't get overwhelmed by the loud or the unfamiliar, and much of the time my explanation for telling her "No" is "I'm too tired" -- which must of course be Leo's fault as I have to do a lot of extra things for him because of his autism. Which Iz will list, if she's in a really not-great mood. She's not wrong, but she doesn't always want to hear that I'd rearrange my life for her, too, if that's what she needed.

When nothing else works, I tell the girls that brothers can be awful whether they have autism or not. I know, I grew up with three of them. I get along with my brothers now, but the two older boys loved making me and my little brother to cower with fear -- when they weren't telling me they wanted to trade me for a goat, sitting on my chest and spitting in my mouth, or dropping worms in my underwear. Or wrestling me for the Atari 2600 joystick. Or, occasionally, hanging out happily making stop-motion animated movies or memorizing lines from Stir Crazy and Caddyshack -- two of the six films we had on VHS. There were broken arms (accident), there were BB gun pellets in buttocks (not an accident). My brothers made my life hell -- and autism wasn't even in the picture. And yes, I am talking about those three uncles my girls love so much.

It's hard for them now, though, especially Mali. Last night Leo scared her badly. He lunged at her when she walked by him in the bathroom -- which shocked her usually tough, fierce little soul into tears, as the bathroom has always been a safe space. My husband ran upstairs to hang with Leo while Iz and I took Mali into the girls' bedroom for hugs, cuddles, reassurances, and -- most importantly -- listening. I told Mali things would get better as she gets bigger and more Leo's size, and teased her that  eventually Iz and Leo would move away to college or other school, and then she wouldn't have to worry about any siblings. That only made her cry harder -- she said that she loves Iz, she loves us all, Iz is never allowed to go to college, we're never allowed to leave, and we all have to live together forever. Even Leo.


More perspectives on autism and sibling relationships:

Shannon Des Roches Rosa get her autism high hat on at, her parenting high hat on at, and goes completely hatless at


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