Voices of Autism: A brother’s perspective
This blog post is by Andy Shumaker. His brother Matthew has autism. Andy is a graduate of Yale University.
My brother doesn’t like me very much, and I don’t blame him.
It’s not that I’m a bad person, or that I don’t treat him nicely. It’s not that he’s unfriendly. I think it’s just hard to like someone who’s a lot luckier than you are.
Matthew was born a couple of years before I was, but somewhere along the way I became the older brother. I think I started speaking more than he did early on, not that we cared at the time. But as we grew older, the milestones started to matter.
The driver’s license was a big one. In east bay suburbia, it’s a given that on your 16th birthday you go to the DMV and take the test. It’s all you talk about when you’re a sophomore in high school, and when Matthew was that age, he probably heard about it every day when he walked alone through the halls.
He would talk to my mom about how excited he was to get his license; she would try to disabuse him of this illusory desire as gently as possible. But he was adamant. He wrote his name in Sharpie on my mom’s license plate. One time he got in her car and, instead of backing out of the garage, put it in drive and drove through the wall.
I, the neurotypical one, got my driver’s license on my 16th birthday, when Matthew was 18. According to Matthew, though, I wasn’t allowed to drive. I was younger than he was, so it made no sense for me to have rights that he didn’t.
When I needed to drive somewhere and Matthew was at home, my parents would have to drop me off at the end of our street before walking back home.
Matthew knew what was up, and he would give me a stern warning about the dangers of driving the next day. Whenever he caught me trying to sneak out of the garage, he would run out and scream at me.
Things have changed since then. After he got over the screaming thing, he displaced the driving ban onto Michael, our next-door neighbor who is Matthew’s age. This went on for a few years– when he saw me driving, I would have to roll down the window, and he would tell me that Michael wasn’t allowed to drive, to which I would always agree before going on my way. Today, after seven years, I’m allowed to drive, but not if he’s in the car.
Matthew can drive, if he feels like it. My dad drives him to the parking lot of the church near our house. Then they switch seats, Matthew drives in circles, and my dad’s hand rests on the emergency brake.
But it’s not just about the car. Matthew and I don’t really get along when we’re around the house, and I think it all has to do with jealousy.
I am very lucky.<Matthew knows that I have no trouble making friends, and he knows that I have a girlfriend. He knows that I’m more independent than he is, and that I go to college.
Sometimes I accidentally beat him when we play video games together.
If I enter the room when he’s not in the mood to see me, he comically turns and shields me from his presence, essentially giving me the most literal version of the “cold shoulder” I have ever seen. I’m not allowed to pat him on the back without permission. When he apologizes to me or says something nice to me, it’s usually because my parents have made him do it.
The good news is that things are getting better all the time. The breakthroughs are gratifying.
Our most recent visit to my grandfather’s house in Carmel was a big one.
I got back from the beach a half hour before we were supposed to drive home. Matthew was sulking on Grandpa’s bed, and I asked him what was up.
“I really want to go to the candy shop all by myself but my mother won’t let me,” he said. There is a little shop on Ocean Avenue where Matthew likes to buy jelly beans.
“Well, why don’t we go together?” I ventured.
“I don’t know,” he said hesitantly.
“Come on, let’s go.” I said it forcefully. Matthew sighed.
He must have really wanted those jelly beans.
So we set off down the street toward Ocean Avenue. He even tried out some conversation starters that I hadn’t heard before.
“So, how’s it goin’?” he asked in a rather nuanced, jocular tone.
I told him it was goin’ great. Told him I went swimming in the ocean.
“It must have been cold!” he said.
After our first few exchanges, the trip to the candy shop was pretty quiet. Matthew likes to think when he walks. I like to think that he was thinking, among other things, about jelly beans, and about how his younger brother isn’t so bad after all.
Like I said, I don’t blame him if he doesn’t like me. It’s hard to like someone who’s a lot luckier than you are.
I just hope that some day, he realizes that one of the luckiest things that happened to me was him.
Click here to download the Sibling Support Tool Kit. This tool kit is for children who have a brother or sister diagnosed with autism. Though the guide has been designed for children ages 6-12, the information can be adapted as needed to other age and education levels. The guide is written in an interactive format so parents and siblings can set aside some quiet time to read the guide together. The intention is to create an opportunity for siblings to focus on their feelings, reactions to their sibling’s diagnosis and get information about autism.