The month of April was autism awareness month, which made me think of my brother, Nathan. I always thought I got the coolest little brother ever – he’s funny, smart and even as a kid was never really annoying or mean. He also has autism.
Nate was diagnosed when he was two. I don’t remember much about what was wrong initially – mom says he wasn’t talking and they just knew something wasn’t right. Today, 1 in every 110 kids is on the autism spectrum, according to the Autism Society – but back then, it was still pretty rare. I imagine must have been really scary for my parents – for me, not so much. I didn’t know any better – Nathan was just Nathan. When he would do things like speak back to us in movie quotes, or commercial jingles, or bang his head on the floor when he was frustrated, I knew that wasn’t “normal” – but to us, it was.
What I remember clearly is my mom. I’m sure there were times when she lost her temper or got frustrated, but I’d be hard pressed to remember any. I do remember her fighting. Fighting to get Nathan the therapy he needed. Fighting to put him in mainstream classroom so he learned how to interact with other kids. Fighting to find the time to brush him with a surgical brush – a therapy to help stimulate his nerves. Fighting to get him to and from his autism camp every summer.
And all those things – they helped. His autism camp taught him how to interact with society – how to order in a restaurant, how to count out money at WalMart. How to make friends – who he invited to bowl once a month. Nicole and I used to tease him that he must not love us very much, because we never got invited. But deep down – we were glad. Because that meant Nathan had friend who wanted to go with him. He had lots of friends, actually – he still does. You can’t not be friends with Nate.
Most people I knew who had little brothers hated them – they were annoying, pulled hair, pulled off doll heads and threw fits. When Nathan threw a fit, we knew it was because he was frustrated. He never pulled our hair – only his own. He never bugged us when we had friends over – as long as we gave him five minutes to say hello and show off his latest toy/movie/video game, we knew he’d leave us alone for the rest of the night.
As he got older though, the monologue faded. He started to have actual conversations – with us, with our friends, with strangers, sometimes. He was a freshman our senior year of high school, and he even tried out for theater. Wouldn’t you know it, all those years of watching movies over and over again made him a whiz at memorizing lines and his comedic timing is impeccable.
I don’t know if he ever got teased until high school. I remember a friend saying that when Nathan went to the county vocational center, kids from other schools were teasing him. But his best friend Mondo, all 6’2″ of him, put a stop to that. Everyone in our town? They knew Nate – it was no big deal.
My parents divorced when I was a freshman in college. I was so angry, not because they were splitting up, but because of what it might do to Nathan. One of the main hallmarks of autism is not adapting to change. Another is being in his own world – and this time, I think that might have saved him. He never really said much about it.
There are somethings that don’t work well for him – like when he tried to go to a residential school after high school. My parents dropped him off and mom said she knew something wasn’t right. Sure enough, he called them sobbing and they went to get him the same night. But really, how many people do you know that hated school and decided to go from home instead?
Nathan leads a pretty “normal” life. He lives by himself during the week, makes his own meals and does his own grocery shopping. He works with my dad (who, I’m sure, is much more equipped to train him than some program) and is heavily involved in community theater – in fact, he was the assistant director for the last play. He has friends and weekend plans and plays a lot of video games and lives like a slob – so, you know, typical bachelor (love ya Nate! 🙂
Normal, in the case, does not mean unremarkable. All we ever wanted for Nate was a normal life – a life where he knew what he wanted and could make it happen. That’s what everyone wants for the people they love. Nate, and those around him, just had to work harder to get him there. And he, and we, did. That’s the coolest.