By Amy Reynolds
In many families, younger siblings look up to their older brothers and sisters, admiring them and hoping to one day be just like them. Older siblings are typically taller, smarter and have “cooler” friends. It’s easy to imagine why little brothers and sisters want to be their older sibling’s mini-me. Younger ones follow the older ones around everywhere, usually to the point of annoyance, but everyone knows it’s just out of love and slight jealousy.
My older brother and I, however, shared a somewhat different relationship. Growing up, I always knew that Andrew was “different.” He never had any friends over, he always needed extra help with his school work, and he always had obnoxious outbursts that simply embarrassed me. At a very young age, I began to wonder if my brother was normal. After all, my friends had older siblings who they were never embarrassed by. In fact, they wanted to be just like their siblings—looks, personality, everything. Growing up, however, I slowly began to realize that my brother always wished that he could be like me.
“Why couldn’t I be born like Amy?” he’d always scream in the middle of one of his late-night tantrums. “What’s wrong with my brain?!”
At a young age I learned that Andrew was diagnosed with a mild form of Autism when he was 4 years old, the same age at which he first learned to speak in full sentences. In fact, I had learned to speak before he had, even though I’m two and a half years younger. My mom once told me a story explaining that Andrew could memorize and sing full song lyrics before he could form even the simplest sentence on his own. She said that his brain was always good at memorizing things but had trouble forming independent thoughts. To this day, Andrew can recall names of restaurants that we had gone to on vacations more than a decade ago. But if you were to ask him what he learned after coming home from school that same day, he’d draw a blank.
It wasn’t just his quirky memory that made life a tad more difficult for Andrew. Other kids at school had quickly noticed his quirkiness as well. In fact, some would get Andrew to say and do ridiculous things simply because they knew he would do it with little to no convincing. He didn’t quite understand how to handle any social situation in the way a normal kid his own age would, and other kids quickly picked up on that, taking advantage of making fun of him.
I specifically remember one instance on the bus ride to school when I was in sixth grade. Usually everyone was quiet in the morning, but one day on our ride to school, one of the so-called popular girls screamed out, “Andrew, why don’t you sing for us?”
At first he was a tad hesitant, laughing nervously and saying that that was ridiculous. But Andrew was never one who needed much convincing. Before long he was singing away. And I sat a few seats ahead, mortified. Of course my embarrassment lasted the whole rest of the morning, but when I got back home I couldn’t help but feel somewhat guilty. Those girls knew that Andrew would sing if they did enough convincing, and they did it solely for their own enjoyment. I wondered how often that happened to Andrew, how often other kids made fun of him without him even realizing.
Before long I began to wonder if I had ever made fun of Andrew without even realizing it, and I was immediately struck with guilt. It is normal for siblings to make fun of their brothers and sisters, but those kids always know that their jokes are light-hearted and not meant to be taken seriously. Andrew, on the other hand, most likely didn’t realize this. If he was, however, aware that he was being made fun of, he probably took it to heart.
I didn’t realize how special my brother was to me until I was about 14 years old. Up until that point, he had simply been my embarrassing older brother, one who I tried very hard not to associate with. The older we got, however, the more protective of him I became. Although he may be socially awkward at times, he’s by far one of the friendliest people I know. Because of his disability, he’s learned to accept people for who they are. In fact, I’ve never seen my brother judge another person in a negative way.
Now, as a 20-year-old college student, I admire my 22-year-old brother more than anyone. Andrew may not be a leading scholar, a man with many friends or even a college graduate, but he’s the most honest, caring person I know. He greets each and every person he meets with a smile. Andrew has taught me to look at the bright side of every situation. He has taught me to be grateful for everything I have in my life. Each day I do my best to smile more often at strangers, hold back hurtful words and help out others every chance I get. Each day I strive to be more like my brother. Boy, how the tables have turned…