The year I was born, 1995, was a happy but hard time for my family. It was happy because they had a new child in their life, but difficult because their older child began to show symptoms of Autism. My name is Mary and I have a sister, Megan, with severe autism. I have not really been open about discussing my sister and autism, but now I am beginning to open the doors that were shut for a very long time. I was ashamed, not of my sister, but of her disability. I was ashamed that she gave my parents extra worries and responsibilities, how the kids would laugh at her, and how I am not able to hear her voice and able to talk to her. It’s frustrating all the things that come with autism, so I just would kind of hide it. I hated small talk. The first question that would come up was “do you have any siblings”. I used to change the topic or answer it vaguely. Then, I would ask the person about their life. I would keep asking them questions pertaining to them, not me, until the topic was changed to something totally irrelevant like SpongeBob. I didn’t want anyone to know because I thought they wouldn’t understand. I didn’t want to explain her condition because it was difficult for me emotionally and mentally to talk about it. I would get flustered or cry. The worst part is if I decided to tell them, they would say “I’m sorry”. That doesn’t really help because they didn’t cause her autism and I felt like they were taking pity on my family. Later on, I realized that people don’t really know what to say because what can one say when someone tells you that. It is awful hearing about someone’s struggles and you can’t say “I hope she recovers from her autism soon,” because not everyone is that lucky. When I wouldn’t reveal details about my sister, people would say the wrong things that would hurt more. “Can’t your sister drive you over here?” “Maybe you can be maid of honor at your sister’s wedding. Comments like that hurt more than telling someone about my sister’s condition. Sometimes I secretly wished she could drive me places and I could stand next to her at her wedding.
It is also difficult to have friends over because you never know what can happen. Autism is spontaneous. Megan could be running around naked, start having a violent tantrum, or have a grand mal seizure. Even though I live with my sister, I still can’t handle these situations fully. When she would become violent or have a seizure, my mom would tell me to go somewhere else. That place would either be in my room with headphones on, a friends’ house, or a sidewalk without a destination. I would sob constantly because not only is she hurting my mother, she is hurting herself. She is violent because of pain she can’t control in her body. She bites her arm until it sheds blood and bangs her head on the wall until there’s bumps. It breaks my heart every time. I wanted to help but, I still ran away because it was the easiest thing to do. There were a handful of times where I had to help with my sister’s violent episodes because my mother wasn’t home. One of her caretaker’s would be at my bedroom door knocking to get my attention. I was terrified to face my sister when she was violent, but I wasn’t scared because looking past the violence, I saw my sister in pain and I just wanted her to feel better and smile again.
I’ve only told you about the negative aspects about my sister and autism. Well, that is what I only thought about for most of my life. I was narrow-minded. If you know my sister, you would know she has the best laugh in the world. It is hearty and contagious and I swear everyone smiles when they hear it. One time, we took my sister to Chipotle and the whole entire time I was concerned about her becoming violent, having a seizure, or having people laugh at her. To my surprise, Megan was in the greatest mood. She wouldn’t stop laughing as her rice fell all over the floor and all the workers laughed too, they laughed with her, not at her. I have never been so proud to say that was my sister, the cute redhead girl with the incredible laugh and a lap full of rice. Megan is non-verbal and I feel like I can communicate with her when she laughs. When we laugh together, I feel really connected with her and we have a conversation. We both have hearty, loud laughs. It must be genetics. All my troubles go away, even my troubles I have with her autism. I am able to see her for only her, not her disability. The gift of laughter has shown me that it can cure anything. Maybe this is why I love making people laugh and have a great sense of humor. Besides laughing our fiery heads off, we also dance to all types of music. Name the genre! Country, pop, rap, R&B, gospel, Christian, and musical, my sister has the CD! I can’t forget Christmas music. In July she repeatedly plays songs about snow and Jesus. She’s such a good person. Most 20 year olds are listening to songs about sex and drugs. Wait, I can’t stay that….one of her favorite songs is “Gold Digger” by Kanye. She’s hilarious.
Before I started college, I couldn’t wait to leave. I was so excited and curious to live without my sister. What would it be like leaving gluten food on the table and not be afraid of her eating it or leaving a roll of toilet paper next to the toilet without the worrying about the whole roll being flushed and clogging the toilet? I arrived at Saint Louis University without any knowledge of living with someone who doesn’t have autism. I didn’t have to worry about being too loud or too selfish, and that made me eager to live on my own. As expected, living on my own, I’ve suffered from homesickness, but I was shocked at the person I missed the most. It was my sister. There was one night I had to walk out of the library because I was reading a section about "Autism and Communication" in my psychology book. I sat on a bench and sobbed furiously. Thank God it was dark outside. Honestly, I just couldn’t stop weeping. I’ve never cried so hard about missing someone or cried so violently in general. The reason I was crying was because I had the urge to talk to my sister. I started bawling more. I can’t talk to her. I can’t call her up and talk about life. I am never able to do that. At that point, I just wanted to see her and laugh with her because that was the only solution to this dilemma. I realized that wherever I end up in life, I will always think of my sister. I can never forget about her. My sister is a part of me, and I can’t run away from it. I love her as much as all the songs ever written in history. No matter how far I move away, I will always come home to hear my sister’s laugh.
First semester, I was in the “major exploration” program. That is a fancy collegiate interpretation of being undecided. My problem was I wanted to be a teacher but didn’t know what to teach. I also have dreams of wanting to be a famous comedian/singer/advocate/ TV personality/ writer. I obviously had too many dreams, some realistic and most unrealistic and not of clue of what I wanted to do with that. One day, it just kind of hit me like unexpected golf sized hail. I should be a special education teacher. I always hated this idea. I thought it would be too emotional and difficult to work with kids with special needs because it was too close to home, but that was it! No matter what I do, I will think of my sister, and the best career to be reminded of my sister’s love is this! This is what I’m supposed to do. This is why I am here. Megan, I wish you were able to read this so you can be proud of me, but I know somehow that you already are. If you are living with someone who has autism, always remember that you impact their lives and they impact you. Don’t run away.
Mary Conrick is AofA Contributing Editor Teresa Conrick's daughter.