By Natalie Palumbo
I’m 20, a rising sophomore in Motion Design at Ringling College of Art and Design, and the younger sibling of an older brother with low-verbal autism. I recently finished my first year at Ringling with all A’s and B’s, and one of my demo reels was included in the Best of Ringling gallery for 2014.
Adjusting to being away at school often made me reflect on my life at home. I thought about how different my life was compared to my peers, and how that reality made me withdraw from social groups. It made me remember the moment I realized my brother would not recover from his autism. That realization changed my life forever.
I was 14, and dealing with a few hardships. We were living in a new state away from all extended family, and my father was traveling for his job three weeks out of four. Anthony needed supervision at all times because of his language deficits, and I had to help my mom at home. At this point, I knew I wanted to pursue media arts as a career, and was making art constantly to cope with my pain. I was participating in competitive art programs, and won several regional and state competitions. Because I kept to myself, several students harassed me for being an art student, and resented my getting attention for it. It seemed to get worse when I won a billboard competition for a ‘No Smoking’ campaign. It was a dream come true for me to see my art on a billboard. It was validation that I could really make this my career. Even though it brought me more rejection from my peers, the thrill of seeing my art on a billboard meant more to me than their acceptance.
By this time, I felt mostly alone. The only comfort I had was the hope that Anthony would one day recover and start talking. But, as the school year went on, there were no signs of improvement. Anthony’s medicines were failing, and he was regressing. I felt desperate and angry. Every time Anthony started a new therapy, I hoped that this would be the breakthrough, and he’d say something pragmatic and amazing. Time after time, therapy failed. I resented the entire world for doing this to my brother and me. I resented the people that mistreated me just for being in their proximity. I wanted to make art to cope with the heartbreak and isolation of Anthony’s autism, and I felt these people were trying to take that away from me.
For a long time, I had been living in denial. By this point, I knew that Anthony would never fully recover. I didn’t want to believe that there was no solution or a chance of recovery. My heart was breaking, and my hopes for Anthony were dying. I am his only sibling, and there would be no one else to help me as we grew older. I knew at that moment my life would never be the same.
My feelings towards the world changed. My thoughts boiled down to dismay and determination. Every time someone tried to impede on my progress for pursuing art, it felt like a personal attack. It was as if they were trying to take away my only chance of taking care of my brother. The only thing I could do was keep working to better myself, and remove myself from these negative people. My goal at that point was to do my best to improve my work. Nothing else mattered except for being successful.
Knowing I will have to take care of my brother affects every decision in my life. While I’m at school, my work always comes first. I’m preparing for my life after college, and I want it to be comfortable and safe. Even though we know Anthony won’t fully recover, we still do everything we can hoping for improvement. I make the most of our relationship. I can take comfort in knowing he’s not worried at all. Anthony inspires my art, and his view of the world taught me a very important lesson. Anthony has no concept of reputation. You are how you treat him. Kindness is kind, hateful is hate, and no one gets a free pass for being popular and shallow. If you want his adoration, you have to earn it. I love my brother.
I dedicate this post in the memory of Alex Spourdalakis. We will not let your life be forgotten.
Natalie Palumbo is a Contributing Editor to Age of Autism.