Happy Holidays. I am 20, a sophomore motion designer at Ringling College of Art and Design, and the only sister to an older brother with low verbal autism. My brother Anthony is 23 years old (almost 24), and he aged out of school at 21. I was recently asked how Anthony was doing being home full time with me away at college. I phone home regularly to make sure my brother is alright. My mother always responds the same way, “He prefers you, but he settles for me.”
Anthony misses me. In his mind, we haven’t aged at all. We’re still little kids. Time is irrelevant. Even though we moved ten years ago to the southeast, he still idealizes our old house in Maryland. He thinks if we go back, the house will still be ours, and all of our stuff will still be there. In addition to being very echolalic, Anthony has persistent Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. He obsesses over going back to Maryland, and requests to go several times a day, every day. I call home so Anthony can hear my voice. Anthony is low verbal, and not conversational. Mainly, he’ll just recite his always revised Christmas list, which gets longer with every passing year, or chatter about the movie he is planning in his head. Anthony will read me his casting list, which consists of everyone we know playing themselves. I just listen, and tell him it’s great. It makes Anthony happy for me to acknowledge his lists.
With my being away, Anthony has gotten very attached to my mother. He wants her to sit in his room while he plays games, even if she’s not interacting. My mom theorizes that he misses me being in the house, and settles for her being there instead. He marks on the calendar when I’ll be home again, and reminds my mother constantly when I will be, “home from Ringling”. Under the circumstances, he has dealt with my being away very well. Anthony has visited the campus, so he knows where I am. I’ve been drawing and pursuing art since I was 10 years old. Anthony associates art with me. He seems to innately understand that I belong in art school, and so he tolerates this major change. Anthony and I have always been close, and he inspired me to draw when we couldn’t share words.
Even though being accepted into Ringling was a dream of mine, I worried about leaving Anthony behind. I always enjoyed how much he loved me, and was afraid being away would change our close bond. I thought that if I wasn’t there every day, he would lose his attachment for me, and forget who I was. My mom is his full time caregiver. Anthony has his own agenda, meaning his desires and interests are forever “in the now”. He is not conversational enough or socially aware enough to work outside the home. He would need someone constantly monitoring him to keep him on task, and ensure his safety. He would feel no obligation to attend to work, even with payment as an incentive. These concepts are outside of his thought processes. If he didn’t want to do something, he just wouldn’t do it. My mother is concerned for Anthony’s safety and well being, so she is home with him full time. Anthony is forever on “summer vacation”.
When I see his attachment for my mom during visits, I feel sad. I liked being his favorite person, and I don’t want to lose that. My mother assures me that Anthony chatters about me all the time, and looks forward to seeing me. She always says that the best thing I can do for Anthony is focus on myself, and do my best at college. When my parents are no longer able, I want to be Anthony’s caregiver. Being successful is very important for both of us. I try to ignore my sadness and focus on my studies. It is a great distraction for me to do well in my classes. It makes me feel like I can truly be successful, and support Anthony in the future. While I’m working hard in my classes, I stay in touch hoping that Anthony won’t forget me. When I hear him reading his many lists to me, I am happy he didn’t forget. I love being Anthony’s “Forever Baby Sister”.
Natalie Palumbo is a Contributing Editor to Age of Autism.