I'm 22, a rising Motion Design senior at Ringling College of Art and Design, and my older brother Anthony has low-verbal autism.
My test animation for Concept Development class made it into "Best Of Ringling 2016", as well as being included in Ringling's Motion Design demo reel shown at PromaxBDA in New York.
My final project for Animation class was an analysis of "MadMapper" projection mapping software, which I'm using for senior thesis. My teacher loved it, and suggested I send it to the developers at MadMapper. They were so pleased by it, they requested that I do an analysis of their new beta features. They promoted both of my projects, and so did the Motion Design department at Ringling.
Back in April, I took part in an Autism Awareness event for Sarasota County where I painted two murals to promote riding therapy and weighted Miracle Belts developed by Matt Bruback, who coordinated the event. I was featured by Suncoast News Network twice for my participation, and was invited to attend the Mint Juleps and Roses Derby. They called me up on stage to thank me for my mural work. I was unbelievably honored to be a part of this.
I recently came across an article from Laughlin, Nevada entitled "Man Left Daughter With Autism To Die In Hot RV". She was 25, the same age as my brother. When I read the article, I was enraged and sick to my stomach at the thought that this father left his daughter to die alone with her twin sister, which the article inferred also had challenges.
It made me think of my life as a sibling, and how I could never leave my brother alone for any reason. He's low verbal, and wouldn't be able to adequately get help for himself. He doesn't need constant supervision, but does not have enough communication to be left home alone. If he were to get hurt, he wouldn't be able to tell us what happened. It made me reflect on how different my sibling experience was from other people, and how Anthony's autism changed my world view.
One of Anthony's favorite films is "Toy Story". My mom and I were chatting once about films that changed for us after living with autism. There was an autism mom that said "Dumbo" reminded her of having a child with special needs, and the rejection from other moms. Once she said that, my mother said she couldn't watch "Dumbo" the same way ever again. It was a sad story to watch regardless, but with the added association, certain scenes were emotionally crushing.
I mentioned how the scenes in Sid's room during "Toy Story" always bothered me. My mother presumed it was because the toys looked different and were feared, thus teaching a lesson of tolerance and kindness. I immediately said no. What bothered me was that Sid's toys, which were altered against their will, were the only toys that didn't talk. My mom began to cry. She never noticed they were the only toys not to talk until I mentioned it.
The toys in Sid's room reminded me of Anthony's classmates when he was in school. They were all very sweet and banded together, and they all had different strengths. Most people in my high school kept their distance unless volunteering. Seeing Anthony's classmates was a regular part of my life. I would sit in frustration hearing casual callous remarks from peers, and would occasionally speak up to point out their intolerance. Sometimes it would shame them into silence, or they'd walk away. Sometimes they would defend their callous remark with a worse one. I learned to share my life with only a select few.
From the first time I saw "Toy Story", I saw myself as being like Woody, and Anthony being like Buzz Lightyear. In a sense, I had to direct him constantly because I was aware of society and it's demands, and Anthony blissfully had his own agenda. Buzz, when he first arrives, really thinks he's a space ranger, and treats the other toys as "unusual life forms".
This pretty much defines our family life. Anthony is agreeable, good natured, and very attractive. However, his language is limited, and brings his electronics with him wherever we go. This means we need to make allowances for Anthony's needs whenever we're planning any outing. Anthony is fearless, but being low-verbal, he needs to be accompanied in public at all times. I always identified with Woody, who tries to keep Buzz safe from danger while he fearlessly lives in his own little world.
Andy represented the outside world to me as a sibling. Woody was aware of the real world, but he lived amongst the world of toys. He was able to bridge both worlds and understand reality as well as the hidden world inside Andy's room. That's how it felt as a sibling. "Typical" surrounded me, and I had to interact with it, but I always came home to the hidden world of Anthony and his autism. As a sibling, you have to function seamlessly in both worlds, and deal with the compromises of both. You are everywhere and nowhere.
On a funnier and sweeter note...
Buzz and his stilted dialogue about being a space ranger always reminded me of Anthony and how he must view the world. My mom says the internet is his life support, and everything looks better from Google Earth. As much as I love Anthony, some of his OCD and big brother tendencies to take over activities (and the remote control) can have me fussing at him like Woody. I will be exasparated, and he will smile at me as if to say, "You are a sad and strange little sister, and I pity you. Farewell!" That is usually how most conflicts end between us. He will be adorably Anthony, and I will give in out of sheer amusement. I suspect it will be this way until I'm 90 years old and he's 93. I plan to have my own remote.
Natalie Palumbo is Contributing Editor to Age of Autism.