I'm 22, a Motion Design senior at Ringling College of Art and Design, and my older brother Anthony has low-verbal autism. I am currently working on my senior thesis. My animation portion is complete, and I have been green-lighted for my set design and projection mapping plans. Now, to build it!
I was having a casual conversation with someone, and out of the blue, the person asked me, “Why are you single?” I was completely unprepared for the question. Immediately, my mind began to race as I tried to imagine why they were asking. After a few awkward seconds, I replied, “What do you mean?” They said, “Well, it just seems to me that a lot of autism siblings tend to keep to themselves, and I wondered why that was the case for you?” I said, “Well, I can’t just look for someone that will treat me well. I must also find someone that will be considerate towards Anthony, too. It makes things more complicated.” They nodded, but I wondered if they really understood.
I'm never NOT an autism sibling. It never leaves my mind. I factor it into everything unconsciously. I will have to take over my brother's care when my parents are no longer able, so I focus on being successful more than anything. Regardless of whether or not I have companionship, that is something I'm always preparing for in the back of my mind. There is no room to be superficial when you have a sibling with a disability that will need you. You have to consider every single choice, and every possible consequence. Being reckless with my life places Anthony's future in jeopardy, too. It's hard to let that go.
I have personally found it difficult to be casual when it comes to any relationship. 'Forever' is not something I seek to bind anyone to, but I can't help but insert my experience into the mix. My life as a sibling makes me different, and I have things to consider that are out of the ordinary. I think about people's intent toward me. If I suspect it's insincere, or a momentary fling, I'm leery. I don't have time to invest in anyone that truly doesn't care. I cannot erase my experience and become mindlessly carefree because I know I will have to return to the sobering reality that Anthony will need me someday. There isn’t enough momentary distraction in the world for me to completely let my reality go. My hope is to find someone who truly wants to understand my life, and chooses to stay. To find that quality in a friend is hard enough. I've only come across a precious few.
I tend to be very cautious about who I include in my life, and it directly stems from being a sibling of someone low-verbal. From when I was very young, I watched people's behavior. If someone was purposely rude, or mistreated people, I immediately lost all interest in them. If someone tried to bully me, I immediately thought, well, if I'm too different for them, they'd never accept Anthony...I don't want anyone in my life that wouldn't accept Anthony. I felt Anthony would be vulnerable around toxic people and their cruel behavior. There are far too many stories of abuse towards people with disabilities. I can't distance myself from those stories. The threat is real to me. My circle of friends may be small, but I know I am protecting my brother by being more selective.
Anthony’s autism is the sole reason I didn’t put up with harassment when I was in high school. Even in college, I am put off when someone is unnecessarily rude. To me, if someone doesn't care if they're hurtful, how can they possibly have the compassion necessary to consider my brother? I can't help but factor that in to my decision to interact with people.
When you're faced with the constant reality that your sibling is unable to protect themselves, you have to be strong enough for both of you. For me, this knowledge made me more tolerant, but it has also eroded my innocence. I can't help but be tuned in to people's capacity to be cruel. If I witness cold behavior, I am immediately guarded. Living in denial would be easier, but more dangerous. I can't afford dangerous.
I have met some incredible people, and I don't believe I will spend my life alone. I am happy in my major, and excited about the work I am doing. I feel privileged to be preparing for my future at my dream college (Thanks Dad)! My mom keeps telling me to “Be the best you, and you will attract the best people for the best you”. I try to be, because I want the best people for Anthony, too.
I love my brother.
Natalie Palumbo is a Contributing Editor to Age of Autism.