January 17, 2011
SPLASH!! I feel the briefest moment of warmth as the contents of our tub land on the back of my calves, and I turn around just in time to see my youngest’s son’s grin as he watches his older brother sluice soapy water out of his eyes. Moving two feet over to the edge of the tub to admonish Zach to be more careful, I of course then step directly into the puddle left in the wake of my child’s enthusiasm. I tell Zach to watch what he’s doing, and call to my husband to oversee their horseplay as I clearly require a wardrobe change. After making sure Justin’s alright, I step into the hallway to grab a pair of dry socks from the laundry pile, the one (in theory) I should have put away yesterday.
I rescue my appendages from the icy apathy of our bathroom tiles (oh, to live in a world where our powder room’s floor was heated), and return in time to see my husband head to the stairs to claim Zach’s forgotten bedtime juice. My boys are happily engaged, Justin looking into his sibling’s face and smiling, Zach grabbing his feet and tugging on them playfully. He gets a bit rough at one point, and I remind him that these appendages are indeed attached to the rest of his brother’s body, and he should take care not to hurt him. Zach drops his prizes and fixes me with his slate-blue stare, and says (with what I swear is a hint of condescension), “He likes it.”
I fix him back with my own slate-green gaze and respond, “How do you know that, exactly?”
Without breaking eye contact, Zach replies “He told me.”
Really. Five minutes with Justin in the bathtub, and you’ve managed to conquer his severe apraxia. And I thought I was the Annie Sullivan of autism.
I know from reading those child development books, the ones that actually apply to one of my offspring, that lying is a good thing in a three-year-old, implies access to an imagination, and a penchant for guile that are all considered “normal” for the pre-school crowd. I decide to play with this a bit and consider asking Zach what Justin’s opinions are on global warming, but instead I scale my query back to ask him what else my eldest has said to him lately.
He smiles up at me, oh-so-innocently, and says, “Nothing”.
Great. Five figures worth of speech therapy over six years, you get him to talk, and that’s all I get?
My husband has returned from rescuing Zach’s Elmo juice, and I fill him in on their “breakthrough moment”, and we both laugh and wonder what Justin will “tell” his brother in the future. Together we finish the bathroom routine, wrapping towels around warm little bodies, soothing them (hopefully) into slumber. Eventually, after several stories and five requests of “stay and sing to me, PLEASE!!!” we are able to exit Zach’s room, and begin the next portion of the day, the one where Jeff works and I hope it’s the day of the week Cupcake Wars is broadcasted.
I head downstairs and start the post-afternoon clean-up, but I can’t seem to get our family discussion out of my mind. Zach has never asked us questions about Justin, why he doesn’t talk, why “e”is his favorite vowel, why his organizational and technological skills are far superior to those of his mother. I’m guessing it’s because he is the younger child, and for the entirety of his life, this has been the only brother he’s known. His relationship with Justin is his version of “normal”.
I am aware my husband and I still have many hurdles left to conquer, one being how to explain Justin’s autism to Zach, and the second being how to explain Zach’s autism to him. While I respect anyone’s decision as to full or partial disclosure in a situation like this, I do feel strongly that we will tell our youngest about his own version of the disorder when the time is right, will explain it to him as best we can. There are some families who do not go the way of full disclosure, instead go to great lengths, even moving to different school districts, to prevent their “recovered” or mainstreamed child from knowing what they have, or in some people’s opinions, had. Again, I respect each family’s right to handle this dilemma as they see best. This is an intensely personal decision. I personally, however, am not a big fan of secrets, and even if I were, I don’t believe we really have that option in this family.
While controversy still rages as to whether or not autism is purely genetic, environmental, or a mixture of both, I think it’s pretty clear our collective family tree had something to do with both boys residing on the spectrum. There has to be some kind of genetic component involved, and whether Zach mainstreams or not, he needs to know that autism is a part of who he is, if only because he might have his own family one day.
And if Jeff and I do our job right, he’ll be at peace with it.
I’m not sure how to explain his brother’s journey to him however, why autism’s manifestations turned out so differently for Justin than they did for Zach. I don’t know when he’ll start asking us questions about why his brother doesn’t really play with him, or despite his claims, talk to him in any true fashion. I am certain that when he does start inquiring, unfortunately, I won’t yet have the answers.
I am so grateful, however, that I will be able to reassure him how much Justin loves him, will be confident enough to cite examples of his affection toward Zach that a young child might not recognize. I hope it will be a comfort to him to know that Justin used to wait outside his door when he was an infant, wishing we’d let him in just to peek and see that his little brother was still there. I will remind him how Justin stared sweetly at him so often in the bath, and that his elder sibling was always so amused by his pretend play. I will instill in him the memory of Justin’s hand placed gently on his cheek at least once or twice a day, touching base with his sibling, making an unprompted effort to forge that connection.
And I hope, boy do I hope, that proof of love will be enough.