Brad is not our only child. He has a brother – Jeremy – who’s 21 months older. For the months since Brad was diagnosed, most of my thoughts and observations about his condition have related to the usual stuff – evaluation, treatment, services, and what the future might hold for him. I still think about these things of course, but now I also find myself wondering more often about the present and future dynamic between Jeremy and Brad – particularly whether/how Brad’s condition will affect Jeremy, both from the perspective of him as a person, and with regard to his relationship with Brad as his younger brother.
Brad adores Jeremy, who in Brad’s eyes can do no wrong. Brad takes cues from Jeremy when they play together, shadowing Jeremy and having a great time doing so. Lately, Brad will walk up to Jeremy and gently (or not so gently – Brad’s getting to be almost as big as Jeremy, and both are at or above the 90th percentiles for height and weight, so you do the math) push Jeremy, or grab his hair, or just tackle him. It’s very clear that Brad means it in a playful way, and does it to interact with Jeremy. Laura said - I think correctly - that it’s Brad acting socially like a kid about a year younger than him would. If you could see it, you’d realize that completely makes sense.
Jeremy loves Brad too, and usually will involve Brad in his play. Clearly Jeremy does not understand Brad’s condition, which is not surprising given that Jeremy is only 4. I figure that kids can begin to grasp the concept of autism around the time they can understand something like death or the value of money – does that sound about right? For now, Jeremy still sees Brad as a “baby”, which is how Jeremy pretty much views all kids who he can tell are younger than he is, and which is probably the way most kids Jeremy’s age would characterize a younger sibling whether on the spectrum or not. When Jeremy gets frustrated with Brad, it’s usually because he wants Brad to do or stop doing something right away, since trying convey a non-basic, time-sensitive message to Brad (like “don’t skip that song on the CD”) rarely meets with success. Usually when this happens, Laura, myself or our nanny (have we discussed her before? She’s beyond amazing BTW, and that might be an understatement) intervenes and we handle the situation. It’s nice that Jeremy is still young enough that he almost never dwells on anything negative; that has got to be one of the best things about kids his age. But I digress.
So as usual, this has led me to wonder about some things. We’ve all heard about how autism can affect parents and marriages, but have there been studies of the effects of having an autistic sibling? Can something like that even be meaningfully, let alone reliably, gauged? Do they tend to be more likely to have behavioral issues than other similarly situated kids who don’t have siblings on the spectrum, or is just the opposite – are they more tolerant and well behaved due to the increased patience they must learn in dealing with their autistic sibling(s)? Does it vary depending on the severity of the sibling’s autism? These questions can segue into the flip side – do autistic children benefit behaviorally from having a non-autistic sibling? How can that be measured? Is the benefit more pronounced when it’s an older sibling, or does that largely not matter?
Just a few more not so burning questions from Brad’s dad. Until next time…..