Despite the fact that life is often very hard for siblings of children with special needs, when looked at from a different perspective, their brother's or sister's differences can also have a positive impact on the whole family.. .the main one of course being the fun! Who can fail to smile as Ben spins into the room and lights up the room with his beautiful smile and endearing ways? Who can keep their faces straight as Joe does impressions, crazy dances and makes up jokes? As Matthew, in all seriousness, performs a clumsy attempt at a dance and Luke waffles on to no one in particular about a random topic unknown to anyone, it would take an iron will to resist a grin.. .my girls certainly can't! (Though they try hard sometimes - after all it wouldn't be cool to smile too much!)
My children always have someone to talk to, to play with, to moan about and to laugh with (or at!). They always have someone else's point of view available and are often challenged about their own ideals, values and beliefs, and recognize the need to protect and understand those who are vulnerable and weaker than they are. The girls may call Luke a 'freak' several times a day but woe betide anyone else who does so!
The receptive and expressive language differences of the boys serve to make everyone who spends time with them think very carefully about the words, the expressions and the gestures they use. The girls have learned to speak more clearly and unambiguously.. .surely a good thing? I just now asked Ben if he is going to poo on the toilet (we are trying hard to toilet train him at the moment) and he roared with laughter and answered scornfully "Poo in toilet not on toilet".. .I guess he's right again!
Furthermore, the presence of autism in the family has taught the girls to accept that things are not always as black and white as they first seem. If they see a child having a tantrum in a shop or if someone at their school behaves rather oddly, the first thing the girls question is whether there is an underlying difference rather than assuming that they are merely badly behaved or 'weird'. Disability is accepted as a rich part of life's diversity and issues of equity and inequality are commonly discussed openly and honestly. Feelings of embarrassment, anger and resentment evoked by the boys when they behave in certain ways or destroy the girls' property give rise to many in-depth discussions about such issues and as a result, our family as a whole has learned to assess and discuss our emotions candidly and without inhibition.
Another positive side to having 'different' brothers, the girls tell me and I certainly agree, is that they see the younger boys as an excellent way to judge the characters ofothers. They tell me that when they bring a new friend or potential boyfriend into the house, they use the boys rather like a canary in a mine.if the person recoils in disgust when Ben runs around naked or reacts with anger when Joe bombards him or her with personal questions then they mentally dismiss that person and judge his or her character accordingly, whereas if the newcomer accepts the boys and their differences (and ifthe boys take to the newcomer - Ben and Joe are always a good judge of character) then he or she is deemed suitable.
The boys teach the girls to view things from their angle and accept and appreciate a different perspective on life. Often Luke will be behaving 'weirdly' (their word not mine!) and one ofthe girls will ask him scathingly what he is doing. He then invariably goes into great detail about how ifhe moves his head one way and closes one eye then the colour on the wallpaper seems to change or ifhe waggles his finger in front of his face then it changes the appearance of the background.. .before we know it the whole family is behaving just as 'weirdly' as Luke and thoroughly enjoying looking at the world from his angle!
It's Rachel's sixteenth birthday party. As the girls huddle together in self-conscious groups, the shine of their eyes matched only by their shimmering body glitter, I watch their rituals unfold. The boys stand together, muscles flexed, chests puffed out and collars turned up. Like children in a candy store they watch and drink in the view, analysing and assessing each and every girl in a bid to pick the tastiest offering. Slowly and enticingly the music begins to permeate the very being of each girl and soon they are writhing and gyrating their hips in a captivating display of provocation.
Where oh where did those years go? The memories of their baby and childhood years are as clear in my mind as if they were only yesterday yet no longer are the arguments about whether or not they have washed or changed their clothes, but whether or not they have 'borrowed' my clothes, make-up and toiletries. Even without any added extras the girls have their own difficulties to negotiate in their path to adulthood and life with 'typically developing' teenagers is just as hard, (sometimes more so) as life with teenagers on the autistic spectrum.
How we parents await those dreaded hormones with fear and trepidation. All too soon, adolescence is the uninvited guest at the birthday party, the unseen aggravator at the dinner table and the whole family dynamics are twisted and distorted as everyone struggles to adjust to the new presence in the household.
In my household, as you have seen, I have a combination of rather unusual characters with very different personalities and so have to help Luke and Matthew as they negotiate their pathway to adulthood. Dyslexia is making it harder for Matthew to fill out application forms in his bid to find employment and his rigidity and difficulties with social situations all make the interview stage even harder for him if he does get that far. As I have already written, Luke is struggling through the worst time of adolescence and this is being exacerbated (for all of us!) by the fact that he is being ruled totally and utterly by his obsessions at the moment. In general, teenagers with autism or related conditions have their own shade of difficulties in adolescence and sometimes the explosion of 'colour' is blinding! Whilst focusing on parenting a 'multicoloured' combination of children, this book would be sadly lacking if I didn't write a full chapter on the whole minefield of adolescence and its difficulties, even when the teenager is 'typically developing'.
Indeed, without any added extras, adolescence is difficult for any teenager as he or she struggles to cope with his or her changing body, fluctuating moods and the quest for a new identity. However.it is just as difficult for a parent to cope with the fact that his or her little boy or girl is hurtling towards adulthood. In many ways I wish that I could put the children back in their buggies, put a bottle in their mouth and know that they are safe. The hardest part of parenting is to let go and let them learn by making their own mistakes.
How I want to wander in front of Matthew and shout at people that he has dyspraxia and can't help being clumsy, or that he may not be able to spell but he is certainly not stupid. I want to scream "But he's not right for you!" as Rachel brings home yet another boyfriend. I want to walk in Sarah's shadow and explain that she is not being rude but her honesty and bluntness is actually her beauty. I want to run in and protect Luke from the jibes and sneers as other teenagers laugh at his differences. (In fact many times I would love to practise my Taekwondo on these bullies!) Anna, at thirteen years old, has to be left to find her feet and to realize that being so popular comes with a price. She frequently agrees to be in more than one place at once and I often have to sit back and watch as she struggles to sort out her social arrangements.
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Whenever a doctor informs the parents that their child is suffering with Autism, the first & foremost question that is thrown over him is - How did it happen? How did my child get this disease? Well, there is no definite answer to what are the exact causes of Autism.