Growing up, I had quite a unique life. I grew up in a large family with a brother whose needs were always more important than mine and my other siblings. It was often our responsibility to get Riley ready and take him to and from school, or watch him on weekends and evenings. Having a brother who is living with autism can pose quite the challenge and I would be lying if I said acceptance was easy.
I distinctly remember growing up and not understanding why we would get strange looks in public, how some of my friends would be uncomfortable coming over to my house, or how my relatives had a hard time accepting that they could not treat Riley the same way that they could treat me. I was worried to bring around new friends or love interests to my house because I was afraid that they would judge him. "What is wrong with your brother?" "Why doesn't he talk?" "Why is he staring at me?" "He is so weird!" These were all common remarks that I heard from peers growing up and after awhile, I actually started to believe them. I felt... resentful. Sitting here and reflecting, I can remember feeling like I needed to compensate for my brother's inabilities and be the best that I could be for my mother and father. I wanted to be the most athletic, intelligent, social, and highest-achieving child that I could be for my parents. I realize now that I could have never been more wrong.
It's not easy to explain to people what it means to be a sibling of someone living with a disability, but what I can say is this:
Growing up with a sibling who has exceptionalities can pose challenges and exposes some tough and scary feelings, but it can also make you patient, empathetic and resilient. It brings you back to the bare basics, where being kind, helpful, patient, and loving are the most important attributes. I've learned a lot from my brother. He is the reason I decided to become an educator and choose a career where I can help others. He taught me more about life than I could have ever imagined growing up. He provided me with a new way of looking at the world around me. I've learned that people fear what they cannot understand. To truly understand is the key to acceptance. Understanding that everyone is different. To understand that some people need extra help, extra time, extra attention and a little extra love.
And to my brother, Riley, thank you for teaching the people around you the importance of being patient, being kind, being silly, being understanding and having fun. You have helped so many people recognize the importance of celebrating our differences and appreciating that there are other ways to move about in this world. You have been a ray of sunshine to so many people in your community.
Thank you. I am the luckiest brother in the world to have learned what life is truly about.