When I was ten, it became my responsibility to walk him home every day after school. I would leave the fifth-grade annex and go downstairs to the kindergarten classroom, where my brother and his classmates played before their rides came to pick them up. Kids would play together in groups, becoming families with the kitchen-set or adventurers with foam swords. But every day when I came by, my brother was playing alone. As the school year continued, his teachers started to pull my parents aside in ways no one ever did with me.
My parents would get invitations to watch my brother during recess or come in to talk with teachers after school. I was never the most perceptive child, but it eventually became impossible to miss the words adults would use when discussing him, always whispered where he couldn’t hear. They were saying things like diagnosis, testing, and eventually autism.
But I quickly realized that he wasn’t sick, and the things about him that were different didn’t seem to be hurting him, or anybody else..
I didn’t know what autism was at the time. At first, once my parents explained it to me, it seemed scary. Something was different about my baby brother, which I assumed meant that something must be wrong. But I quickly realized that he wasn’t sick, and the things about him that were different didn’t seem to be hurting him, or anybody else. Sure, it annoyed me when he would only play with Legos, or when he sat in front of our only TV set for eight hours a day watching The Lion King over and over.
I didn’t always understand why loud noises or hugs bothered him so much, but I learned quickly to adapt. My parents had told me, before he was born, that a new baby in the house would mean making some changes. I thought of his quirks and requests as a part of those changes.
I realized, quickly, that it bothered everyone else. When he was young, he struggled to make friends, but people mostly left him alone. As he got older, struggling to make friendships developed rapidly into social isolation. Then, it developed into bullying. Kids would push him in the hallways, call him names. They would pretend to be his friend, taking advantage of his issues reading tone to trick him into going to the park with them, or onto the playground.
His classmates would tell him they wanted to be friends, until they got him alone. Then, they would physically attack him, pushing and shoving him until he came home with bruises. My parents always called the school when these things happened, and the principal always said he would handle it, but the message from his school was clear; maybe if he stopped being so weird, people would stop picking on him.
But why? Why shouldn’t he be weird? What was so terrible about his fixation on Lego sets or his lisp that deserved the punishment he received? There was immense pressure on him throughout all his years in school to conform, to remake himself into something his classmates could relate to. But his autism isn’t a sickness to cure or a problem to fix. It’s who he is; it’s all the things that make him happy, make him laugh, that give him meaning and purpose. People always seem surprised when I tell them about his latest fixation (right now it’s the Greek Orthodox Church), and act as if I should love him less for the things they see as oddities, or quirks. But they’re not quirks, they’re just him, and if people were able to think about him, instead of his diagnosis, they would love him as much as I do.