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The Older Brother Becomes the Younger Brother

Usually between brothers, there’s the role of the older brother and the younger brother. Though in the case between my brother Dave and I this is still true, a major difference is that the roles have switched over time! More than once! Meet the face of autism in the relationship between brothers.

I was born in 1981, and Dave was born in 1986. We are roughly four and a half years apart. Most of the time I am five years older, but for a few months of the year, only four.

When Dave was an infant, I was actually a big help to him, by helping Mom and Dad. While riding in the vehicle, sometimes my parents would want to know whether Dave was sleeping or not. I would look over at him sitting in his car seat and say either, “His eyes are open” if he was awake, or “His eyes are closed,” if he was asleep. For whatever the reason, I didn’t give a simple yes or no answer. I additionally helped Mom, by bringing her the wipes and diapers. A song, “Tommy Is My Helper” was “written” and sung about this. Mom was even able to figure out how to play the beginning of it on my toy Sesame Street Piano that consisted of eight keys, but enough to play the beginning notes.

I was a good audience for him since he made me laugh. Before I had an air conditioner in my bedroom, we would all sleep in my parents’ room on hot nights as they had the only air conditioner in the house. I would sleep on a trundle bed, and Dave on a crib mattress. Dave with his funny antics, would do all kinds of silly things to try to make me laugh instead of going to sleep, including making funny faces and crawling out of his bed to goof off. I wanted to go to sleep, but he would make me laugh. So, the arrangement was made that I would wait to go to bed in the summer until Dave was asleep. Sometimes Mom would read books to me while waiting.

Dave and I were the best of friends from the time we were able to play together. I had a few friends in school over the years, but Dave has to be the closest.

At first Dave followed my lead, as to be expected. I was the older brother, and it would seem to reason that I knew what I was doing and would show him the way. Dave followed along with my interest in toy food, creating “Big Fat Books” (numerous sheets of paper folded with outside scenes drawn along a road), magnetic letters, trains, and even Micro Machines. I helped develop the interest by purchasing Fisher-Price Play Food for him as a Christmas present in 1987 from Hess’s toy department.

When it came to video games, Dave was the first to try them, and I had to be convinced to try them. Early on Dave was too young to read well and he let me make the decisions on what games to buy. This continued throughout my childhood even when his ability improved. In the early days of having a Nintendo, it was critical to purchase or receive the “correct” games. Games were expensive, and a new game had to last for a long time. Games generally were acquired for special events such as birthdays, Christmas, etc. Once I received a game for getting straight A’s on my report card. Very rarely was I able to scrape enough money together to purchase a game at other times during the year. He later complained that I never chose a Zelda game, which was a role-playing game. The simple truth was that the map for the game was mostly terrain. It included simplistic looking dungeons instead of stages with various backgrounds. After watching Dave play the games many years later, I believe they would have been too challenging for him at that point in time. If they would have been released when he was a little older, then he could have enjoyed them.

We certainly had our own identities as well. I always liked cats and the color green, and had a stable favorite number. Dave liked dogs and blue and would change his favorite number every year to match his age. By now I have had three favorite numbers, but Dave stopped having a favorite number many years ago!

In the intermediate grades of elementary school and high school instead of often inviting friends over to the house (like I presume many classmates did), I primarily hung out with Dave. Occasionally, I had a friend that came over, but Dave was my major friend outside of school. Dave introduced me to a number of things like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles which he learned about from a kindergarten friend. Since I was developmentally behind for my age, Dave worked well as a good friend for me. I didn’t develop socially to the level of a typical high school student.

In September, 1994 (my eighth grade year), we moved to our current location. Our new house was larger than the house I spent my elementary school years in. One major change was a lack of a designated playroom as our new basement was initially unfinished. Dave’s and my bedrooms were the primary places for play now. As they were a fairly small area in comparison to most of a finished basement, I started to keep to myself and “do” numbers, meaning work on various number sequences on a calculator, as well as figuring out the prime numbers up to 997. Dave and I did play together through his elementary school years, but less than previously. Understand, this means I was still “playing” through my middle and high school years!

When Dave reached eighth grade, he eventually started to feel uncomfortable about our activities at home. As can be expected, he wanted to fit in with his peers. The following year Dave drifted away from playing, and more towards developing hobbies. This natural phase out of childhood activities is what completed the role reversal. He was now acting like a high schooler. By now I was attending college. Dave started to do activities that were age appropriate for high schoolers whether it was learn to play the piano, or joining the track team. The family bought a pool table to be used at Dave’s sixteenth birthday party. Dave caught up to me in age mentally, and then seemed to surpass me. I still wanted to play, and he wanted to act like his school friends. Dave was growing up— a natural process that I had not found. College did not bring anything new to the table for me. Just like Peter Pan, I didn’t want to “grow up,” but I didn’t live in Neverland.

One area where I once again exceled in the older brother role throughout college was in driving, as Dave didn’t have a license. Once I received my driver’s license at age twenty, Dave wanted me to take him places he wanted to go. Some examples included Fazoli’s (an Italian fast-food restaurant), the mall in Hagerstown, as well as the Lincoln Trading Post (a pawn shop) in Gettyburg to search for video games and CDs. He had me take him places when he went to college, as well. Dave took over the driving when he received his license, since he could drive to larger towns with more traffic. He insisted that I went along with him though he often wanted to go to look for used books which I had no interest in. Now I was back to the younger brother role once again.

Other times I tried to be in the older brother role, but failed. I wasn’t assertive enough on the issue which led to me making a bad choice on Dave’s behalf. Dave and I went often to the Chambersburg Mall during university. On a rainy night, Dave and I were talking about going to the Chamberburg Mall. I was talking to Mom on the phone, and she suggested that we stay in. I tried to convey the message to Dave, but wasn’t successful (Older Brother Role). Here’s the catch, I subsequently made the mistake of caving in, and taking Dave to the mall against my good judgement. While sitting at Subway, I heard on the radio about tornados spotted in Greencastle, a town several miles to the south. I said to Dave, “We need to get going. I heard about tornados in Greencastle.” He just sat like a bump on a log, enjoying his sub after I made the comment. Upon pressing him again, we finally left to return to Shippensburg University. A similar incident happened at a bookstore in Frederick when Dave was driving. Mom called and warned us about possible tornados, and suggested that we return home. I told Dave, who was obstinate yet again about leaving because of a weather threat. I finally convinced him to leave, but later than it should have been. As Dave and I returned by using Route 15, I later discovered that the alleged tornado was following I-81 at the same time. Glad I didn’t know that at the time!

Dave still remains in the older brother role. After a six-month period following college graduation (due to a terrible job market), Dave got a job. He moved to Taiwan to teach children how to speak English. He lives away from home in an apartment, and seems to love it. Sure, it’s not always easy for him, but he seems to be happy. In addition he has his own pet cat that he’s had for a number of years. He has made some good friends in the ten years he’s been there. Similarly, I am living at home with my parents, which I am fine with. An organization that helps me deal with autism through the Autism Waiver, sends people to my house once a week. It’s hard to create goals to work on since I still haven’t figured out what I want to do with my life yet. There always seems to be something which stands in the way.

When I go over to Taiwan to visit Dave, he still has that older brother role. Taiwan has several features that have been hurdles to “doing my own thing” during the day while Dave is at his job. Taiwan is full of hazards to people with developmental disabilities. Many roads are multi-laned in each direction with fast drivers (crossing the road at a traffic light is treacherous since in Taiwan, traffic laws are treated as suggestions.) I don’t speak or read any Chinese. Dangers lurk in his apartment such as his gas stove. I’m not used to using a gas stove which could be quite dangerous for a person who doesn’t know what (s)he is doing. Dave isn’t wild for me to go on the porch where the gas is, though I have gone there to help out with the laundry while he was at work. I haven’t figured out how to travel places in Taiwan, though they have a great public transportation system, such as dependable buses and trains. It wouldn’t matter if I did figure it out, as I have no way to get to the stations and back. It would be easy to get lost in the city he lives in, and I would have no way to get help if I did. Though their transportation system is great, it is still daunting to use.

Another point of interest, Taiwan is actually safer than the United States in many ways, such as a very low violent crime rate. A person can go outside at three in the morning without worry. The irony is that due to some issues like what I mentioned above, I can’t really safely do much while he is at work, other than hang out with the cat and chill. Neurotypical people might venture out into the city to go to stores or walk to the stations. There again due to my safety, he is taking the role of older brother! He must provide my meals and other needs, though I try to help tend his cat Richard for him in return. Dave has taught me how to use Taiwan’s money, but to know how much to pay, I have to look at the number on the cash register. Other items such as his gas stove he could teach me, but seems to deem too risky for my use.

Though I may be in the younger brother role, I am still doing my share of fulfilling activities. My dad and I co-teach a Religious Education class at our church. I really enjoy it; it gives me a chance to teach (I would love to work in a school, but it doesn’t seem to be in the cards), and my church really needs me, as there’s a shortage of teachers.

I finally learned how to make a birdhouse. Back in seventh grade everyone was required to take a shop class. Because of my lack of coordination, I had to get permission to be exempt from the class for my own safety. When Dave’s turn came to take the class (he took it during his eighth grade year), he built a birdhouse in class. Many years later in my dad’s new shed, I finally created my own birdhouse from scratch. I even cut the pieces from a board, using a circular saw under Dad’s close watch. He only helped with a difficult cut required to make the roof. Everything else I did. We went to Lowe’s, where I picked out and purchased a green paint to use to paint the house. On May 1st we held a retreat for our Religious Education Class for First Communion, and First Confession. At Father Dominic’s suggestion, I gave a short presentation about my birdhouse at the retreat. It focused on being good stewards to God’s creation, but additionally talked about the accomplishment of building the bird house.

Overall, at this point, I think Dave is functioning as the older brother, though he is younger. That does not mean I haven’t accomplished anything, as I mentioned two accomplishments above. What it does show is an effect that autism can have in a family when only one child has it.

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