In the days before my sister was born, my mom would occasionally use a Mickey Mouse toy to introduce me to the idea of having a sibling around the house. Then, she’d proceed to put the toy away. Hence, when my sister was born — 11 months after I was — I would gently play with her and then try to put her back, just as had been done with Mickey. To be sure, I am positive there are times she wishes she could exchange me for a different brother.
Like any other pair of siblings, we had our series of differences and fought in ways that would aggravate our parents. We’re completely different in many ways. She went to college in Los Angeles not too far from where we grew up; I high-tailed it across the country to go to college in North Carolina, a state I’d never visited. She is an avid churchgoer who can rattle Scripture off the top of her head whereas I’m a self-described “bad Christian” who swears enough to make Roy Kent blush. And she’s neurotypical and I’m autistic.
Despite all these differences, Stephanie and I know we are each other’s biggest supporters. She knows she can ask for anything from me and she constantly stood up for me to school bullies and even to our parents.
Autistic people are often thought of as being unempathetic or even incapable of love. The story of the offbeat autistic person coupled with their more stable neurotypical sibling who feels ignored is as old and enraging as the movie Rain Man and persists in television shows like the Netflix series Atypical. But Stephanie’s and my experience show that is clearly not the case. While I may often have trouble reading social cues or not always express the way I feel about her in a way that a more neurotypical person might, she knows I love her. And contrary to the idea that autistic people lack empathy, there is nobody who it would pain me to hurt more than my little sister. In the same way, Steph may know I express myself differently but has learned to accept my love as it is. She does not consider it any more legitimate than the love she might receive from other loved ones; rather, it’s a different type.
As Stephanie knows, when I do hurt her, I feel overwhelmed with guilt and immediately want to make things right with her. Similarly, when our parents divorced, we knew we could trust each other with secrets that we didn’t want our mom, dad or stepdad to know. That’s still the case.
All of this is why, when I saw a video of Sam Waldron, an autistic young man from Iowa, giving a best man speech for his brother Jonah and his new sister-in-law Maddy, I couldn’t help but think of Stephanie’s wedding, where I had the honor of walking her down the aisle. Ever the independent and assertive woman, she insisted I wouldn’t be giving her away, but rather accompanying her as an equal (I wouldn’t have it any other way).
I smiled while watching Sam say his brother loves him as he is, for the only thing greater than loving someone is to have your love received freely. Our emotions, our way of being are no less valuable currencies and the caché they have is nearly universal.
When Stephanie’s then-boyfriend Benny called me asking for my permission to marry her, I was grateful but also a tad nervous. As an autistic person, I am averse to change, and I worried our dynamic would change. I feared that I would no longer be the main man she could lean on when she needed something and that my role as the person who protected her, advocated for her, gave her advice but could also be unfailingly blunt with her would fade.
Since her six years of marriage to Benny, Stephanie’s and my relationship has changed, as all relationships do. But that closeness and mutual admiration hasn’t faded. I am still regularly in awe of how she works both in her main job as a teacher, builds on her career by going back to school for extra qualifications, and helps Benny with his business as well.
We still make time for each other, talk to each other, text each other and send things that make each other laugh. When we drove down to Florida for a trip recently, we both realized we liked true crime podcasts — and ended up listening to one for the whole drive back without saying a single word to each other because we were enjoying it so much. When we got back to her house, we ordered pizza and played video games until we were tired.
So much discussion and research these days about autism in both the United States and the United Kingdom focuses on genetic and environmental factors that affect autistic people or training parents so that their children don’t meet the diagnostic criteria for autism diagnoses. But perhaps instead of fearing autism, more people should be made aware of the ways in which we care deeply for our relatives. The way we say “I love you,” even if we can’t speak, is just as worthy and just as treasured as any other person’s way of being.
These days, Steph and her husband live happily in the suburbs of Richmond, Virginia, which means she’s only an Amtrak ride away from me. One of the worst things about the pandemic is that I haven’t been able to make the trek down there to spend Christmas with her in-laws. But I can’t wait for the next time I get to see her for Christmas and hug her. Only this time, I never want to give her back to Mom.