A Big Brother in Autism Land

When I glance up at the clock from my computer, I see that it’s 5:30 p.m. Where does the time go? As many times as I’ve vowed to cook dinner earlier in the day so I’m not panicked to make Lil D’s 6:30-7:00 p.m. dinner deadline, inevitably it comes down to the last hour.

I click my laptop shut and move two feet into the kitchen and get to work. Lil D is out with his therapist on one of his CBI outings (community-based instructions), and I’m pretty sure Amal is in the dining room finishing her homework. But where’s Hamza? Normally I can hear him vroom-vrooming his cars in the family room.

Then screams and laughter come up echoing up the basement stairs. Grunts and growls followed by high pitched screams hinging on fear. But just as I get ready to run down and see what’s happening, the screams turn to laughter. K Bhai! You’re scaring us! Do it again! Be a turtle! Be a bear! Be a lion!

They come thundering up the stairs – Amal, Hamza and my 17-year-old nephew, who arrived from Saudi Arabia three weeks back to complete his senior year of high school and apply for college. He’s staying with us, and all of a sudden I’m a taking care of four kids in four different schools during the first few weeks of back-to-school. (My sister-in-law has arrived now too with the rest of her kids to settle down near us.)

As they burst into the kitchen, K Bhai grabs Hamza and hoists him over his shoulder. He’s a big kid, my nephew, and Hamza loves this time with his cousin. Playing X-box, going outside and kicking the soccer ball around, rough housing – Hamza is eating up this experience with his new big brother. Amal is enjoying it as well. At all times of the day I hear her asking him, K Bhai, do you know … , or K Bhai, why does …

In the evening at the dinner table, we all sit together and catch up on the day, talk about school and all sorts of subjects from the ridiculous to the childish to the thought-provoking to the sublime.

It’s nice. Really, really nice.

And as much as I’m happy to have my sister-in-law and nieces now here as well, I’ve enjoyed this time of having a fourth child, an eldest son to lean on, to banter with, to get frustrated with and to fuss over in a completely different way than I do so with Lil D.

It’s the epitome of bittersweet, much more so than when I hear of the accomplishments and triumphs of my friend’s children or my nieces who are close in age to Lil D.

We got over our period of mourning Lil D’s future years ago. You know, that period of time after receiving an Autism Spectrum Disorder diagnosis when many parents mourn the future they imagined for their child. Soon enough, you get cracking on how to help your child. You create new ideas of futures in your head, ideas that are shaped and reshaped as your child makes progress, learns to live with or manage his ASD, overcomes aspects of it, or continues to spin his or her wheels despite everyone’s best efforts.

The black mourning garments and hair shirts came off (and back on at times, but then more or less permanently off) a long time ago. He is loved as he is, for who he is.

And a long time ago Amal became the defacto eldest child in our home, though she is three years junior to Lil D. But we still maintain the hierarchy here. The kids call their brother Bhai, the Urdu word for brother, because in our culture you don’t call anyone elder to you just by their name. And they are reminded that he is the eldest child of our house and deserves the respect that comes with it.

And although we are human and sometimes find ourselves thinking about “how it would be … ” (me probably slightly more than my husband), for the most part we live our lives as such – a mom, dad, three kids, of whom the middle child plays the role of eldest child though we remind her that she is the understudy to her big brother. (Trust me, she’s in on the charade. She knows we appreciate her.)

So when my nephew came to stay by himself with us these past few weeks, the bittersweet-ness lingered on my palate. So this is what it’s like.

A big brother watching to make sure Hamza doesn’t go too close to the water when we feed the geese. A big brother who spots Hamza as he climbs up a rock wall. A big brother who tells Amal, your Mamma called you three times to help set the table. You need to listen. A big brother who leads them in mischief and mayhem.

But if a big brother is all that, then a big brother is also one who teaches his younger siblings by example.

Like how Lil D is teaching his siblings about care and compassion for others, about work ethic, about loving with abandon, about struggling and working against all odds, about appreciation for the things that matter most in life.

About whom your true friends are.

About how God is found in the soul beyond the ability to complete rituals of faith or adhere to rules of living.

About inclusion.

About the lengths family will go to, to help each other out.

About how much we rely on each other and need each other to be happy, safe, loved and respected.

And when I watch them during a bad moment, when Lil D is upset and on the road to a meltdown, and Amal takes Hamza to another room to play. Mamma, Bhai’s sad, Hamza says to me. I know Jaanu, I reply. He needs time to work things out. Give him some space.

And when I watch them together in a good moment, as we walk around the lake in the evening — Hamza running ahead, Amal with her arm entwined with Lil D’s as he giggles uncontrollably – the kids remark: Bhai’s happy! And they laugh, too.

What more can a mother asks of her eldest son, who is teaching his siblings the most important big brother lessons of all?

About Dilshad Ali

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