I was probably four years old when I asked my mom why my sister Syble was different. I noticed she looked different, with her almond-shaped eyes and low muscle tone. I noticed she talked differently, calling me “S-s-s-sandra” or just “Andra.” I noticed there were things I could do that she couldn’t do, even though she was older. So Mom and I talked about it. We talked about Down syndrome and what that meant, not only for my sister but for our family. That conversation was the first of many. Over the years we talked about why God would give my sister Downs. We talked about why God would give me a sister with Downs. We talked about why kids on the playground thought making fun of people who are different was funny. We talked about how one day, she might come live with me and my family.
Now my son David is the one asking questions about his brother James, who is different. Why doesn’t he play with me? Why doesn’t he look at me? Why won’t he talk to me? Why does he have to have autism?
The answers aren’t any easier than they were thirty years ago when my mom was answering them for me. But, I can answer them from a perspective my mom didn’t have. I can look back over my life and see all the ways I was blessed because of my sister. I can see the lessons I wouldn’t have learned without her. I know I would be a different person today with out her unconditional love.
So how do I encourage that same, strong relationship in my boys?
First, I pray. I beg God to help them love each other well. I pray they will dwell in unity. I pray they will accept each other as God created them to be.
Second, I never shame David for talking about how he feels. If he says, “I hate autism!” I tell him I understand and I’m sorry. We pray and ask God to help us show the Fruit of the Spirit in the situation we’re in. But I want to be a safe person for David to talk to, no matter how he feels.Third, we spend one-on-one time with David, doing what he likes to do. In many ways, he’s like an only child. He doesn’t have a brother to build Legos with or fight over the Wii remote. So my husband and I build Legos. We play Wii games. We enjoy spending time with him and we make sure he knows it.
Fourth, we encourage him to find his own niche. I grew up in a small town in Oklahoma, and I was best known as Syble’s sister, because everyone knew Syble. I loved being Syble’s sister, but I also wanted people to know my name wasn’t “Syble’s sister.” David is interested in theater. When he goes to theater classes, no one know he’s James’s brother. They only know David. He loves it.
From my perspective as a special-needs sibling, I can tell you your kids or grandkids will be ok. They will grow to love and care for each other. Their relationship will be unique, but it will be their own. You can foster that relationship as it grows and deepens.
How do you encourage a special relationship between the special-needs siblings in your family?
Sandra Peoples is a pastor’s wife and mom to two boys. She’s the author of Held: Learning to Live in God’s Grip (a Bible study for special-needs parents) and the upcoming new release, Unexpected Blessings: The Joys and Possibilities of Life in a Special-Needs Family.