Friday, 13 July 2012
Alex: A Sibling's Story
So, for a long while, my mum (a weekly blogger about my sister Chrissy) has wanted me to write a post about what it’s like to be a sibling of someone with autism (and a rare chromosome disorder, learning disabilities, epilepsy and challenging behaviour). As the Special Saturday theme this week is ‘siblings’, she managed to bribe me into writing about my sister Chrissy in exchange for doing my washing (thanks mum!). I can’t quite put my finger on why... but I’ve been very reluctant to write this blog. I guess thinking about my childhood, and even adulthood, with Chrissy would mean me delving into my deepest, and sometimes darkest, emotions and memories. We’ve had (and still have) some extremely difficult times, but we can’t change the past. And we certainly can’t change Chrissy!
I spoke to a researcher/journalist recently who wanted to explore what it’s like to grow up with a sibling with special needs. However, the woman had no interest in all the positive things I was excited to talk about. She was probing to explore the difficulties I experienced as a young child, which got me very frustrated. Yes, I shamefully admit there have been times when Chrissy is having screaming and violent tantrums when I have thought quite honestly and bluntly “I hate you” and even “life would be far less stressful without you...” (but it would probably also be very boring!). I find it painful to remember incidents that prompted those feelings, but what makes me feel the most guilt is that Chrissy can't help the destruction she causes… She was just born that way. I understand now that I am older that this anger in such crisis situations is natural, even between ‘normal’ (I dislike that word) siblings. I hope so anyway! So what I’m trying to say is that I really don’t like to dwell on how having a sister with autism has affected me negatively. This is the life we have, and it is very unhealthy to live one’s life thinking “what if...” If we did this, we wouldn’t be able to appreciate the best of Chrissy.
I find it much more productive and rewarding to focus on the many good things that have come out of having Chrissy as my sister. Her unique way at looking at the world is fascinating, endearing and she can be so hilarious. I have many a funny story to tell of experiences with Chrissy! Most importantly, she is to thank for my most deeply-held values. She has made me grateful of the advantages I have in life, rather than complain “why me?” She has made me learn to appreciate life, make the most of everything I do, and to never waste an opportunity, because I am lucky to have these opportunities available to me. Even just the small things, like going out with my friends... Last week Chrissy was waving at me through the window from inside the house as I left to go on a night out. I got a lump in my throat thinking “poor Chrissy”, practically a prisoner in her own home. I’ve grown up seeing that people with learning disabilities should have equal value to us all, but unfortunately often do not. I will never forget the disappointment and upset (and embarrassment and shame) I sometimes felt as a child as a result of peoples' ignorant and judgmental comments when we have been in the community with Chrissy. These feelings turned to anger when I was a teenager and, luckily, acceptance now I am an adult. But it shouldn't be this way. Why should she be locked away and not allowed to participate in society just because she is ‘different’ and may not fit with 'societal norms'?! My experiences of growing up with a special needs sibling have taught me tolerance and to never judge other people and families, especially parents, as you can never truly understand what someone else has been (or is going) through.
What is most significant for me personally is that due to Chrissy's vulnerabilities, I feel so incredibly passionate about helping others and improving the lives of those who may be less fortunate than myself. I have developed this deep empathy for others with difficulties that has led me to my current career as an Assistant Educational Psychologist for the National Autistic Society. Having a sister with autism has inspired me to do; my degree in Psychology, a range of voluntary work, work as an Applied Behaviour Analysis Tutor and Special Needs Teacher for young people with autism, my current role and I am hoping to get a place on the doctorate course in Educational Psychology this year. I feel lucky to work in a profession I am so emotionally invested in.
Finally, I recently found a letter from one of my closest friends and old next door neighbour, written to me when I was moving away, which ended with "good luck getting your future job as a child psychologist." (Which she definitely didn't spell correctly!) I was in year 9 (14 years old) at the time. Even from a very young age, I was aware of all the professionals that worked with my complicated sister (and brother – but that’s a completely different story!), but I felt so powerless to help. I vowed to myself that when I was older, I would have a job helping children like my siblings, and I would care more than anyone could. I felt tearful reading the letter, as it suddenly hit me that I am doing what I always set out to do. And this is all because of Chrissy.
I think the true reason I’ve put off this blog is because I cannot find the words to describe how much my life has been enriched and fulfilled by having Chrissy in it, and I’m afraid that nothing I write will do her justice.
Chrissy aged 9 and Alex, 5
My wedding in 2003
I am also a SWAN UK (Syndromes without a Name) blogger
& this this is part of our #definenormal blogging challenge at http://www.justbringthechocolate.com/define-normal/