By Lynn Adams
My children have shut me out of their closed relationship, and that’s a wonderful thing.
It began during a friend’s visit, in the playroom with my newborn daughter and two-year-old son. The friend had brought a blanket for Margot and a red pinwheel for James. James wasn’t able to blow yet, and I was concerned about it, and later I’d see it as an early sign of his Autism Spectrum Disorder. So he couldn’t work the pinwheel, even after we showed him. Dread was a familiar feeling by then.
My friend and I talked about my baby. Her delicate size, her tendency to sleep angelically all day and cry all evening, her mop of hair the same color as James’. I looked over at James just in time to see him inspecting the sharp end of the pinwheel’s stick. His gaze next moved to his baby sister’s fuzzy head, then back to the pinwheel. He reached out with the pinwheel and poked her lightly. Their eyes locked, but what passed between them surprised me: a combination of thrill and interest as if they’d each just opened a surprise birthday gift and found the other inside.
This is it, I thought: the beginning of the older brother menacing the younger sister. I’d known it was coming, as that’s what I’d experienced with my own brother, four years older. My brother, now a perfectly respectable father of two, had dipped my face into a creek like a chicken nugget into mustard sauce. He’d given me “noogies” well into his thirties. He’d lure me into his room, turn off the light and close the door, and murmur, “When you least expected it… expect it.”
That evening, when I announced bath time, James shouted, “You can’t hear! Baby cry!” He reversed his pronouns, “I” for “you” and “you” for “I,” another early sign of autism that stoked my dread. But he was also using his new sister as a smokescreen. Could they be working as a team? Could James even do that if he had autism?
There are as many ways of having autism as there are people who have it, and James did eventually receive the diagnosis. Since before Margot’s birth, he had been attending developmental therapies to address his delays, and appointments with specialists to rule out other problems. His main challenges during those early years were language development and big-time tantrums. We also had to work to connect with him socially, to bring him out of his own head and into the world around him. Through the appointments and the tantrums, though, Margot tagged along.
At one, Margot started each day by standing up in her crib and yelling, “Jay! Jay Jay!”
He’d hop in with her and they’d roughhouse for awhile.
One morning I heard James saying, “That’s right, Margot. Just pick up a leg and put it right there. Now pull with your arms. I’ll catch you, don’t be scared.” He was mimicking Ms. Sharon, his occupational therapist, almost word for word.
Bump! Margot hit the floor and they both exploded in giggles. From then on, Margot was out of her crib like a super ball every morning before 6:00, bouncing into James’ room.
The next year, James took Margot’s hand, led her into the bathroom, and closed the door. “Just a minute, Mommy,” he said over his shoulder. “I’m going to teach Margot how to use the potty.”
She was his little doll. Everything that was done to him, the instruction, the encouragement, he did to her.
Soon the shenanigans began. One would distract me with a lost toy or a spill, and the other would get into the forbidden fruit, whatever it was that day: my makeup, the toilet bowl, the cookie jar, the trashcan.
“I can’t bear it,” I said to my mother. “They’re the dynamic duo, working together to spread mayhem. How did you handle it when we were little?”
She paused, then said, “It was different with you two. Mostly your brother just menaced you and you tattled on him. Other than that, you didn’t interact all that much.”
Interaction. One of the main areas of impairment in autism, that’s what James and Margot did all day long. Starting with the curiosity of the pinwheel poke, moving through the brother-to-sister lessons on climbing out of the crib and using the potty, culminating now in the give-and-take of the hi-jinks, James and Margot already had a closer relationship than I’d had with my own brother. And neither of us had had autism. What was next? Empathy, that holy grail of social skills development?
Close relationships are not always harmonious ones. James and Margot do their share of fighting, physically and otherwise. They’ve left longlasting marks on one another’s bodies that other people have noticed. But no scars. I continue to complain to my mother about the fisticuffs, the potty words at the table, the madcap dashing around the house.
I’d worried that Margot would have to take care of James, that she’d visit him in the group home, her kitten heels clack-clacking on the linoleum. And that was because of James’ autism. Even before he was diagnosed, though, I worried I’d have to protect her from the menace of her older brother. Like many a worry, these were misplaced.
One day last year after school, Margot got out of the car, sat down cross-legged on the sidewalk, and refused to move. We’d parked a few houses down from ours, so James and I set off down the block, figuring she’d get up and follow. Instead, she began to scream, “Mommy! Don’t leave me here! Don’t leave me all alone! Mommy!”
The girl just needed to get up and walk into our house. But she wasn’t going to go quietly. This had all started when I told Margot she couldn’t have a stick of gum. Of course, that wasn’t the whole story. It had been a long day. But she wasn’t the one with autism. Why couldn’t she just do as she was told?
How did I handle it? I didn’t. Because before I could get over my internal argument about comforting my distressed child versus giving in to a brat, James came to Margot’s rescue. He walked back down the block, hoisted her up, and carried her home, her little legs flapping against his shins. She rested her cheek on his shoulder and closed her eyes. He put her down on the front steps and kissed her.
“Thanks, James,” I said.
He kissed her again, not even seeming to hear me.
Lynn Adams lives in New Orleans with her husband and two children. Her work has appeared in Brain, Child, Salon, among other publications. She is a co-author of Autism: Understanding the Disorder and Understanding Asperger Syndrome and High Functioning Autism. Read more from Lynn on her website.