Teenager

In the land of Portland...

During one day in Portland, we had the pleasure of interviewing three different women about their experiences with a brother with autism. Let's introduce you to our cast of characters: Zicra -- has a 43 year old brother, low functioning autism, nonverbal

Liana - has a twin brother (they're both 11) with high functioning autism

Elisabeth - has an older brother in his 30s with mild to moderate autism

Essentially, we had the opportunity to interview 3 women, at different stages in their lives, as they navigated the experience of having a sibling on the spectrum.

Our morning started with Zicra who brought us to one of her favorite tea shops in Portland. Her interview was full of energy and warmth and she couldn't help but smile every time she spoke of her brother Joseph Jonah, or Jojo for short. Listen here for her description of Jojo, their relationship, and her parents' openness with her about Jojo's situation.

 

Zicra has many fond memories of her childhood with Jojo but she told us one great story in particular.

What became clear early on in her interview, was just how tight knit Zicra's family was. She eventually brought this up herself, noting the ease with which her family used an us against the world mentality.

Because they were always so close growing up, Jojo struggled to come to terms with the new people in Zicra's circle including her husband and her children.

However, despite the recent adjustments, Zicra felt so positively towards her brother and his impact on her life. Perhaps most significantly, her experiences with Jojo allowed her to embrace early that it's okay to be different, an idea that many others struggle to graspe their whole lives.

After Zicra's interview, we headed across Portland to interview Liana. Liana also told us about the strong bond that she has with her brother. Since they are twins, they spend the majority of their time together, not apart. After the interview, Ellie remarked to me that I was probably very much like Liana when I was her age. And man was that an awesome compliment! Liana was so great -- a self-described book worm, extremely eloquent in her description of her brother's challenges, protective of her brother while still maintaining a sibling-style relationship with him, the list goes on and on. What seemed to make the difference for Liana was her chance to go to summer camp every year with her twin. The camp that he attended for kids with special needs had a sibling chapter that Liana loved to be a part of. Through that, she was able to meet and bond with other sibs. During the year, she keeps up with her sib friends and often shares funny stories of her brother as well as any challenges that may arise concerning her family with them. I can't wait to see where this kind, well-spoken, and funny woman goes later in life! Keep us posted Liana!

Finally, we met with Elisabeth at a coffee shop near our host's house. Elisabeth is an occupational therapist who also had many fond feelings towards her brother. She told us that he was "all around just a really great guy" and lovingly described his lifetime interest in sports and cooking.

She attributes her closeness with her brother to the fact that they were the two "big kids" in the house (they have two younger sisters) and that they tend to both be very laid back people.

I loved watching her smile as she talked about her brother's experience in high school. Watch the clip for a rare description of a person with autism's positive experience with public school.

Like most sibs, Elisabeth finds certain aspects of having a sibling with autism to be challenging. The clip below has her very thoughtful description of the specific challenges that she feels surrounding her brother.

Elisabeth has a best friend who is a sib. Below, she told us why she finds that specific friendship to be so valuable.

The current goal for Elisabeth's brother is to get a job so that he can begin to move towards independence. However, in this economy, that task has become even more arduous.

On the same note, Elisabeth thinks that what's really necessary is a shift in how society views people with developmental disabilities.

One of the reasons we decided to group these three interviews together was the common thread of siblings having a positive relationship with their sibling with autism. In many of our other autism interviews, we have found that the sibling in general has struggled very very much to create and maintain a sibling bond with their brother or sister. As a result, we knew it was necessary to profile these women in order to diversify the narrative about what it's like to have a sibling with autism. We are so grateful that we had the opportunity to meet and speak with these three Portlandian women and we wish them all the best for their future!

 

Claire

Ciara

Ciara is a wonderful, intelligent, and aware 14 year old. She's the middle child and has two siblings with developmental and physical disabilities. Her older brother has autism and she describes him like a "big, gentle giant"  and a "teddybear." Her younger sister is 12 and has epilepsy. She is closer with her younger sister than she is with her older brother, explaining that she and her sister "just click". There's often a newfound sense of annoyance towards immediate family that comes with being a 14-year-old, but Ciara didn't exhibit any of that. Instead, she makes time every week to spend with her siblings, watching TV with her sister and a Disney movie with her brother.

As a young child, she had moments when she felt embarrassed to be around her siblings in public. Despite that and other social challenges, her friends know and appreciate her siblings. Here she explains how they have affected her socially: 

What stood out the most to me was Ciara's ability and willingness to be an advocate for her siblings. This isn't unusual to sibs, but Ciara exemplifies such passion and charisma at such a young age. She's thoughtful, well-spoken, and educated about how best to campaign for the disabilities community.

"I've always been a big advocate for special needs because a lot of people don't know about it". When she was younger, her motto was "If you stare at them, I glare at you."

Meet Natalie

What I have loved about this project is that in each interview we do, no matter how similar the story may appear on surface level, there are always remarkably interesting and unique insights that the sib is able to articulate about their story. Through our blog, we were contacted by Natalie, an 18 year old, recent high school grad living near Princeton. From her emails, Natalie seemed like a bubbly, kind girl and I was pumped to meet up with her at my favorite tea shop, infiniT.

Natalie has a brother with autism. She has definitely struggled to come to terms with her family dynamic, often preferring to be out of the house except for "showering and sleep, that's it". She told us how despite her physical distance from her brother, he was constantly on her mind as she struggled with feelings of guilt about the opportunities and experiences that she was getting to have that would likely never be a reality for her brother.

Part of this distance also involved Natalie avoiding talking about her brother as much as possible. When we asked her if her friends knew her brother growing up, she responding with the following:

In the next clip, Natalie told us about how her role as a sib has impacted her socially. She touches on the guilt aspect but also the struggle to find people that understood what she was going through. Her clip reminded me of how grateful I am to have met sibs when I was in high school -- that instant comprehension is unbeatable.

For me, the most raw part of her interview was when we asked her what role she plays in her family. Watch her answer:

When our conversation turned to the topic of her connection to any other sibs, Natalie drew a blank. She lamented that she always seems to find out that she knew a sib after the fact. We've seen this in other sibs too, despite this potentially goldmine of common ground between sibs, sibs are rarely in contact with others like them. Perhaps this arises from the stigma around mentioning that their sibling has a disability or simply an uncertainty about what could come out of this unique sort of bond.

Natalie's interview did a beautiful job of illuminating for us how the sibling relationship feels when you're still in high school and sifting through all sorts of other emotional and social changes. I wish her the absolute best in her future and hope that she found her interview experience as meaningful as we did!

Claire

Our First Rural Stop: Oneonta, NY

One of the main reasons we are going on this trip is to diversify the records of stories available about sibs. For this reason, we know that we couldn't only stop in big cities and suburbs if we were going to get the complete picture on the sibling experience. With help from a friend of mine who lives near Oneonta, we decided to stop in Oneonta, NY to see the sibling experience from a rural perspective, far from the expansive benefits that are often available in large, metropolitan areas. After the beautiful, yet slightly rainy, drive from Boston to Oneonta, we had the great opportunity of visiting Springbrook. Springbrook is a school in New York that offers several residential programs for students in New York whose school districts are unable to accommodate them as well as day programs. They also offer group homes and other therapy and occupational readiness programs for people over the age of 21. 

We were welcomed at the school by Traci Lanner, the director of the Tom Golisano Center for Autism, and  Madeline Sansevere, the director of Community Services. School wasn't in session when we visited - students were on one of their few short brakes - but the facility was beautiful. They have classrooms of about 6 students each, with one teacher and three assistants. They implement different therapies in the classroom and also offer a variety of pull-out therapies for students who may require extra time or services.

We spoke with Madeline and Traci about our project and about the various programs offered in New York for children with special needs. They explained that New York has excellent services for individuals until they turn 21. School districts unable to accommodate the needs of students will pay for them to attend Springbrook. However, once students age out, the school has very little say in where the individuals may be placed and New York's adult services varies tremendously in quality. The staff and teachers care deeply about the individuals at Springbrook. Springbrook offers to pay for teachers to get their Masters degree in Special Education and they work with SUNY Morrisville to offer classes at Springbrook to make it easier for teachers. They also offer an online program through Endicott University (in Massachusetts).

Check 'em out: www.springbrookny.org

Next, we headed over to the Family Resource Network in Oneonta where we conducted another group interview with three woman, one of whom was only 13. Here are the basic facts about these women.

Meghann is the Executive Director of the Family Resource Network and has a 24-year-old brother with Trisome 8 (a genetic disability) and autism.

Heidi works with her sister who is developmentally disabled at the Main View Gallery in Oneonta which helps provide artistic jobs for individuals in the community that are developmentally impaired.

Manu is a 13 year old sib to one brother who has ADHD and bipolar disorder and another brother who has cerebral palsy, cortical dysplasia, epilepsy, and is non-verbal.

We had a fantastic interview with all of them in one room so we will basically let the clips speak for themselves.

As we have seen time and time again, sibs seem to have these incredible "old souls" that cradle maturity and insightfulness beyond compare. Below, Manu illustrates some of the turmoil that went along with her relationship with her brother.

One of our favorite questions to ask sibs is what their roles in their families were growing up and what they are now. It was interesting to see the range of answers we received from our three interviewees. From Heidi's job of "getting her to giggle" to Manu's role as advocate and future caretaker, we learned a lot from their stories.

Another question we always get a range of answers to regards how having a sibling with special needs affects sibs socially. Below are some their responses.

 Manu shared light on a phenomenon we hadn't truly fleshed out. Many of the sibs that we interview speak about striving for academic excellence in order to "make up for" their sibling's lack of abilities to do. Manu shared some of the issues that affect her personal academics because of the house that she lives in.

One of the main reasons we stopped in Oneonta was because we wanted to see a rural perspective on the disabilities community. We gained a lot of interesting information on what it is like to care for someone with special needs in a small, economically-depressed area. They talked about how difficult it is for people with special needs to gain access to jobs and healthcare. "The threat of being cut-off is always there," Heidi told us.

We are so ecstatic that we got to meet with all three of these amazing women in Oneonta and certainly learned a lot from them.

 

 

Ellie and Renee

Meet Matthew

During our stay in Boston, we spoke with a young man who had just finished his last days of fourth grade. Matthew, whose 6-year-old brother has epilepsy, told us all about his life as an older sibling to his brother. He spoke with perspective, choosing his words wisely and carefully to depict his memories and emotions accurately. Like many of the other younger interviewees that we have met with, Matthew was yet another “old soul,” who appeared much more mature than many of the men that I have met in college. In the clip below, he describes his relationship with his younger brother who is minimally verbal and suffers from many seizures a week.

Matthew also illustrated for us how having a brother like his affects the entire family and its evolving dynamic. We haven’t spoken with too many children who have been able to so easily put into words the way their sibling changes the “typical” family experience. Below, he describes how strenuous an average day can be.

Like many other sibs along the road, he delves himself into his schoolwork. “I dread the last day [of school]” he told us with a sincere smile. He also shared that one of the reasons he loves school so much is because he likes “getting away from the hecticisty that is [his] house.” Keep in mind, Matthew has not even started middle school yet.

In this last clip, Matthew speaks about how his younger brother has truly affected his life.

Thanks for talking with us, Matthew!

Ellie