By Sydney Sullivan
When Sydney was 5 years old, her 2-year-old brother, Nick, was diagnosed with autism. As she prepares to enter her senior year of high school, she shares her unique perspective on what it has been like growing up with a sibling who is on the autism spectrum.
How old were you when you realized your brother wasn’t like other kids?
It became evident from a very young age that my brother wasn’t like other kids, especially when I started school. My parents told me he had autism shortly after they found out, but I don’t think I quite understood what that meant until I began to notice that my brother acted differently than some of my friend’s siblings. I never thought less of him though. I quickly realized that everyone has things that make them different and therefore no one has room to judge a single individual for their differences.
Is there anything you feel your parents have done to help you accept/embrace having a brother with autism?
From the moment Nick was diagnosed with autism, my parents have fought so hard for him to get the same opportunities as other kids his age, especially in school. We are his number one support system and I take great
pride in that. He deserves the best and if that means that the rest of us must fight to get it, then we will without a second thought. Our strong family dynamic is what makes it so easy to embrace Nick for who he is because we are all in this together and that’s very important and reassuring.
What are some challenges growing up with a sibling who has autism?
The hardest part of growing up with a sibling with autism is the communication barrier. My brother can have a difficult time articulating what he wants or how he is feeling, and that can be very frustrating. Nick is very set in his ways and likes routine, so mixing things up can be a struggle for him as well, even when it doesn’t seem like a big deal to the rest of us.
What are some things that you do to foster your relationship with your brother?
Nick and I are very close. I am not afraid to take him out of his comfort zone when possible. I try to take him on outings just the two of us when I can because I think it’s really important to bond with him in this way, even if it’s just a simple trip to Target or McDonald’s (his favorite). At home, I’ll help him with his homework or watch his movie with him. He means a lot to me and I want that to be evident to him. And often times, based on the huge smile on his face, I can tell that times we share together mean a lot to him, too.
What is the best part of having a sibling with autism?
The best part of having a sibling with autism is the opportunities that he’s received that I’ve gotten to be a part of. Nick has been able to fly an airplane, go to Disneyland countless times with a special Fast Pass, surf and much more. I think it’s amazing that he got the chance to do these things, and even more so that I got to be right by his side while he did them. I also cherish the close relationship I have with Nick. Other kids his age might want nothing to do with their older sister, but Nick has never pushed me away and I think that’s really special.
Is there anything that you wish more people understood about your brother?
I wish more people took the time to truly understand my brother. He is a talented, intelligent 15-year-old, and yet some people, even ones my family is close with, treat him as if he is younger than he actually is. I find it kind of demeaning because people that really know Nick are the ones that can see past some behaviors others characterize as “childish.”
What advice would you give to other kids growing up with a sibling who has autism?
The best advice I can give is to try and avoid getting discouraged when things get frustrating. It will get better, I promise. You have to understand that it’s just as frustrating for your sibling to convey what they want as it is for you to understand them. Also, don’t be embarrassed of your sibling. Any meltdowns that happen in public are temporary. Not everyone understands autism like you do, so explain it to them to help them understand. Stand up for your sibling and support them no matter what. Most importantly, be a good role model because your sibling truly looks up to you, no matter if you’re younger or older than them.
How has growing up with a sibling with autism changed how you view others with differences?
Growing up with a sibling with autism has made me learn the value of acceptance. People deserve to feel like they belong in this world. With acceptance comes inclusion, which should be a right not a privilege that must be earned. I value acceptance because I have seen first-hand the effects of people that had little faith in my brother because they were unaccepting. It’s isolating and frankly, unfair. Acceptance is not only meaningful, but also powerful. I believe that acceptance can lead to a less exclusive society. Everyone deserves a chance, no matter what makes him or her different.
Sydney Sullivan is an 18-year-old, senior at Mountain View High School in Vancouver. She lives with her parents, Kari and Tim, and her 15-year-old brother, Nick.