When Siblings have Special Needs
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By the time our sweet, smiley baby boy was a year old, I knew he was different. Having autism in our family, I recognized the red flags in his behavior. He was screened for developmental delays by 18 months and immediately began speech, physical, and occupational therapies. Suddenly, little league became the least of our concerns.
I knew it would one day be a lot for my daughter to take in as well. I worried about how to explain autism to her. How do I teach her kindness, patience, and acceptance? How do I prepare her for the inevitable day her friends react to Callum's differences? How do I teach her to handle a bully? And how, depending upon his future level of independent functioning, do I (or can I?) ask her to watch over him one day when I cannot? Sometimes you can get so caught up worrying about the future that you cannot see the today that is right here in front of you.
A few weeks ago, I realized that my little girl is indeed already being shaped by her experiences with a sibling who is different. While selling my husband's car, we met a couple with a little girl who has a rare genetic condition that causes severe developmental delays and growth issues. At five-years-old, this child can't walk or talk, has poor gross motor control, and has a protruding tongue. Anyone who's ever had young children knows these are the kind of things that might frighten or upset a typical child unfamiliar with such issues. I wasn't sure how Bronwyn would respond to her or what her understanding would be. So I sat back and watched her, ready to intervene if necessary.
I watched her look at the little girl carefully. She asked her if she wanted to play. And, when the girl didn't answer, Bronwyn then asked the mother why she couldn't talk. The mother wasn't fazed by this at all. She actually seemed to appreciate Bronwyn's interest in her daughter. And after the mother explained to her what her child could and could not do, Bronwyn asked if her daughter liked dolls. When the mother said yes, my girl raced off to get an assortment of her dolls and brought them back to the other child. She sat down right next to her, leaned in close, smiled, and said hello. And then she proceeded to delight this little girl with dolly antics.
Her kindness toward this child awed me. I would have expected discomfort and reticence in a child her age. But my daughter, just a kindergartener, has already learned a valuable lesson that some won't ever learn even in a full lifetime. The body is just a shell containing a person with wants and needs like every other. As human beings, our job is then to show an interest in all people and — if necessary — help them to access the same things in life that we all enjoy. That's a knowledge that will take her far. It's an understanding that makes me so very proud to be her mother.
So no, my children don't have the sibling relationship I had once envisioned. But as they learn and grow, I am beginning to see the beauty of the sibling experience they do have. With each interaction they share, I am learning to appreciate right now more than worrying about what will be. My kids love each other. They aggravate each other. They learn from each other. Their sibling relationship is certainly different than what I expected, but it is not less.
No one aspires to become a special-needs parent. No one wants their children to struggle in life anymore than is their due. Yet, these children continue in countless ways to bestow unexpected blessings. No, despite the good intentions of those claiming we are "special people" to whom God has given these children, we know we aren't unique. It's our childrenwho change us for the better — along with every person whose lives they touch. Our children help to calibrate our moral compass by reminding us what it really means to be human.
I thought that I had to teach my daughter about her special-needs brother. As it turns out, he has been teaching her all along.