What I Learned From My Autistic Big Brother

This week we welcome Sarah Harper, younger sister of Daniel Harper, an “alum” of Kid’s Creek who has Asperger’s Syndrome, a form of autism. Two years ago on the blog, when Daniel was a college student, we invited him to share thoughts about his childhood growing up with autism, and his parents, in a separate post, also shared their thoughts about parenting Daniel. Sarah is graduating from high school this month and we invited her to share her perspective as the younger sibling of an autistic brother.

Pictured L to R: Sarah, Will, and Daniel Harper

I have two older brothers, one who’s autistic and one who’s neurotypical. While being a younger sister to each has come with its own set of challenges, growing up with my autistic brother, Dan has come with a lot of experiences and lessons that I’m still learning even today.

Autism doesn’t look the same for everyone, and something that bothers me is that it can be invisible. Although you can’t see it, Dan is different. He thinks differently, struggles with different things, acts differently, and has more obscure hobbies. Often times when new friends come over, I feel the need to prepare them to meet Dan, briefing them by saying something like, “My brother is autistic. He’s a little different, but he can’t help it.”

A lot of my friends don’t know what to make of it when I describe Dan as autistic. I try to put it in perspective by comparing him to characters such as Sheldon Cooper from “The Big Bang Theory”, Dwight Schrute from “The Office”, or Brick Heck from “The Middle”. When you think of someone with autism, you may picture someone who’s nonverbal or severely impaired; however, because autism is such a broad diagnosis, people like Dan can get overlooked. He is very quirky and lacks some understanding of social cues; however, he is an extremely intelligent, independent, creative, physically fit guy with an outgoing personality.

Anyone with a brother or sister will tell you it isn’t always easy learning to manage disagreements with them, navigate siblinghood, and love them all at the same time. There’s sibling rivalry, misunderstandings, and sometimes egotism involved that can be a challenge on both ends. I look back now and think about all they have accomplished, earning scholarships and achieving things I could only dream of; however, in all that, I remember some of the challenges we’ve faced as siblings.

Dan is tough. He’s stubborn (so am I), and it can be difficult to reason with him. Autism plays a big role in my brother’s thinking, making it very hard for him to see the “gray areas” of life. As we’ve become young adults (myself 18 years old and him 23) our sibling rivalries have developed into more well thought out, serious discussions (and at times arguments). Learning to navigate those situations with him has been integral in this new stage of both of our lives. Dan’s “black and white” mentality makes it hard for me to reason with him and understand him at times, and while I have a huge appreciation for him, that doesn’t come without the normal frustrations of being his sister.

As a kid, I remember my brother, Will picking on me all the time. We’d get in spats over almost anything, and being the youngest of the family, it felt like I was always getting picked on by my big brother. Dan, on the other hand, was more happy-go-lucky and in his own little world. My mom used to say he had a movie playing in his head all the time because he’d act it out and make character voices to himself.

I remember sitting at the dinner table with my family, my parents trying to facilitate dinner conversation about our day at school, but Dan would sit there whispering to himself and making sound effects. We used to say to him, “Dan, put Little Buddy away”, which was my mom’s nice way of telling him to stop talking to himself.

As we’ve gotten older, my family has made a conscious effort to teach Dan social cues and help him understand what they mean. My mom will nudge him discreetly and signal him to ‘wrap it up’ if he begins to dominate a conversation. Sometimes, he’ll come to me wanting to tell me every detail about characters in a TV show or book I’ve never heard of. He’ll explain the plot and every nuance of the story, but he doesn’t realize I’m not interested. As his sister, it’s hard because I want to help him and show him that sometimes it’s not the right time to talk about that stuff because I’m not interested.

My parents have always encouraged Will and I to treat Dan like a normal person would.

They tell us not to baby him or cater to him just because he’s our brother. I know that in the real world, people won’t always stand there politely for 10, 15, even 20 minutes and listen to Dan go on and on if they’re not interested in the topic. We have talked openly to him about what people will start to do if you’re talking about something they’re not interested in. Then we talk about what to do if that happens. As a family, we all have taken a role in guiding him and teaching him some of those more nuanced social cues. Sometimes he still bugs me or even embarrasses me when he doesn’t understand social norms, but that’s something he continues to improve on every day. He even says that he gets to monologue with us because we’re his family, and he knows not to do it with strangers.

Aside from his social quirks, Dan is very gifted; not only did he receive a full scholarship to college, live independently all four years, study abroad alone in Spain, become fluent in Spanish, and graduate with a degree in Religious Studies, but he did it all despite the challenges he’s faced. I know he is beyond capable, and I hope he finds a path that will take him far rather than leave him scatterbrained.

Each day I continue to learn more about Dan and myself, and I hope to grow in my patience with him. While he has a lot of tendencies and ideas that I find frustrating, I have to remember we’re both human and it’s not always easy to work through our differences.

My relationship with Dan has been very challenging; however, I’ve learned so much from him, and I’m eager to watch his life transform as we both continue to grow.

About Sarah Harper

Sarah is a senior at Lambert High School and has worked an internship rotation for Kid’s Creek Therapy for the past two years. She has loved getting to know all the therapists and office staff and interacting with the patients. She plans to attend the University of Dayton in the fall.

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