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How My Son Helps His Autistic Brother

Lee Clower

Our family works as a team to support our younger son, Nicholas, and we each know our role. I handle the bulk of his daily needs: making food, taking him to school, and working with his therapists. I'm the cheerleader encouraging Nick to use his words. When he gets dressed in the morning, I make him repeat each item of clothing and name the colors. When there are critical updates, I inform the rest of the family. (I'm the CNN of the household.)

My husband, Chris, deals with the insurance company, handles bills from therapists, and grocery-shops with Nick's list of special foods. He's also my rock: a shoulder to cry on and a reminder that everything will be OK.

But it's CJ who really gets it. He's the understanding, patient, loving big brother. It's remarkable how he gets Nick to laugh and make good eye contact. Even more amazing, Nicholas calls CJ by name, which is just incredible to hear. CJ is also the food police. He knows what Nick can have (gluten-free snickerdoodles, Chex cereal) and can't have (chips, pretzels, cookies), and makes sure there isn't any bad stuff within reach on the pantry shelves. CJ keeps his own stash of snacks hidden on the top shelf of the linen closet.

Since Nick looks up to CJ, who is seven years older, he serves as a role model. We regularly say phrases like “CJ brushes his teeth, Nick brushes his teeth” or “CJ puts shoes on, Nick puts shoes on.” This makes CJ feel grown up. He loves getting involved with teaching his little brother.

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As you can imagine, all the special attention Nick requires takes time and focus away from our other children. I was worried about jealousy and rebellious behavior, but the situation has actually created new opportunities for the rest of us. When Nick is in therapy after school, it gives CJ and me two hours of quality time together. We'll play card games like War or Slapjack, or pop some popcorn and watch a movie (Wreck-It Ralph was a recent fave). We look forward to it every day.

When Nick was 2, he began regressing, pulling away from everything and everyone. But CJ never gave up on him. He never stopped tickling him or chasing him around the backyard. After we got the diagnosis, we explained to CJ that autism makes it difficult to communicate thoughts and feelings. “As a family, we are going to have to teach him how to talk, play, and connect with us,” I told him as we sat on his bed. “All of our interaction with Nicholas could play a huge part in his recovery.”

Everyone in our family supports Nicholas in their own special way. But when I see the two brothers together, playing with blocks on the living room floor, I realize it was CJ who taught us how to treat him like any other kid. He is the best therapist Nicholas could ever have.