A special needs child is often the focus of the family. Families, like mine, often have other children, though. Rarely does anyone ask how they are impacted by having a special needs sibling. But they are.
I have three healthy children. They do not suffer from any major illnesses, nor do they have any behavioral or emotional issues in their medical charts. However, this doesn’t mean they aren’t affected by the issues my fourth child has. They are front and center for almost every meltdown. They’ve been there when he’s come home from surgery or testing and is a complete mess of fear and sensory overload. Sometimes they are there to help him through therapy or doctors’ appointments. They are often at the receiving end of his anger when he can’t take another sound. How hard is this life on them? How much do their brother’s disabilities affect the people they are becoming? Do they wish they could just be a part of a “normal” family? Do they even love their brother?
Kari Horton is a 35-year-old mother with four children. Her 10-year-old son has Autism, Sensory Processing Disorder, Mitochondrial Dysfunction and other medical issues. In Horton’s community blog, For the Love of a Boy
, she’ll share her family’s stories in hopes of connecting with and encouraging other special needs families.
My daughter is 15 and a sophomore this year. She is a beautiful and talented young lady. She enjoys art, photography, music and reading. She loves science and is looking forward to a career in the field. Her teachers have told me that she possesses great compassion. She has chosen sign language as her language of study in high school. She doesn’t feel that enough people can communicate with the deaf or children with Autism, who sometimes use sign language. As our oldest child, she is the only one who has experienced the entirety of my son’s life, along with her father and me. She has been there at his worst times and at his best. She doesn’t tell others about her brother often because she doesn’t want people to feel sorry for her or him. She has always felt the need to protect him from potential harm. Last year she was asked to write a paper on something most people don’t know about her, and only the teacher would read the report. She wrote about her brother and his challenges. She has written about a “nirvana” in another class – one that would make her brother feel safe and happy all the time. They were amazing and heartfelt words I will never forget. Although she does her best to always help her brother, she is often overwhelmed by his behavior. She wishes he wouldn’t ask her a million questions every night at dinner about her day. She would prefer he stayed out of her personal space. She has even told us that she doesn’t want to have children later in life. I am sure seeing the challenge of taking care of her brother has helped form this opinion. I do think her life is different, and perhaps harder, than those of other teens her age because of her brother. I also think she possesses an amazing kindness and ability to empathize with those around her because of her brother. Her character would not be quite the same without him.
My second oldest son is 6. He is a die-hard gamer. Any game, any time, and he will likely beat even the toughest opponents. He has a wonderful imagination and a very sweet side. He is smart and does very well in school. He loves art and science. Although we have tried to explain to him that his brother is “different” in some ways, he doesn’t really see the problem. They are typical brothers who squabble and wrestle from time to time. They fight over which game to play or what show to watch, then they settle in and play together. They miss each other when one is sick and “quarantined” to his room. He has shown empathy far beyond his years on numerous occasions. He often tells me, “I would want this…if I was my brother.” He always makes sure his brother receives a prize or treat from the store if he does. He makes sure he has a toy to play along with him. He will try to comfort his crying or sick sibling in any way he knows how. His kindness extends to those beyond his family and to animals. He has never met a dog that doesn’t love him instantly – even the ones that have been neglected or abused by others. He has offered his collection of pennies for many worthy causes, like getting his grandpa a new car when his broke down or giving me a day off. His soul is generous and gentle. Yes, he struggles to understand why his brother gets so upset about certain things. He wishes his brother could love the zoo and playing games like he does. Both the good and bad interactions he has with his brother are shaping his nature. Does he love his brother in the face of the challenges? “Of course I love my brother,” is the answer he gives.
My 2 year old is oblivious to all of it. He is a bundle of smiles and energy. He loves dogs, cats, fish, turtles and every other animal he has ever seen. In fact, he has quite a way with shy and small dogs. He follows each of his older siblings around and just wants to be like them. If anything, the fact that my 10 year old doesn’t have the maturity of a typical 10 year old makes him a more appealing sibling to my youngest. I do have to remind the big brother how much bigger he is so he doesn’t hurt the little guy while playing. He does seem to notice when his brother is upset. So I think even his personality is beginning to form slightly differently than it would without his big brother. He will go to his brother when he is ill or overwhelmed. He will offer him a hug, a toy and on a very rare occasion his favorite blanket. He has given a kiss to him on a hard day, even though he thinks kisses are yucky. I have no doubt that he too will grow up and leave a positive impact on the world – not despite of, but because of, the experiences he has had with his brother.
The impact having a special needs sibling has made on my children is undeniably huge. Yes, it is hard. Yes, they each love their brother. They say they wouldn’t want to be part of any other family. They would have been wonderful children without the trials they face. However, the impression their brother has left on their hearts has changed them for the better.