I have two children. Ethel, now 5, has so much to say. Calder, 8, is autistic.
Ethel was born before Calder was diagnosed as moderately autistic. This is a very good thing because autism is believed to be partly hereditary.
Like many other parents, we would have had second thoughts about begetting another child if the first one is autistic. So, Ethel is a present. A present for me because she enables me to experience “normal” parenthood. A present for Calder because she is his only friend, a friend who cares enough to pray spontaneously for him.
It is not easy to be Calder’s sister. Although she is younger, she is expected to give in to her brother because he is easily upset and difficult to pacify when upset. Being Calder’s sister means having to watch Calder’s mood before expecting an outing, having to give up many outings, having to hurry home when Calder gets agitated.
Ethel is so used to these that we could actually ask her, “Do you think we can go out today?” and she would look at Calder with his flustered face and desperate chantings and pronounce, “No, I don’t think so.”
I give talks on my parenting experience. Once, a member of the audience asked, “Is the sister deprived because she has a brother with autism?”
In a way, yes. Ethel is deprived of her rights to be childish. Because her parents have their hands full dealing with the brother’s meltdowns, tantrums on her parts are never well-tolerated. She knows she cannot hoard her parents’ attention because Calder gets upset when ignored. And when Calder is moody, the atmosphere is tense, and parents speak sternly not only to Calder but to her too. She has to learn not to take these personally.
She has to learn to grow up quickly. As a result, she is a precocious 5-year-old. One of her preschool teachers actually told me, “In all my years of teaching, I have never come across a student as sensible as Ethel.”
Frankly, I think when a family has a child with special needs, the person who gains the most is the sibling. Caring for a special-needs person builds a compassionate nature. If I am an employer, I would advertise for siblings of people with special needs because this is where you find responsible and kind staff.
Of course, I have also heard of the opposite effect: resentment and bitterness and defiance against what the sibling sees as unfair parenting.
In my case, my children are fortunate because I work part-time. And I have arranged their schooling such that I get to spend time with them individually. Ethel goes to morning school while Calder’s school starts in the afternoon. This grants me many opportunities to show I love them.
I believe when children feel loved, they would grow up well, whether or not they have special needs.