Most people do not get phone calls from their father’s girlfriend telling them that their little sister is in the emergency room for eating toothpaste and a blood pressure patch. Most people do not have sisters with autism.
My sister does some bizarre things. In the past, she has eaten entire packages of uncooked hotdogs, her own feces, a balloon, and probably a whole host of other things I don’t want to know about. The older she gets, the more noticeable her autism is. As a five-year-old, it was easy to think she was just a goofy kindergartener with some speech delays. Now at 11, she just isn’t like other kids her age. She stands out, and not only because of her height and big grey eyes.
It is hard to relate to Sarah. She doesn’t pay much attention to others, at least not in a typical way. It’s hard to tell if she’s heard what you said or is just mindlessly repeating something she’s memorized. I struggle to get more than one-word answers out of her, unless the question is something that interests her (dinner being the major thing). She still sucks her thumb whenever she isn’t instructed not to. If she isn’t watched carefully, she will eat anything – absolutely anything. She is also curious, loving, and hilarious. Her imagination is boundless. She knows how to coyly deflect or offer criticism with a little smile and a funny comment. (She once asked our dad, who had just woken up from a nap, “What are you doing with your hair, Dad?” Another time, when Dad asked if Sarah had taken his glasses, she retorted, “The case of the missing glasses, by Sarah Vance.”)
It’s easy to write off autistic kids as slow. However, the truth is most have above-average intelligence. Sarah fell far behind in school because special ed teachers let her. I’m usually the last to criticize educators, because I know how hard they work with so little. In my sister’s case, though, their failure was un-ignorable. They decided that her outward disabilities indicated a lack of cognitive skills and development. They told my parents repeatedly that Sarah would never be able to do grade-level work or behave well enough to be in a “normal” classroom. She takes after her big sister in her ability and desire to prove people wrong. It’s been slow going to ease her into a “normal” fifth-grade classroom, but that is where she spends her days. At the end of the first semester of the current school year – the first in which she has spent whole days in her own grade save kindergarten – she received all B’s. My sister who cannot read (“she memorizes and repeats”), do basic math, or understand story construction received above-average grades doing a full semester of work meant for “normal” kids of her own age. Straight B’s would be enough to make many parents proud, but mine in particular should beam. Sarah has proven them all wrong, catching up almost completely on the four years of education stolen from her and shown everyone how smart she is.
None of this is to say that she is “normal.” My baby sister is far from a typical kid. She experiences life through a lens that most of us do not. She cannot stand loud noises. She has impulse control problems. She gets stressed out very easily by things most people do not notice. But she offers me these amazing moments of humor and insight that are indescribable to anyone who has never loved someone with autism. She is warm and friendly. She has a beautiful smile and the funniest laugh I’ve ever heard. It is hard to call her my friend the way our brother is, but she is something special to me. She’s my goober. She’s my ray of sunshine. She’s my little sister.
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