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The 'R' Word I Call My Brother

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He hit me. Our petty argument had turned into a fistfight. My 20-year-old brother, little only in age, had delivered a blow to my left arm and a swift kick to my right thigh. I thought the only rules in fighting were “never hit a girl” and “no kicking,” but I seemed to have been wrong on both accounts.

As the oldest of three and the solo girl in the trio, I’d been jumping in on my brothers’ fights for as long as I can remember. They would usually end with me giving one of them a boxer-ripping wedgie (mom was never fond of that) and tickling the other until they said “uncle.” I prided myself on being tougher than the two of them, even though they did always call me “Sissy” — mostly for sister, partly for my demeanor. My wit carried me in the ring we more affectionately called a living room. I would assert my dominance as the oldest, not-to-be-taken-lightly sibling by being patient and tactical. This is how I approach most things in my life. But in the Winter Break Brawl of 2012, I had not been patient nor tactical. I’d let my impulsivity and my anger get the best of me, and I punched my brother back. My leg felt like it was starting to bruise, and my brother was holding his arm, but otherwise we were both injury free. Physically anyway. Later that night, I went to my room and cried.

I should probably mention that I’m not a crier. The waterworks are a more common trait of my happiness than of my sadness. I usually joke that the reason I cry so much when I laugh is because my tear ducts appreciate the break. I should probably also mention that my brother Ryan is autistic. He has a form of autism called PDD-NOS, which stands for Pervasive Developmental Disorder – Not Otherwise Specified. The DMV-IV describes PDD-NOS as “severe and pervasive impairment in the development of reciprocal social interaction or verbal and nonverbal communication skills, or when stereotyped behavior, interests, and activities are present, but the criteria are not met for a specific PDD.” This is pretty much just a fancy way of saying he has a learning disability, he gets uncomfortable around strangers, and he does some other stuff that might seem off. I bet you have friends who get extra time on tests. I bet you’ve also been uncomfortable around a stranger in your lifetime, and you probably do some other stuff that might seem off too. But I bet you’ve never been called a retard.

My youngest brother, Tyler, and I had decided we wanted to watch a movie. We asked Ryan to join so he would spend some time with us downstairs. One of the many “Ryanisms” that define my brother best is his love for scribbling the results of the weekend’s sporting events in his binders. Ryan is carefree about everything except his binders. He’s meticulous and thorough, listing everything from our town’s high school baseball stats to my younger cousin’s soccer team roster. He has professional teams’ binders that Google helps him with, but for the other stuff he sends text messages to our family and Facebook messages to the high school kids. It’s quite the system.

Temple Grandin, a doctor with autism in the field of animal science, gave a TED Talk making a case for how the world needs all kinds of minds. My brother’s mind works in such a way that a task that may become tiresome and tedious to others is exciting and worthwhile to him. Ryan genuinely enjoys the endless task of updating and editing his binders. This is the same for many autism spectrum disorders. There are autistic children and adults whose minds have the unique ability to recall calendar dates from any decade, telling you the day of the week your birthday fell hundreds of years ago. There is a man with autism who can fly in a helicopter once over a city and perfectly replicate the entire scene in a drawing — even the window counts on the buildings will be correct. There are even people who do not communicate but can play the piano and write beautiful compositions without having ever been taught a note. My brother’s mind likes sports statistics.

Anyway, Ryan had spent all day scribbling and note-taking and sports-watching, and Tyler and I thought family movie time would be nice. Ryan was all for it, especially when we told him we hadn’t seen “Ted,” and that was the movie of choice. “Oh, guys, I have that on my X-Box. I’ll set it up and stuff.” As it turns out, his rental had expired, but he insisted on setting up the movie anyway. He wanted to use his Christmas gift card to buy the movie again. As Tyler and I were brainstorming other options, Ryan grew frustrated. “No I can do it. I can get the movie. Guys let me do it.” We figured if we could just get the movie playing before Ryan, he would let it go. Ryan continued to yell, and in trying to calm him down, our voices raised too. “Ryan, relax, we can set it up, and you won’t have to use your gift on a movie you’ve already seen.” The situation escalated, prompting Ryan to take matters into his own hands… that he turned into fists.

I’ve always viewed Ryan as a gentle giant. He’s a big kid, and he hasn’t figured out the damage he can unknowingly do with his stature. Sometimes my back cracks when he gives me one of his big bear hugs. My grandmother has taken to scuffling away from him just to slow him down a step because he needs to be reminded that some things are fragile. (That, and he tends to break everything he touches.) With many autism spectrum disorders, sensory information is processed differently. Touch is something that often needs to be a conscious thought process for Ryan. The perception of touch, taste, sight and sound are heightened in many autistic children. It took him years before he could watch fireworks. He loved the lights, and he loves loud sounds (we know this because he sits on his drum set for hours with rock music blaring in his headphones), but the combination of the two would put him on edge. In our argument, his emotions combined with the background noises and the task at hand led to a sensory overload.

It wasn’t so much the fists or the yelling that upset me about this instance. It was partly the reaction, or lack thereof, from my family members, and it had also been that I was unable to calm Ryan down. I hadn’t recognized the cloud of sensory triggers we’d been creating until my own senses shot a few signals from my arm up to my head telling me I’d been hit. My father’s only comment was that he had to write about the “incident” in Ryan’s notebook and that he was sorry it had happened. I later learned that my parents have to keep track of things Ryan does for his social security benefits. To me, my dad’s lack of a reaction was a way to avoid changing Ryan’s behavior. If Ryan acted out, it meant checks would keep coming in. I resented this. I thought my parents were being consciously passive at Ryan’s expense. I realized after there was a lot more to it than that, but I couldn’t help but wonder if the passivity was a result of circumstance. My mother came to my room and apologized too, telling me, “Ryan probably won’t apologize so don’t take it to heart. That’s just how he is. He doesn’t know better.” But I knew he’d known better, and I also knew this was not indicative of who Ryan is. To my mother’s surprise he texted me saying, “I’m sorry I fought you.” It meant more to me because he hadn’t been prompted to apologize. I’d felt right in knowing Ryan would know better, and I took solace in that.

A defining quality in my relationship with Ryan is my insurmountable faith in his abilities. I choose to believe he’s not disabled but that he’s abled by his own unique and inspiring actions. I’ve always been amazed by his tolerance for pain, his quiet wisdom and his ability to make people laugh. I realize my brother does need help in certain things, such as academics and the occasional social interactions, but I’ve never viewed him as inferior. I’ve gotten in arguments with my mother over my brother’s capabilities because I believe he needs someone to advocate for him. If my mother read that sentence she would probably yell at me. “What do you mean he needs someone to advocate for him? I’ve been advocating for Ryan his entire life. Who are you to say I haven’t done that?” And she would be completely right. My mother has been advocating for my brother his entire life. But I think she and I have been advocating for him in different ways. She’s always had to advocate for his disability. I’ve always had to advocate for his ability. The Winter Break Brawl of 2012 showed me that at times I’ve been blinded by my optimism. But when Ryan texted me and apologized, I thought maybe all Ryan really needs is more people who believe in his ability, his emotions and his mind. He used to tell me how jealous he was that I had textbooks, which later turned into him wondering why he wasn’t going off to college a year after me. I thought about Temple Grandin. She believed in her own ability, and she went on to be extremely successful. She commented on the people who believe the characteristics of autism can’t be modified or controlled by saying, “I am living proof that they can.” She’s become a spokesperson for autistic ability rather than disability. My mother introduced me to her story, and yet I still sometimes wonder if my mother truly believes in the lessons Temple Grandin was trying to teach her. 

If a friend calls someone a retard, and you’re not around to hear it, does it still make a sound? “Oh I’m sorry, I… I didn’t mean like your brother. You can’t even tell with him anyway.” The idea that apologizing negates the harshness of the word — the idea that apologizing to me makes up for the fact that my brother was just offended. What bothers me the most is that I used to sit back and try to make them feel better about their insults. I would justify their comments for them by saying, “It’s OK, you can barely tell with my brother anyway.” I realized I’d created my own spectrum of mental disability. I’d placed my brother at the “more able” end, unknowingly telling my friends it was OK to use the word “retard.” I did this as a means to protect him from the harshness of the stigma, but my instinct to protect my brother only reinforced the negative ideologies surrounding autism. I didn’t want to be the person who brought the issue to light. It follows a similar token with racial slurs – the idea that calling someone out for making a racially insensitive remark makes a situation about race “when it hadn’t been before.” What people fail to realize is that the problems are always there, but the solutions are hidden in the cowardice that is silence.

Ann Coulter tweeted, “I highly approve of Romney’s decision to be kind and gentle to the retard.” I’ll just let that one sit for a minute, or maybe I’ll let it sit for a few more than that because if you had a learning disability it would take you the extra few minutes to process. It wouldn’t take you long to process that this remark was insulting. No, my brother understands that pretty quickly. The thing that takes him longer to understand is why someone would say such a thing. A 30-year-old man named John took a day to think about it, and responded to Ms. Coulter in a thoughtful and well-written letter. He told her, “You assumed that people would understand and accept that being linked to someone like me is an insult…” He then went on to say that comparing someone to people like him should be considered a badge of honor, because “no one overcomes more than we do and still loves life so much.” This statement resonated with me. My brother reminds me of this every day. Ann Coulter’s comment had the Twitter world tweeting and trending. Millions of people from around the world could react on the insensitivity of the comment in seconds. The responses, however, focused on her disregard for those with disabilities. Doctor Grandin is a professor at Colorado State University and is known for her work in animal science. Alexis Wineman became the first autistic woman in the Miss America pageant. Adam Young, founder of Owl City, has found great success in the music industry, and also has Asperger syndrome. These people don’t let autism define them but rather let their abilities create a new definition for autism. That should be something worth trending.

My brother is an Olympian, rivaled only by Michael Phelps in his Olympic medal count. In fact, Ryan put all his medals around his neck and walked into the living room telling us, “I’m ready for the closing ceremonies!” He’s a comedian with stand up routines explaining that the seven continents included “thou shall not cover your neighbor’s wife… like with a blanket or something” and that the ten commandments included “Africa and Asia and those other places.” He had a doctor’s office in stitches the time he asked why no one had shown him how to make the cup float when they needed a urine sample, and he always made us laugh when he would affectionately sing Bob Marley ‘s lyrics as “I Shot the Sharon” to our neighbor… Sharon.

Ryan’s a sports expert, reminding us when we accidentally consult dad first: “Dude, I know everything about sports, not Dad. Ask me something.” My brother is a dangerous chef, and by dangerous I mean he has on multiple occasions placed his hand on the hot stove just to see if it was ready. He does a phenomenal replication of a child’s drawing – even the most highly trained artist would have trouble deciding if it was Ryan’s art or the artwork of a 3-year-old. He will tell you, “Yeah, I’m special. In a good way.” If there existed an award for best hugger in the world, my brother would win. He’s compassionate, caring and thoughtful. He’s wise beyond his years. My brother is incredible, and yeah, you’re damn right he’s special. But more than that, he’s abled.

Their R-word is Retard. My R-word is Ryan.

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Originally published: March 11, 2015
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