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The Incident That Proved My Son With Special Needs Is a Typical Big Brother

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In any other house, “the incident” would have resulted in a time out. But in our home, “the incident” was a moment that changed the way I thought about Smith-Magenis syndrome (SMS).

My oldest son, Garrett, was diagnosed with SMS when he was 18 months old. The lists of symptoms were overwhelming:  low muscle tone, speech delay, a sleep disturbance, intellectual disabilities and self-injurious behaviors. To complicate matters, I was pregnant.

Garrett didn’t even notice when there was a new baby brother in the house. He never acknowledged Patrick’s existence until he was crawling around the playroom. Garrett was nonverbal but his expression said, “Where did this kid come from and why is he touching my stuff?”

As the boys grew, so did my list of questions and worries.

What exactly does “intellectual disabilities” mean?

Will Garrett be able to walk and talk?

Will he understand the world around him?

The pre-school screening test scores painted a grim picture. Garrett was not nearly as accomplished as his classmates. And each time he would meet a new goal, like walking, they would just make the next one more complicated, like skipping. I tried to remind myself he was growing and learning new things but I continued to look well into the future and add new fears.

Will Garrett be able to go to college and live on his own?

Will he get married and have a family?

“We just need to make sure Garrett reaches his full potential, whatever that means for him,” my husband said. He continued to be the voice of reason. So, I focused my anxieties on Patrick.

What happens when Patrick surpasses Garrett in ability? It just didn’t seem “natural” to me. Big brothers are supposed to be the teachers. Little brothers are supposed to look up to their sibling.

Will Patrick be embarrassed of Garrett? I had to admit there were times, especially out in public, when I was embarrassed of Garrett’s prolonged tantrums. But the thought of Patrick being embarrassed just broke my heart.

What kind of relationship could they have if everything was opposite of how it should be? Garrett’s disability created a huge difference between the two brothers. I could not see a future where they would play, fight and bond like “normal” siblings.

I was in the laundry room on the morning of “the incident.”

When I walked into the kitchen I could see someone had bent the baby gate at the top left corner. It was just enough space for a small boy to squeeze through. I found a complicated tower at the kitchen counter. It was built from an Elmo step stool placed on top of a kitchen chair. The kitchen cupboard door was wide open.

I’m not Nancy Drew, but since Patrick was still cruising around furniture, not yet brave enough to let go and walk on his own, even I could conclude he did not bust down a gate, build a tower and steal whatever was missing from the cabinet.


“Garrett!” I yelled from the kitchen, “What did you do?” I heard his feet making a run for it in the living room. I hurried to the room just in time to see Garrett hand Patrick a box. Garrett stood in a pile of 40 sandwich bags looking at me with such innocent blue eyes. That’s when I noticed Patrick was holding an empty sandwich bag box.

Garrett had just framed his baby brother. It was so smart, but also kind of mean.

And totally typical of a big brother.



A version of this post originally appeared on Tales From the Trenches.

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Originally published: April 10, 2015
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