By Dan Coulter
I was 19 when I first heard the Hollies’ song, “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother.” Wikipedia says the phrase can be traced back as early as 1884. Wiki reports an early use in a publication came from Ralph Waldo Trine: "Do you know that incident in connection with the little Scottish girl? She was trudging along, carrying as best she could a boy younger, but it seemed almost as big as she herself, when one remarked to her how heavy he must be for her to carry, when instantly came the reply: 'He's na heavy. He's mi brither.'"
Okay, that brings a lump to my throat.
It makes me think of all the children with Asperger Syndrome I’ve heard about who feel desperately alone. Who try and try to connect and get rejected or ignored. Having a caring brother or sister can be a bridge to successful connections.
I saw this first hand when my wife and I interviewed siblings of children with Asperger Syndrome. Like most kids, they were struggling to find themselves and impress their friends. They could get frustrated or embarrassed with a sibling’s Asperger behaviors and some admitted arguing or fighting.
“He mimics stuff and makes a lot of noises.”
“The way he wears his clothing, it’s…embarrassing.”
“He tries to be funny a lot and he’s not very funny.”
“He told my friend, ‘You look hot!’”
“When something is funny, he’s horrendously loud, he’s over the top.”
But all these brothers and sisters had become Asperger advocates, helping siblings in a variety of ways.
“I try my best to introduce him to all the people that I know so he doesn’t feel uncomfortable or alone.”
“I’m trying to teach him stuff about, like, movies and girls…it’s better to try and guide him to do the right thing.”
“I drive him to school because the bus is not a good place for Ryan. I’m always there for him at school.”
“We go to the movies together…out for ice cream…to Barnes and Noble’s, so that’s fun, just to be away from our parents for a while.”
“I’ll give him a little squeeze on the hand and that’s kind of his cue to take it down a little bit.”
What’s the magic? How do you encourage siblings to empathize and overcome embarrassment?
Interviewing the parents of these siblings revealed a variety of approaches, none of which included making kids feel guilty. Two approaches that stood out were praising children for caring behaviors and building their confidence. In effect, these parents were wiring their children’s brains to feel good when they showed empathy and support. Building their confidence helped them to be open about Asperger Syndrome with their friends, and look for ways to include a brother or sister.
Research suggests that some siblings of children on the autism spectrum grow up more mature, more tolerant and better at conflict resolution than their peers.
I’d be willing to bet they were the kids who’d step up to the child having a meltdown in a mall and tell anyone staring, “It’s okay, he’s my brother.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Dan Coulter is the producer of the DVD, “Understanding Brothers and Sisters with Asperger Syndrome.” You can find more articles on his website at: coultervideo.com.
Copyright 2011 Dan Coulter All Rights Reserved Used By Permission