On the legs, down the arms, in the hair, up the nose. Callum appears to be in agreement with what his mama has always said about Grasshopper cookies: “Mint is proof that God wants me to have chocolate!”
Last night, you went to your grandma’s house and helped your cousins put up her Christmas tree. All of you are little right now. You are 4. Your brother Callum is almost 3. Because you are so young, you have not yet noticed that he is different from other little boys. You didn’t understand the significance when one cousin asked tonight, “But if Callum can’t talk, how can he ask Santa for what he wants for Christmas?” Sweet child that you are, you have already decided to ask for him.
But, that innocent question got me to thinking. It got me thinking about hard things and tests of character that you don’t yet know are coming. Right now, you summarize everything your brother is not yet able to do with, “That’s because Callum is a baby. He needs our help.” Because you are so little, you have not yet noticed that Callum and your cousin are the same age – born just five weeks apart. So, no, Callum is not quite a baby any longer. It just seems that way now.
It won’t always seem that way. As he gets older, people are beginning to notice the things that he is not yet able to do. Your brother has a condition called autism spectrum disorder. Lots of people have this. And, like you, they are all different. Some of them are so affected by it, that they have a hard time communicating, making friends, and taking care of themselves. Some of them are quite smart and make amazing contributions to the world, but seem a bit odd. Most fit somewhere in between, and we just have to learn about them the same way we do everyone else.
And, the thing is, despite having a lot of differences. we have a lot more in common. For they are people just like you and me. They have fears, curiosity, and interests. They love, cry, and laugh. They are sad when others are mean to them. They want friends like everybody else. Autism spectrum disorder can rob those we love of the things they want and things we want for them. While autism can be a fascinating thing, it can also be a sad one.
Unfortunately, there are people out there who feel so bad about themselves that they think the way to get attention is to be mean to people who can’t defend themselves. Those people are called bullies. As much as Mama and Daddy want to protect you from them, those bullies are one day going to say mean things about your brother and maybe even you.
Baby, here’s where things are going to get tough. Because, despite how much you love your brother, you are still a perfectly normal little girl. You will wish with all your heart for those bullies to leave you alone. You will have moments when you wish he didn’t have autism. You will be embarrassed when he says and does strange things. You will hope your friends don’t see that, and you will be horrified the day they do. He may ruin special things for you. And, in your hardest and saddest moments, you may wish to not have a brother at all. To make things even worse, you will then feel guilty for feeling that way. It’s going to seem like you just can’t win.
So let me tell you something I want you to remember. Baby girl, I have faith in you. You may be wondering how, my having written this when you are only four years old, I can say that. But a mama just knows. You have been you since the day you were born. So has your brother, for that matter. Not only do I love you, I happen to like you. For you are many things I am not. You are fearless — not afraid to ask and say what you think. You are a social butterfly — not afraid to talk to anybody. You are always ready for fun — never shy to dance and sing in front of whomever. And you are worlds smarter than I ever dreamed of being.
So, you’ve got a lot going for you in terms of tools to help you handle those bullies. Because you are so fun and likeable, you will have no trouble finding the kind of friends who will care about you for you — and not try to make you feel bad for your brother being different. Because you are brave, you will stand up to those teasing you and Callum. Because you are smart, you will help teach Callum how to stand up for himself. And, though I never want you to pick a fight – and do want you to learn how to turn the other cheek when called for – I promise I will never be angry at you for standing up for what is right. It’s hard sometimes to define what is right. You’ll know it when it happens.
Sometimes standing up for what is right comes with consequences. Sometimes it means losing the good opinion of people who aren’t worth yours. And sometimes, which hurts most of all, it means losing people you thought were your friends. Yet it also comes with good things. You and all the people who matter will be proud of you — and you’ll be proud of yourself. You will make new friends, those whom you value more than the ones you mourn. You will learn how to appreciate all different kinds of people. You will be far more mature than even many of the adults you know. And you will have made the world just a slightly better place for Callum. You will be his hero. Not everyone has a chance to be somebody’s hero. I have a feeling you will be an awesome one.
It won’t be the easiest thing to do. Sometimes you may feel angry or unwilling. Sometimes you might feel bad for yourself. When those feelings happen, I want you to remember something else. As much as I love your brother and am often caught up in his needs, you are also my child. Your hopes, fears, and happiness are just as important to me. When you get caught up in negative feelings, by all means come and tell me. Talk to someone. Allow yourself to be human, even if you then have to turn around and be someone’s superhero all over again.
And once you have let off a little steam and taken a deep breath, continue to be the person I have faith you can and will be.
You will make me proud. You already do.