What I’ve learned from having a brother with autism



Nicole Herzog

Eli was diagnosed with autism at the age of two. He is now 15 and has overcome so much.

It was a blistering hot day in August — I was nine years old and my brother, Eli, was six. It was the perfect day to go to the beach, and all I wanted to do was go for a swim. I begged my parents to take us, eager to show off my awesome new Little Mermaid swimsuit.

My parents agreed, so we got in the car and drove to the beach with growing anticipation.

Just as we were about to step onto the sandy beach, Eli stopped dead in his tracks; he refused to budge and continue towards the awaiting waters. While we did everything we could to coax him onto the beach, he would go no further and demanded to leave.

I wished that my brother did not have autism. I longingly watched other kids at the beach laugh and play with their siblings and wished that Eli could play, too.

But Eli was very different from other children. He did not speak and only twirled a pencil in his hand while he made loud noises. His sole focus was a fascination with numbers, and he only wanted to play with number puzzles.

On those occasions when my family attempted to dine at a restaurant, I was disturbed when people stared at us as they watched Eli flap his hands and bend his straw to make it look like the number seventeen.

I was upset when I saw my parents overwhelmed as they struggled with his crying or screaming in public, unable to understand what was bothering him and incapable of calming his raging tantrums.

I was jealous of those so called “normal” families who stared in shock, completely unaware of what it was like to be the recipient of their hurtful looks. My eyes brimmed with tears as other children sat quietly with their parents in a restaurant while Eli was in the midst of an uncontrollable meltdown.

Now as an eighteen year old looking back at what then seemed like nightmarish days, I have learned to adapt.

I have grown to be patient, non-judgmental and to accept and embrace other people’s differences.

Today, I celebrate all accomplishments, even the smallest ones. Having grown up with Eli, I understand that what many of us may consider as insignificant achievements often times do have a profound impact on our lives.

Yet, one of the most profound lessons that Eli has taught me is the deep power of empathy for those that are not only disabled but simply different.  

When I am confronted with people who are teased or harassed because they are different or unable to defend themselves, I have learned to speak out on their behalf.

Sedona Coleman, Div. 953, also lives with a sibling who has a disability. Coleman’s sister, Sandia, has Down syndrome.

Coleman expressed a similar sentiment about the way that her sister has taught her to be patient as well as stand up for herself and others.

I feel like I get emotional and angry over that stuff really quick, so being able to calm down and say ‘Hey, it’s not really right to do this — like say the ‘R’ word, or exclude Sandia, my sister, from what you’re doing,’” Coleman said. “I think that’s one thing that I learned how to do; stand up for myself and for my sister.”

Coleman also said that she hopes people can learn to keep an open mind when approaching people with disabilities.

“I think it’s really important to know that people with disabilities are just people,” Coleman said. “You don’t have to talk down to them, you don’t have to be condescending or treat them like babies because they understand what you’re saying. Just include people, be nice, be kind and learn. Keep an open mind rather than just closing yourself off.”

I do not deny that it is sometimes difficult to see Eli for more than his disability.

On many occasions, Eli has torn down my cherished band posters, used my phone without permission and destroyed my makeup, among other things.

Though I may be angry with my brother in the moment, I remind myself that my love for my brother is far more important than a ruined lipstick or a torn poster.

While Eli may struggle to complete simple tasks, he inspires me daily with his desire to grow and achieve new goals.

He teaches me that working diligently enables a person to achieve goals which often times seem unattainable.  

A few years ago, my parents and I believed that Eli would never be able to speak in full sentences.

Today, he effectively communicates his desires, calms himself down in stressful situations and offers us endless smiles and hugs when we need them.

The little boy who was unable to put his feet on the sand at the beach that long ago day is now able to walk to the water.