Autism's effect on the "normal siblings"

Sachi Fujimori


When Gabby Abramowitz was younger, she was cautious about inviting new friends to the house. She wasn't sure how they would react to her younger brother, Ben, who is autistic.

And she didn't want a repeat of the Simpsons incident. That was the time she had a friend over for dinner, and Ben sat at the table reciting the entire "Treehouse of Horror" Simpsons Halloween special.

Gabby pleaded with him to stop, but he persisted.

"My friend was like, 'What's going on?' and then started laughing," she said.

At that time, she was in elementary school and lacked the words and understanding to explain her brother's condition. But with the help of her parents and through her own study, Gabby, now 16 and a sophomore at Tenafly High School, has grown to understand the nuances of autism and often speaks out to teach her peers while growing closer to Ben, 14.

Through her research, she found that her experiences, and those of others like her, often are overlooked. "I think the effect on siblings is underestimated. We get pushed into the background."

Last year, she embarked on a year-long, independent research project on the topic, interviewing experts, authors and siblings of autistic children, including a family in Utah. The project was prepared for a national gifted education program called ROGATE (Resources Offered in Gifted and Talented Education) and she presented her findings at a regional gathering of high schools at Montclair State University.

The project did not end there. To obtain the highest honors from the ROGATE program, she had to apply her research to the community. In February, she organized a charity knockout basketball game at Tenafly High School, raising $650 to donate to the Post-21 Club of Bergen County, a non-profit serving those with autism who are too old for school programs.

In her research, she found echoes of her own life. In interviews, she heard from others who said being the "normal" child left them feeling frustration, guilt and neglect. That shared experience inspired her to create a teen-run sibling support group. In mid-March, she convened the group for the first time with two other Tenafly High School teens whose siblings are autistic.

Diane Schulthes, the middle school's coordinator for gifted and talented programs, who sat in on the group, was impressed with the students' ability to connect. "Gabby ran the whole meeting by herself. She started with open-ended questions and asked how they deal with kids making fun of their brothers or sisters. At the end, they thanked her. I was invisible at that point."

As much as Gabby is precocious, Dr. Sandra Harris, executive director of Rutgers Douglass Developmental Disabilities Center, said her quest is fairly typical. "One of the major challenges for these folks is trying to understand themselves in relation to their siblings, what it means to their lives, and their parents' expectations of their relationship to the sibling," said Harris, author of "Siblings of Children With Autism: A Guide for Families."

With just 20 months between Gabby and Ben — they have an 11-year-old brother, Gideon — much of her childhood was shadowed by Ben's condition and her parents' determination to find him the best treatments available. "We tried everything under the sun. We were making sacrifices," said Lisa Abramowitz, their mom.

Gabby remembers being annoyed at the frequent weekend trips to Baltimore to join her mom and Ben, who stayed in Maryland for weeks at a time so he could undergo a special auditory therapy. "It was before I understood what was really going on. I felt like my brother was getting all this attention from my parents," she said.

She also feels frustration with her peers when they make ignorant remarks about autism. When out to dinner with friends, one asked, "What special foods does he have to eat?" Gabby said she nearly spit out the water she was drinking. "I was speechless," she said. "I try to make them understand it's a social disability."

Having an autistic sibling can make teens like Gabby grow up much faster than their peers. She has already decided that she will be looking out for Ben when their parents can't care for him anymore. "I'm willing to help, because even though my brother is 'different,' he's still my brother, and I still love him just as much," she writes in the personal reflection section of her ROGATE research presentation.

For now, she's looking forward to keeping a close eye on him when he joins her at Tenafly High School next year. Ben, who has a high-functioning form of autism, was able to enroll in mainstream public school classes starting in the second grade. His most recent diagnosis is Asperger's syndrome.

And Gabby, a social butterfly, found a way to connect with Ben through sports. A die-hard sports fan and a Yankee loyalist to the core, Ben can recite sports statistics faster than you can type into Google, "How many wins did the Yankees have in 2009?"

"138 — combining the regular season, spring training and playoffs" said Ben.

Gabby often parks on the couch and watches baseball with her brother. "He gets very into it and cries when the Yankees lose. I tell him, 'Ben it's just a game. They'll win next time.' "

From NorthJersey.com


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