Reluctant keepers of a brother with autism

Elizabeth Choi


Grace will get the pearls passed down from my grandmother. Her twin brother, Nick, will get the woodworking tools my husband, Dan, inherited from his grandfather. They will also inherit their brother Jeffrey.

Jeffrey was 3 when his idiosyncrasies — his fascination with spinning objects, his sensitivity to the hum of fluorescent lighting — became symptoms leading to a diagnosis. I was pregnant with the twins and folded my hands protectively over my domed belly as the pediatrician leaned forward, eyes intent on mine, and said: “I want you to understand, there is no cure for autism. Jeffrey will need care for the rest of his life.”

Firstborns are often frustrated by the disruptions caused by a new sibling, but to an autistic child who craves structure and is sensitive to light and noise, the addition of two squalling infants is a catastrophe. Lunch was sometimes delayed for breast-feeding, this door sometimes had to be closed because the babies were finally napping, and mommy and daddy were often too exhausted to read the same three books at bedtime.

Jeffrey’s frustration developed into tics, like fluttering his fingers in front of his eyes. He became increasingly hyperactive and angry, sometimes even dangerous: I once caught him pressing his hands against Grace’s face in an attempt to muffle the shrill sound of her crying. When the twins started crawling, Jeffrey kicked them if they got too close to his toys arranged on the floor in a pattern known only to him.

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