Autism and siblings helping siblings: John’s story


“John’s had kind of a tough day,” said the phone message from his second grade teacher, “Some kids were teasing him about Matthew. Thought you might like to know.”

Damn it, I knew this would happen.

The Saturday before, John had a soccer game. Peter was out of town, and the helper I had scheduled to watch Matthew was sick, so I had no choice but to take Matthew with us to the game.

“John, Chad can’t watch Matthew today. Do you mind if he comes to watch your game?”

“No, I don’t mind. Are you snack lady? Will you bring doughnuts?”

When I looked at John, I still saw a wide-eyed baby with the sunny personality that matched the golden peach fuzz on his head. At seven, he was still a cheerful blond with a generous spirit, and he was growing into the biggest and sturdiest of my three boys.

Like many third children, John spent a lot of time observing the world from his car seat in the minivan, riding with his brothers to and from school, soccer, and doctors’ appointments. Before he learned to walk, he laughed from his bouncy seat as he watched his brothers run through the sprinklers, ride bikes, and build tall towers with blocks, only to knock them down. Matthew and Andy’s favorite activity was putting John in the bed of a large Tonka truck and launching him down the carpeted hall. John smiled and laughed through it all while I prepared nervously, but happily, to avert crash landings.

When John was five, he asked why Matthew went to a different school on a yellow school bus, and why he jumped and flapped his hands and laughed at strange things. By the age of six, he felt badly for Matthew because he didn’t have any friends. Lately John had been bothered by Matthew’s impulsive actions—throwing toys over the fence, running from one room to another just to strike him or Andy, disrupting happy family time by turning over a game board or dropping the dice down the heater vent.

During John’s soccer game, Matthew sat quietly at first on the grass near the goal post, but then the sound of an airplane brought him to his feet, and he jumped and flapped his hands, as a bead of spittle ran down the corner of his mouth. I saw a few of the soccer players on the sidelines exchanging glances and snickering. I searched for John, who was playing goalie.

Good, he’s oblivious.

Then one of the boys started to imitate Matthew, generating gales of laughter from his buddies, until his mother saw what was going on and sternly grabbed her son by the arm. Thank you, I told her, my heart beating, my eyes darting back and forth between John and Matthew. Both seemed unaware of the taunting.

Then it was halftime.

The seven-year-old players bunched together for orange slices and a pep talk from the coach. I noticed a few of the boys saying something to John, who said something in response at which the boys burst into laughter. John smiled, the whistle blew, and the game continued. Matthew spent the rest of the game swinging high on a swing nearby. I could relax.

When the game was over, I couldn’t throw doughnuts and juice boxes to the boys fast enough.

“John! Matthew! Time to go!”

I was heaving the picked-over doughnuts into the trashcan when the Team Mom thanked me for bringing snacks.

“Will you offer something a little more healthy next time?”

It’s not my style to tell people where to shove their granola bars, so I just said “Sure” and left.

John seemed fine as we were driving back. I waited until we got home to ask him privately what he and the boys were laughing about at halftime.

“They said Matthew was crazy, and I said, ‘Well, you know what they say about teenagers.’ But Mom, can I invite a friend over?”

Mr. Turner had left the message at lunchtime. It was now 1:30. I pulled into the parking lot of John’s school at 1:42 and dashed to room 4, peeking into the classroom. When John saw me, he flew from his seat and into my arms.

Mr. Turner motioned to me that he would call me later, as John ran to me, his lower lip trembling and his chest heaving. I thought I would have the right words when this time came but I was at a loss. His sobbing finally ended with a heavy sigh, and I asked him what had happened.

“They were jumping up and down and shaking their hands all around at recess and they were laughing. What does ‘retard’ mean?” John asked, his eyes searching for the sanctuary of our gray minivan.

“It’s a mean way of saying someone is—different, that their brain works differently,” I answered.

Those little sons of bitches.

“They said Matthew was a retard,” John cried incredulously.

“Awww, let’s go home. Andy will be home soon and we can all go out for ice cream.”

“What about Matthew?”

“Chad is picking him up from school today. They’re going to play basketball.”

“Maybe we can bring some ice cream home for him,” he said, wiping his eyes on my sleeve. “Why are you crying, Mom?”

“Because you are so nice.”

Sometimes the best view is from the rearview mirror of a minivan. On the way to the ice cream parlor, Andy and John shared Matthew stories and strategies, with our black lab Katie sitting sympathetically between them, her eyebrows alternating up and down as they talked and laughed. Not all of their conversation focused on what to do when people said things about Matthew. There was a lot of healthy venting, and I let the comments fly. But soon enough, they were back to sharing Matthew stories affectionately.

“Remember the time he asked the dwarf if he was a boy or a man?”

“Yeah! That guy got really mad!”

“How about the time Mom’s friend came over, and Matthew asked her when she was going to leave?”

“Wait, wait! What about the time he asked Mr. Harris how old he was, and when he said he was eighty-six, Matthew said, ‘So you’ll be dying soon.’”

John and Andy shook the car with their laughter, and Katie seemed to be smiling along with their joy. Why couldn’t I laugh with them?

“The poor kid,” said Andy, wiping the tears of laughter on his sweatshirt. At twelve, he sounded like a sage old man who had already traveled down a difficult path.

“Yeah. Poor Matthew,” John said, as we pulled up to the ice cream parlor. He raced in to survey the tubs of ice cream behind the glass.

“Look,” he said, “they have Matthew’s favorite, bubblegum ice cream! Can we get some for him, Mom?”

The view from my rearview mirror changed on the way home. The afternoon sun fell gently on Andy’s light-brown hair as he looked quietly out the window, and John cradled our dog Katie’s head in his lap, stroking it tenderly. A bond had been strengthened in the wake of heartbreak and hurt feelings. Brothers came together in laughter and in sorrow, and they were left feeling the weight of their family’s bittersweet burden. But would they hold each other up in the years before them? Would they have the strength to hold Matthew up and guide him when we were gone?

The bubblegum ice cream had melted slightly by the time we rolled into the driveway at home. As Chad and Matthew pulled up beside us, I got the feeling that something was up.

“We got you bubblegum ice cream, Matthew!” said John, holding out the dripping mess proudly.

“I’ll eat it later, OK?” Matthew shot back. “I’m in a bad mood!” He stomped into the house and slammed the door.

John, Andy, and I paused for a moment and then burst out laughing.

“Well John, you tried,” Andy laughed.

The boys followed Matthew into the house, and I stood outside for a moment and took a breath.

Don’t worry, John. Matthew will remember.

About the author

Laura Shumaker is a nationally recognized writer, autism and disabilities advocate. Her essays have appeared in many places, including the New York Times, CNN, NPR, and in a popular autism and disabilities blog for The San Francisco Chronicle. She’s the mother of three terrific sons, and her oldest son, Matthew, is the subject of her book A Regular Guy: Growing Up with Autism.


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