Parenting

I Worried That Autism Would Prevent My Boys From Being BFFs

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Autism Doesn’t Stop My Sons From Being Best Buddies: Two boys playing
Katie Cloyd/Instagram

I have two sons. Henry is seven, and Walker just turned four. I’m writing this from my back porch. A few minutes ago, my boys crammed themselves onto the same small sit-and-spin and whipped around and around until they were very dizzy. Now they are picking pretty purple weeds out of a long-neglected flower bed. Every few minutes, Walker runs up to me and gives me a little gift, exclaiming, “Mommy, look what I found!” Then he runs his flowers over to Henry, and Henry uses them to decorate their playhouse.

It’s the most ordinary kind of beautiful. They’re everything you’d expect brothers to be. Wild, loud, dirty, loving, smelly, funny, little partners in crime. They are best friends. They drive me bonkers on purpose with coordinated effort, then reel me in with the sweetest, sloppiest kisses.

Since Walker was born, Henry has been in love. Sure, they argue and fight once in a while, but they share everything. They fall asleep next to one another in a pile of zipper pajama limbs every single night. Even though they could sleep in their own comfy beds, they’d rather be together.

They’re two peas in a pod in every way, but they have one big difference: Henry is neurotypical, and Walker is autistic.

When Walker was diagnosed, I had two fears:

1. I would fail him.

2. He would be lonely.

All my fear and worry about failing Walker have disappeared. That fear was born of a complete lack of knowledge. Once I started listening to autistic adults, I stopped worrying. I know now that all I have to do when he’s this little is follow his lead and love him fiercely. We do make sure he has the practical support he needs to gain skills necessary for kindergarten and beyond, but nothing we do is to make him “seem less autistic.” We have a good system going here to get Walker what he needs while letting him be exactly who is.

My worry that he will be lonely lingers a little bit. I hope I am wrong, but I am practical enough to know that the world isn’t always kind to neurodiverse people. I just want Walker to have the friends, support and love he deserves.

Right now, I rest easy because he has the best friend he could ever hope for in his brother.

I hear so many other parents of kids with special needs say the same exact thing. If you’re unsure how to interact with a kiddo who has any kind of physical or neurological differences, watch their siblings. They will show you the way.

The thing I love about watching my sons together is that I know Henry isn’t doing anything intentional. He didn’t have to learn how to accommodate his brother’s differences. It’s completely intuitive. He’s just interacting with his favorite person in a way that makes sense for them both. He isn’t doing anything exceptional or going out of his way. There’s no charity happening here. Henry is as lucky to have Walker as Walker is to have him.

Henry knows that Walker is autistic. We have explained that autism is a different way of seeing the entire world. It colors everything Walker does, and it will never go away. Henry knows Walker will be different forever. Recently, he asked me if Walker was doing a specific unusual behavior because he is autistic. I told him yes, and I asked if it was bothering him, or if he needed any help understanding it. He thought about it, paused, and said, “Um, no. It’s fine. I like my brother the way he is.”

Henry always, always presumes competence. He suggests things Walker has never tried before and just assumes he can do it. Most of the time, he’s right. We have learned so much about Walker from watching him with Henry. Walker rises to new challenges in order to keep up with his best friend.

Walker wants to be independent like every other four-year-old. He doesn’t always communicate clearly with words and sentences, so people tend to underestimate him. Henry sets that right. He never does anything for Walker that he can do for himself. If someone else tries, Henry will almost always tell them, “He can do it by himself.”

This week, my boys had dentist appointments. They had simultaneous cleanings, and went to the x-ray together. They returned, hand in hand, both grinning and holding stickers of their choosing. Henry gave me the rundown, exclaiming, “Mom, Walker did great! He did exactly what they said, and he said thank you!” Walker’s giant smile told me he was proud of himself too.

Our hygienist couldn’t contain her admiration. She asked, “Do you know how special Henry is? He’s the best advocate for his brother.”

And she’s right. But I made sure I told her in front of both of my boys that Henry is just as lucky to have Walker. They both need to hear that message clearly and often.

Walker is loyal and kind and a constant playmate. He waits at the door for Henry to get off the school bus, remembers where everything is after Henry loses it, and (unlike the rest of us) never gets tired of listening to Henry ramble on about dinosaurs. Henry is so lucky to have him. He’s a big brother’s dream. The perfect sidekick for all his adventures.

Because they have each other, my boys know how it feels to be fully known and totally loved– exactly as they are. I hope they will carry that feeling with them for the rest of their lives.

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