I Accepted the Short End of the Stick

Growing up with a sibling on the spectrum meant understanding that his needs take priority over mine.

by S. I.

Credit: Prostock Studio

It was the first day of my third grade track practice. I was already up and dressed. 

I had spent the entire month of September begging Ma and Baba to sign me up for the track team. I had wanted to be a part of a team for a really long time. There wasn’t much to do at home with Baba usually at work and Ma taking care of my older brother, who has severe autism.  

I was shocked when I saw Ma, still in her pajamas, trying to feed my brother, who sat at the table in the kitchen with a frown on his face. 

“Ma, aren’t you going to take me to track right now?” I exclaimed, my left leg already shaking with anxiety. I hated being late. 

“Oh, I completely forgot about that. I don’t have the time to take you today, your brother is being difficult.”

I pursed my lips, giving a side-eye to my brother, who was staring at me. He was 14, but had the mental age of a one-year-old, so he rarely spoke unless it was to say basic words about things he wanted. 

He is on the highest level of the spectrum, which means he needs the most support. He can’t talk or comprehend what people say to him, and he can’t do any activity on his own. 

“Can’t you just take him with us?” 

Ma dismissed me. She was still trying to feed him cereal. He kept moving his head away from the spoon. 

My eyes began tearing up. “I can’t just miss the first day! The first day is always mandatory!” 

It wasn’t the first time she had canceled on something because of my brother. I’ve had to bail on plans with friends because of my brother. I had to skip extracurricular activities because Ma didn’t have the time. 

I glared at her, then at my brother, though it wasn’t really his fault. I stormed into my room and slammed the door shut as loudly as possible. I heard Ma say my name from the kitchen, but I didn’t care. I threw my duffle bag into the corner of the room. I shut my curtains, preventing the sun rays from entering my room. I jumped in bed and curled inside my blankets, letting tears fall on my face. 

Why couldn’t I have this one thing? Why did it always have to be about him? 

No Time or Attention

My brother is six years older than me. When we were little, we would play with our toys together and I always had a bright smile on my face. As the years went by, I stopped playing with the toys, but he didn’t. 

The toys were the only thing he understood. My parents explained to me that that was because he had autism. They told me he had the mental age of a one-year-old.

As the years went on, my brother and I spoke less and less. His autism seemed to only get worse. If we were in the same room, I rarely acknowledged him. If I did address him, he didn’t really respond.

With every passing year, I felt like my parents prioritized my brother over me more and more. I rarely got to see my friends after school, participate in sports, or be in school plays. I rarely got time or attention from them. Instead, they burdened me with expectations. 

I remember my 5th grade parent-teacher conference. Baba had been in my classroom for a long time. 

After what felt like forever, the door swung open. Baba stepped out of the room with a solemn look on his face. 

I followed Baba outside the exit. He said nothing. We walked a few blocks, still not a word. When we got to a red light, Baba finally spoke. 

“I wasn’t expecting that from you,” he said. 

What?

The confused frown on my face must have been evident because Baba clarified:  “Your grades. I wasn’t expecting such low grades.” 

Again, what?

I was actually pretty good at school. I never failed at anything. I mean, my grades took a tiny dip that marking period, but it was just the beginning. I had months to get my grades up. 

“I don’t understand,” I said, my brows furrowing in confusion. “I don’t have less than an 85 on anything.”

This time, Baba scoffed. “An 85? You think an 85 is good enough? That’s nothing. You have every opportunity to be excellent, yet you throw it all away. Here I was thinking you could learn something from your brother.” 

My jaw dropped at those words and I indignantly pointed out, “He can’t even comprehend a few words, let alone decimals!” 

“Exactly. He doesn’t have the opportunity to learn and you do.  But here you are, not taking that opportunity. You’re too spoiled.”

Spoiled? Me? 

I clenched my jaw in anger, and walked faster, not wanting to be near Baba right now. 

It made no sense. I couldn’t comprehend how I was the spoiled one, when he got all the special treatment from Baba and Ma.

How am I getting the least amount of attention yet the most amount of expectations from them?

How am I getting the least amount of attention yet the most amount of expectations from them?

Meeting Both Our Needs

Two years later, I was still getting the brunt of the expectations from my parents, and the least of their attention. But, the more they denied me, the more I got accustomed to it.  

Instead of throwing tantrums, because I knew nothing would change this situation, I harbored bitter feelings inside me. I still didn’t understand why my parents were like this. That is, until my brother was taken to the hospital in the middle of the night. 

He had a high fever. It wasn’t the most severe, but any time he had a health concern, my parents immediately took him to the hospital, just in case.  

“I just wish he was able to have a normal life. He deserves it, and so does she.”

I peeked my head up at the familiar voice speaking in Bangla. I saw Ma, tears streaming down her face as she talked on the phone, probably to one of our relatives back in Bangladesh. 

“Yes, he’s okay now; it was just a scare. It’s so difficult raising both of them. They both have very different needs, but if we can’t meet his needs first then his condition will only get worse for him and everyone around him.” 

His conditions will only get worse for him and everyone around him.

I furrowed my brow in confusion.

I didn’t think Ma was aware of how every decision made in our family seemed to revolve around my brother. 

But it’s so difficult raising both of them. They both have very different needs.

Memories of all the times I had seen my parents fuss over my brother flashed through my head. I always thought they were taking extra measures just for the sake of it, or because they preferred him.

But that wasn’t the case. It was simply what they had to do. 

Could he have just needed this extra attention all along? Had I been asking for too much when my brother needed more support from my parents?

Building My Own Support System

Asking my parents to take me places and let me pursue activities came to a halt in 7th and 8th grade because of the coronavirus pandemic. But, once the government loosened restrictions, I was able to attend 9th grade in person. I noticed that high school came with a newfound independence. 

Ma never said no to me, because she didn’t have to. I could now be my own escort. All I needed was her approval to go places. 

On the last day of  my freshman year, my friends and I went to the same café we went to every Friday. 

I always enjoyed going knowing that it meant an evening of french fries and dumb jokes. Sitting there, we reflected on the stories of the past year. 

“Remember when we went to that concert…” 

“Oh my god remember that soccer game against…” 

I realized I had built a great group of friends who made me feel cared for. I had had a great year. I was going out with my friends regularly as well as joining clubs and sports teams. 

Being able to do things on my own and build a life outside of home helped me feel less bitter and resentful toward my brother. I realized that he didn’t ask for the circumstances he was given, but he had to deal with them, just like the rest of us. After all these years, I learned that my brother’s autism wasn’t a situation anyone could change. I could either learn to deal with it, or give my parents a hard time. I picked the former. 

But I won’t lie and say it was easy.

Sometimes it would be faster if my parents took me by car instead of me taking the train. Sometimes it would be easier if I didn’t have to do everything myself. 

But feeling bitter and impatient won’t make anyone’s life easier. I needed to find other avenues to get my needs for attention met, which I found in my friends and peers. It isn’t ideal, but neither is life. 

Being able to do things on my own and build a life outside of home helped me feel less bitter and resentful toward my brother.

And so, with a smile, I bit into my food and listened and added onto the retellings of my freshman year.

S. I. is a junior at Midwood High School in New York City. She likes to write stories, read books, go on runs, and bake in her free time. She journals every night.

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