Sister Has Special Bond With Autistic Brother

This story was originally broadcast May 21, 2004

They are from the same family in a Seattle suburb but they exist in different dimensions. Seventeen-year-old Melissa Garrison is a straight-A student; her 14-year-old brother, Brandon, is autistic. It makes coming of age together, as sister and brother, an immensely more complicated relationship.

For instance, in communicating with Brandon, Melissa says, "You have different voices, for different situations — different inflections that you have to use, so he knows what you are talking about.

"If he is having a tantrum … you can't go in there like you would to a typically developing sibling and say, 'You stop that, or you are going to your room.' You say, 'Brandon, you know, calm down. Why are you doing this? It's time to stop.' "

Brandon's autism means he is walled off emotionally for reasons that are still a mystery — that he cannot master many basic social skills. He may simply wander without making eye contact when someone tries to engage him in conversation.

Their mother, Shelly Cain, remembers that the constant care Brandon needed from infancy raised the first issues that siblings like these face: who gets the attention, and how can a family find time to do other things?

"When Melissa saw other families just pick up and go on the weekend — well, we weren't able to do that."

"There were all these therapists, and people calling nonstop," Melissa said. "And I didn't get why there wasn't time to go out on the weekends anymore. There wasn't time to do this. There wasn't time to do that. Because everybody was so busy with Brandon."

Melissa says that her sense of protectiveness toward Brandon began to develop when their parents were divorced.

"I remember him being scared a lot of the time. He would ask where Mommy was, where Daddy was, whenever we switched houses.

"That's when I kinda figured … I've got to watch out, be careful with him. I don't want to say that I would die for Brandon, because that sounds corny. But I think I probably would."

Don Meyer, who has counseled the fathers of disabled children, founded an organization called Sibshops in 1982 to give kids like Melissa a place to talk about their experiences. "For most parents," Meyer says, "the thought of going it alone, raising a child with special needs without the benefit of knowing another parent in a similar situation would be unthinkable. Yet, this routinely happens to brothers and sisters."

Melissa began attending Sibshop meetings in the Seattle area when she was 12. "These people all know what I am talking about," she says.

Participants may gather around a table over pizza, identify themselves and talk about the conditions of their siblings. It's primarily a social atmosphere.

"I wanted to offer young sibs peer support within a lively, recreational context that emphasizes a kids' eye-view," Meyer said. "Sibshops are not therapy, group or otherwise, although their effect may be therapeutic for some children."

Melissa and her peers have a lot of company. Among the millions of Americans who are affected by disabilities, it's estimated that more than 4 million have a brother or sister who, like Brandon, is developmentally disabled in some way — in language, or learning, or in the ability to care for themselves.

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