Henry’s Brother is Autistic

Henry with his brother George and the rest of his family. 

COURTESY OF THE BENSHOTER FAMILY

About 1 in 88 kids in the U.S. are autistic. Their siblings are growing up right alongside them. Henry, 17, wants to tell you what that’s like.

On a typical Saturday morning, my little brother, George, will run into my room, wake me up, pull me out of bed, and want me to turn on the vacuum for him. All I want to do is sleep. During the week, I get up at six to catch a bus to my special math-and-science high school across town, and by the time I get home after track practice, it’s seven or eight at night. That’s when I get started on my three or four hours of homework.

So yeah, on Saturdays, I want to sleep in.

But George doesn’t understand that. He won’t take no for an answer either. George just wants to play or listen to the vacuum. It’s one of his favorite things in the world, and that might not ever change.

That’s because George is autistic, and though he looks like an 11-year-old when you first see him, he acts more like a 5-year-old.

Have you ever had a secret you didn’t want people to find out about? I was never embarrassed by George, but the way he acts sometimes can be a really tough thing to explain to people who don’t know him or who don’t understand what autism is. I’ll invite friends over to play football, and my parents will let George outside. “Great,” I think. And before you know it, he’s trying to drag us over to the lawn mower so that we’ll turn it on. He just wants to listen to the hum.

Life with George

I was probably 5 or 6 when I started bugging my parents for a little brother. I have twin sisters who are a year younger, and they would always gang up on me. I hated it. I just wanted another guy in the family to even things out. So in 2002, my parents went back to the same adoption agency in Korea where they got my sisters and me, and they came home with George. He seemed fine at first, but six months later, when he was around 1, my mom and dad called a family meeting to tell us George wouldn’t grow up like us—that he’d have a lot more difficulty. They told us George has autism. I was young at the time, so the word autism didn’t really mean anything to me—but I’ve just been figuring it out along the way ever since. For example, one day my parents brought home a bunch of sign-language videos and told us that we were all going to sit down and learn signing together. And that was the moment when I realized George would probably never develop the ability to talk.

Living with George can be a real roller coaster. That’s the only way to describe it. He wants to play constantly, which makes him lovable. At the same time, though, he can be really aggressive. He has a one-track mind—he wants what he wants, and if he doesn’t get it, he throws a fit. One of his favorite foods is hamburgers, so he’ll make a huge scene at the dinner table if he feels like he’s not getting his hamburger fast enough—sometimes he’ll even slap the person next to him or hit himself. It’s really hard to watch. It’s embarrassing. And it’s why we can’t really go out to restaurants as a family anymore.

When George gets mad like this at home, though, we have a routine. I take him to the couch or the floor and lie with him until he cools off. That’s my role. He tries to resist, so I usually have to hold him down. I’m the only one in my family who is strong enough to physically handle him anymore, which is tough. Sometimes I want to be like my friends, who don’t really have this sort of responsibility to their families. I mean, it’s hard to explain to them that I can’t go to a movie or play video games on a Saturday afternoon because someone needs to be home with George, and guess what? It’s my turn.

The Silver Lining

You know, I always thought that my life would be like everybody else’s. I thought having a little brother would mean I’d have someone on my side all the time. I thought that if I had a fight with my sisters, he’d have my back. It didn’t end up that way. But when you think about the people in your life, they’re there for a reason.

I wanted George to help me gang up on my sisters, but it’s funny—having George in the family has actually brought all of us closer together. It’s not even that we spend a lot more time with each other, but he’s a connection point. He’s a responsibility that we all have to share. It has taught us to compromise. Sometimes it can be annoying to think about how George is going to bug me to play as soon as I get home at night. But then I walk up to the door, and he opens it and stands there, smiling so big. And that just makes my whole day.

 

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