Tag Archives: sibling relationships

Book Review: My Brother Sammy Is Special

7 Apr

I am participating in the Health Activist Writers Month Challenge, in which I publish a post every day for the month of April, based on health-related prompts.

April 7 – Health Activist Choice: Today, I get to write about anything I like. I decided to take the opportunity to review a book that should really be on the bookshelf of every child who has a brother or sister with autism.

I tend to feel a lot of angst when it comes to parenting my younger son, James. James, who is six going on thirty-two, is the neurotypical child in my family. He is the one without autism, the one who is very socially engaging and never stops talking, even when he’s asleep.

James himself does not make parenting difficult. He is as well-behaved as a boisterous six-year-old boy can be, he is making good progress at school, and he gets along famously with his big brother George when they’re not throwing Lego at each other.

What makes it hard is the fact that due to George’s autism, I have to use completely different parenting styles with my kids. What I do makes perfect sense to me, but it can be hard for a six-year-old to grasp why he is being treated differently to his brother. Although my husband and I try our best to explain things to James, a lot happens that James perceives to be unfair.

And so when I got the opportunity to review a book written specifically for the siblings of children with autism, I wasn’t going to pass it up. Written by Becky Edwards and illustrated by David Armitage, My Brother Sammy Is Special tells the story of a boy who is angry about his brother being different. He doesn’t want a brother who is different. He wants a brother who can talk to him and play with him, and who doesn’t wreck his stuff.

In a beautiful twist, Sammy’s brother has a revelation, and instead of trying to force Sammy out into his world, he ventures into Sammy’s world. And so Sammy’s brother achieves the brotherly bonding that he so desperately craves, but not in the way that he had expected.

Having read the book myself, it was time to test it out on a member of the target audience. I snuggled up with James, opened the book, and started reading. The story, with its flowing narration and beautiful illustrations, engaged James’ attention throughout. He was very concerned about where this brotherly relationship would go, and he was visibly relieved that it all worked out in the end.

My Brother Sammy Is Special is written in language that is simple enough for young children to understand, yet descriptive enough to convey the complexity of the special needs sibling relationship. Although the blurb in the dust jacket says that the story is about a boy with autism, the story itself makes no specific mention of the condition. This makes it flexible enough to be effectively used within many kinds of special needs families.

The book is a great launch-pad for discussion. It flows in such a way that parents and their children can pause to ask questions and talk about aspects of the story without losing the flow. For children who may be bewildered by the special needs of their siblings, the story can serve to provide both comfort and understanding. It also describes practical ways in which a typically developing child can try engage with his or her special needs sibling.

I highly recommend this book for any family that has a mix of special needs children and typically developing children. It is a gem – a treat for parents and children alike.

My Brother Sammy Is Special is available for purchase at Amazon.

Many thanks to Skyhorse Publishing for allowing me to review the book, and for providing the cover image.

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All We Need Is A Reason

17 Nov

This morning I woke up early and went to the gym for a rare run on the treadmill.  As a general rule, I am not fond of treadmill running.  It makes me feel a bit like a lab rat, or a hamster running in one of those little wheels.  You never actually go anywhere. You don’t feel the freedom of the open road.  It all seems a little pointless, like tofu or decaffeinated coffee.

On the odd occasion, though, a treadmill workout is better than a road run. This can be true from a circumstantial point of view (you’ve woken up with sore knees and you need to run on a surface with some give; you’re tired and cannot be bothered to map out a route; the weather outside is frightful and you cannot find your balaclava or your will power).  A treadmill run can also be beneficial from a training perspective, especially during the winter.  It can be kind of difficult to do a tempo run or speed reps outside when it’s snowing and there’s a gusty wind blowing.  Far better to head to the gym where you can focus on maintaining 5:30 minutes per kilometre without stressing about snow, wind, ice on the sidewalks, or the fact that it’s dark and you look like a burglar.

So anyway, I went for my treadmill run and worked up a good sweat.  I had some anxiety to work out of my system, so I really belted it, clocking 5km in 24 minutes. Feeling a lot better and pleasantly loosened up, I returned home, where everyone was still asleep.  Before taking a shower, I checked on my boys.  At some point during my absence, George had crawled into bed beside his little brother, and the two of them were sleeping peacefully, James clutching his stuffed giraffe, George with arm over James’ shoulders.  It was one of those moments that reminds me of why I love being a mother, and why, in fact, I was running on the treadmill at such an ungodly hour in the first place.

It is so weird to think that two years ago, I could barely run around the block. I had been bitten by the running bug previously, of course, but after seven years of no exercise my lifestyle was decidedly sedentery. I was decidedly unhealthy, and my clothing was decidedly tight.  I had tried, over the years, to make comebacks to the world of running, but there was always something that stopped me. Injury, illness, lack of time. When it came down to it, though, all I lacked was the right motivation.  When I got that email from the Geneva Centre for Autism back in April 2009, inviting me to join their team for the upcoming marathon/half-marathon/5km Charity Challenge, I knew instantly that I had finally found a reason to get with the program, and to stick with the program.

Initially I considered the 5km event.  After all, I hadn’t run in seven years and I was about seventy pounds overweight. And the event was just six months away. But the little voice in my head that never shuts up until it gets its own way piped up and chanted, “Half-marathon! Half-marathon! Half-marathon!” And before I knew it, I had clicked on the link in the email and signed up for the half-marathon. Six months later, I stood at the finish line somewhat stunned by the fact that in just half a year I had shed sixty pounds, gotten myself into some semblance of “shape”, and completed a half-marathon.

A year further down the line, I have run several races and two more half-marathons.  Another two are planned for 2011, and my comeback to running is now firmly established.  All thanks to those two little boys who were snuggled up together this morning, sleeping beside each other, making me feel like the richest person on the entire planet.

Have you ever done something that you thought would be beyond your limits?  What motivated you, and what helped keep you going when things got tough?

(P.S. My first post for World Moms Blog was published today.  Check it out:
http://worldmomsblog.com/2010/11/17/little-brother-big-hero/
)

He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother

23 Apr

My boys have fallen into a new sleep routine.  At bedtime, we do all the stuff we always did.  They get their jammies on, use the bathroom, brush their teeth (most days they have a bath earlier in the evening).  For story-time, I sit on my glider chair between their beds – the same glider chair that saw me through countless night-time feedings when my boys were infants.  George gets right into bed, James curls up on my lap, and they each drink their milk while I read a story (current flavour of the day: anything to do with Thomas the Train).  After the story, James gets into his bed, each of them gets sip more milk, and the lights go out.

About five minutes later, we usually see a little face quietly peeking around the corner: George, trying to sneak onto the futon we have in our living room so he can watch TV.  Or maybe he just wants the extra hugs we always give him, because once we’ve hugged him he goes back to bed amenably enough.  At some point during the night, usually fairly early on, he migrates to the sofabed in the playroom, and sleeps there for the rest of the night.

Sometimes I worry about this.  From time to time, when one of the kids is having a hard time, I have to sleep on the sofabed with said kid, and that thing ruins my back.  I always wake up the next morning feeling as if I’ve been tortured by Vikings.  I worry about whether the sofabed is doing to George’s back what it’s doing to mine.  But once he’s there he won’t budge, he sleeps soundly, and he wakes up cheerfully enough.  So maybe he’s OK and I just need to chill out a little instead of finding yet another thing to be perpetually stressed about.

In the meantime, James is sleeping soundly in his own bed.  He’s a little champion at bedtime, James is.  Once the lights are out he goes right to sleep without a fuss.  He usually wakes up in the middle of the night, though – sometime between midnight and three in the morning.  When I found out the reason for his nocturnal awakenings, my heart soared: he gets lonely for his big brother.  He makes his way to the sofabed, climbs in beside George, and goes right back to sleep.  George surfaces just enough to shift to make room for James, then he goes to sleep as well.

I am always the first one in the household to wake up in the mornings.  Some days – like today – I go for an early morning run.  Other days, I like to get dressed, pour out a cup of coffee, and have some me-time at the computer reading emails or playing meaningless games on Facebook.  I love carving out that time for myself in the mornings, before the rest of the world wakes up.

Whatever I am doing – running or playing on the computer – the first thing I always do is check on my boys.  I go to the playroom and watch them sleeping peacefully, each completely at ease with the other’s presence.  They look cosy and comfortable, like a pair of sleepy kittens.  There is always physical contact between the two: James’ hand resting on George’s, or George’s hand lightly touching James’ shoulder.  When I checked on them this morning, George’s arm was flung over James’ shoulders.  It looked big brotherly and protective.

I savour those moments as I watch them and wonder what dreams are going on in those little heads.  Even though they are sleeping, I feel as if I am witnessing a moment of special connection between the two brothers.

Never forget the siblings

29 Mar

As I work towards my Run for Autism, my inspiration is George.  He’s the only member of my family – either immediate or extended – who has been touched by autism.  I could go on all day about his challenges, his strengths, and the fact that what most “typical” parents see as minor developmental milestones are, to me, gigantic accomplishments that make me want to jump for joy.  I am in the process of starting to work with a holistic lifestyle coach named Brandon: the first time I spoke to him he told me that while parenting in general is equivalent to a full-time job, parenting a child with autism is equivalent to an additional full-time job.  It makes sense.  I have to maintain two completely separate styles of parenting for my two children, because what works for one definitely would not be appropriate for the other.

And in this sense my Run for Autism is inspired not only by my autistic son George, but also by my neurotypical child James.  James, in addition to just being James, a unique individual in his own right, is also the brother of an autistic child.  Although he is chronologically the younger of the two, in most senses he is actually older.  He has the verbal skills, the social skills, the adaptive skills that his brother does not have.  There are times when he is called upon to understand the kinds of things that kids his age shouldn’t have to worry about.  He has a very strong sense of what is and is not fair, and when George’s autism leads to us reacting in a way that James perceives to be unfair, it can be very hard for his four-year-old mind to process.  Being the sibling of an autistic child cannot be easy.  And so when we do something to improve the lives of autistic children, we are also by extension doing something to improve the lives of their siblings.

We are very fortunate that James is the kind of child that he is.  He is a highly verbal, very social child.  He has opinions and he’s not afraid to express them.  Although there is definite sibling rivalry, James adores his big brother.  If he is given a cookie, he requests one for George.  If we do something simple like take George’s hat off his head in a playful moment, James will get upset and demand that we return the hat to its rightful owner.  When George is having a meltdown, James feels sad and says things about how he will take care of George.  He has never used the word “autism” in relation to George, but he is aware of George’s disability. Based on his character, both Gerard and I believe that James will grow up to be friend and advocate to his brother.

I frequently worry about whether I am doing right by James.  So much of James’ life is shaped by George’s autism.  A simple example is Mr. Potato Head.  George loves Mr. Potato Head.  He has about twenty of them, and he has to know where they all are at all times.  If anyone touches his Mr. Potato Heads he gets very upset.  Any Mr. Potato Head that enters the house is automatically deemed to be George’s property.  There have been times when James has tried to play with a Potato Head, and he’s been prevented from doing so, either by George himself or by parents who are too frazzled to deal with a meltdown.  Over time, James has been conditioned to not play with Mr. Potato Head.  I have no idea whether he’d like it or not, and I feel oddly sad that we’ll never find out.  Another one like that is Lego.  We tried getting James Lego that is different in appearance from what George likes, but we have had limited success.  James will still make the occasional attempt to play with Lego, and if I happen to be around, I play with him and fend off George’s intrusions.

I sometimes wonder whether James’ passion for trains and cars is genuine, or if it’s just something he has gravitated to because George isn’t really interested in them.  When these thoughts start troubling me too deeply, I console myself with the knowledge that James truly does love his cars and trains and gets a lot of joy from them.

What I really want to convey is this: autism does not only affect the individual diagnosed with it.  It touches every member of the family.  The autistic child is not the only one who needs special care and attention.  We must never forget the siblings.