My boys are only 18 months apart in age, and, when they were tiny, I often heard people say, "They'll be best friends." The assumption was that kids close in age and of the same gender would occupy the same phase in life, have the same interests, and generally be kindred spirits. This was my fervent wish.
Of course, wishes often differ from reality. Marek and Lukas have little in common other than an address, a set of parents, and an ADHD diagnosis. Where Marek prefers individual pursuits like video games, drawing, and writing, Lukas loves nothing better than running amok with a bunch of kids. Marek excels at sports like golf, baseball, and tennis, but Lukas walked, crossed the monkey bars, and learned to ride a bike without training wheels at earlier ages than his older brother. And while neither boy is neurotypical - ADHD being a neurological difference too - Lukas struggles more due to his comorbid autism diagnosis. Receptive and expressive communication delays make reading comprehension and attending in class a challenge. His fine motor delay makes him tire easily when writing, and his writing is less legible than typical for his age. Sometimes he gets stuck on a question or snippet of dialogue from a video and repeats himself for a while. Changes from routine can cause him anxiety, and when he gets upset, he whines and sometimes melts down spectacularly.
It's the meltdowns and the repetitive stereotypical language that causes the greatest conflict between my kids. Marek is a strong-willed boy with an overdeveloped sense of propriety and some difficulty regulating his own emotions. Tolerance does not come easily to him, and sometimes, it doesn't come at all. Often, I find myself dealing with two screaming kids, one melting down because his day is a bit off-kilter, the other having a fit because his brother will not stop screaming. Marek gets angry when his brother won't stop repeating himself, particularly when he's trying to focus his own fleeting attention on homework or the book he's reading.
In calmer times, I have conversations with Marek about his brother's disability, explaining to him that Lukas can't help the rapid-fire talking, the whining, the screaming, because of the different way his brain processes information. I explain to him that his getting upset makes the situation escalate and makes it harder to calm Lukas down. I ask him to try to stay calm, to leave the room, to let me try to fix the situation without his involvement. I know he tries, but annoyance generally wins out.
It's difficult for me to be very angry with Marek. He's only eight, and the impulsive nature of his particular version of ADHD makes it hard for him to keep his emotions in check. Even with the benefit of age, I sometimes struggle to maintain control when Lukas goes off the rails. But there's another reason I sympathize with Marek's frustration.
When I was growing up, our family was a foster family. Mostly we took in healthy newborns who cycled through our house for a few weeks or a few months before launching a new life with their adoptive families. And then came David.
David was a three-year-old with a mild case of Cerebral Palsy and significant gross motor, fine motor and speech delays. He came to us temporarily while his regular foster family took an extended vacation abroad. In the few months he lived in our raucous household, he started talking, potty trained, and made significant progress in other areas. The adoption agency permanently placed David in our home, and he eventually became my brother.
In the 1970s, autism often went unidentified, and David never received that diagnosis. Knowing what I know now, I suspect that my younger brother falls somewhere on the spectrum, given his developmental delays and the behaviors that filled me with fury when I was a child. David talked constantly about roller coasters, always had to sit on the left side in the back when riding in any vehicle, particularly buses, sometimes had incomprehensible meltdowns at inopportune moments, and flapped his hands all the time. He never got in trouble with my parents, did not have to do chores until he was well into his teens, and (as I saw it at the time) got preferential treatment in all sorts of other ways.
For much of my youth, I made things very difficult for my parents because of my terrible behavior. When I was little, I sometimes bit David. One one occasion, I hid one of his special supportive shoes and made him miss the school bus. Sometimes I broke his toys on purpose. I look back at that time and wonder what demon possessed me. To anyone else, I was friendly, sweet, and generous; to David, I was a tormentor. Marek's verbal tirades seem downright reasonable by comparison.
Today, David lives independently in Los Angeles, works full-time, and travels all over the Los Angeles area enjoying his interests (which still include roller coasters). He came to Chicago last summer with my parents, and he, Lukas, and I went to Great America together. We both grew up, and I - thank goodness - grew more kind and tolerant.
I see this conflict from both sides - the resentful child who can't stand the annoying behavior and the special treatment a disabled sibling sometimes gets, and the frustrated parent who must balance the needs of two very different kids while navigating everyday life. It's an interesting line to straddle, because I feel a lot of shame about my past cruelty to my brother, and I can't imagine anyone being so horrible to my Lukas. At the same time, I can still slip into the skin of my former self and empathize with Marek.
I have a friend who grew up with an autistic brother, and she has told me that her experience has made her more tolerant and more supportive of individuals with disabilities. Perhaps by explaining Lukas's behaviors to Marek and coaching him along the way, I can guide him to the same place. Occasionally I see magic in my house - Marek patiently coaching Lukas on Minecraft technique or two masked and caped heroes acting silly in the kitchen. I know wishes and reality are very different things, but I still hope to see the day when my boys are best friends.