“The siblings of special needs children are quite special. Absolutely accepting and totally loving, from birth, someone who is different mentally, and has a different way of seeing the world, is a wonderful trait.”- Sally Phillips
I am often struck with gratitude for the three amazing children God has given me. Each one of them is so unique, with such wonderfully loving hearts and funny personalities, and I often look at them and just think “Wow… I am so blessed to be their mama.” They have such an incredible bond, and I am so happy that they’ve grown up to love each other so much and be so close.
When Sawyer joined our family, the entire family fell in love with Sawyer right off the bat, but the girls were absolutely smitten. Both of them were constantly wanting to help take care of him, and they absolutely loved holding and cuddling him. Sawyer’s bond with the girls was obvious from Day 1; as soon as he heard their voices, he’d start looking around the room for them, and they could make him laugh like nobody else.
When I first started noticing signs of a developmental delay in Sawyer, I was worried and the girls caught on fast. I remember Emily asking me one night “What happens if he has a delay?” I said “I don’t know, but we’ll have to do what we can to help him.” She cuddled her brother and said “I’ll do anything for my Bub!” And then a few months later, when it was being discussed to send Sawyer for autism testing, I sat both the girls down and explained to them what was going on and that if their brother was diagnosed with autism, our lives would change a lot. At that point, they already knew that Sawyer couldn’t talk, and he was already having therapy with his early intervention team, so I explained that those things would continue. I also explained to them that it could possibly affect things like family outings, errands, and vacations because he may not be able to tolerate things like large crowds or places with a lot of activity and noise. The girls were 12 and 7 at the time, and they were very understanding and supportive, but I knew they didn’t fully “get it” yet. They would soon, though.
Our lives changed the moment Sawyer got his autism diagnosis. At the time he was diagnosed, Sawyer was 20 months old but acted more like an 8 month old. Due to his delays, at the recommendation of his early intervention team and the team at Vanderbilt Kennedy Center that screened him, we immediately put Sawyer into an intensive ABA therapy program. Vanderbilt was part of an autism study at the time called The Tadpole Project, in which a team of ABA therapists would work with and observe Sawyer over a period of 2 years. It was an intensive program (Monday through Friday, Sawyer would go through 6 hours of therapy, broken up into three 2-hour sessions), but we were on board immediately- we wanted to do whatever we could to help Sawyer’s progress. The girls griped a little, especially during school breaks and things because we had to wait til therapy was over to go places a lot of the time. I also wouldn’t allow friends to come over until therapy was over for the day, but for the most part the girls were understanding- especially when we started seeing amazing progress from Sawyer early into his therapy journey.
A few months after Sawyer was diagnosed with autism, I got a call from Emily’s school. Her principal told me there had been an “altercation” on the bus, and Emily had punched a boy. I was surprised; Emily was usually my most non-confrontational child. I asked what happened and the principal told me the boy had been making fun of a special needs boy on the bus, and Emily told him to stop. When the boy kept making fun of him, she punched him. It was all I could do not to laugh… I told the principal I’d talk about it with Emily when she got home, but all I could think was how proud of her I was for standing up for that boy. When she got home that afternoon, I asked what happened and Emily told me there was an autistic boy that sat at the front of their bus. One of the boys in the back started making fun of him- flapping his hands, making “weird” noises, and calling himself the r word. Emily told him to stop, but the boy kept on. They exchanged insults, but eventually Emily got tired of it and punched the boy. When I asked her why she punched him, she said “I don’t know… Like, I realized when people make fun of people like that kid on the bus, they’re making fun of people like Sawyer, and it just made me so mad! I wanted to knock his teeth down his throat!”
In that moment, we both realized a hard truth about the future that might possibly lie ahead not only for Sawyer, but for all of us. I told her I was proud of her for not only sticking up for that boy, but for people like her brother. I explained that it was not only our job to love and protect him, but to also advocate for him and others like him. She nodded her head and told me she knew that, and I knew then that Sawyer’s sisters would be his fiercest protectors. (And yes, even though I was proud of her for standing up for the boy on the bus, I did tell her it’s not ok to put her hands on people unless they do it first.)
There have been a few instances over the years in which my girls’ inner fighters have come out over their instinctive need to take care of their brother. They don’t always “throw hands”, as Caitlyn would say, but they’re never shy to speak up for him or others with special needs. Once when Sawyer was in preschool, a little girl made fun of his speech. Sawyer was playing the game with a little girl while Caitlyn watched, and the little girl made fun of how he said a certain word. My sister is a teacher’s aide at Sawyer’s school, and she witnessed the incident and told me “The change in Caitlyn’s face was incredible; it was like a storm cloud came over her and she was about to let that little girl have it, except I was there so I stepped in.” Another time, just last year, some boys in Caitlyn’s 8th grade class were making fun of people with special needs, and using the word “autistic” in a derogatory way. She told them to stop and said “When you make fun of people like that, you’re making fun of people like my brother” and one of the boys said “Nobody cares about your stupid brother!” That was it; Caitlyn got in his face and started screaming at him and the teacher had to break it up. Again, I was surprised at Caitlyn’s fierce protection over her brother, but it made my heart swell with pride. When she came home, I had a long talk with her about how proud I was of her for standing up for her brother. I told her that the world has a lot of ugly people in it that like to pick on people who can’t stand up for themselves, and we need to make it our job to stop it when we can. She agreed with me, and told me she would always “take care of” Sawyer. ♥
My kids aren’t perfect, and they definitely have their fights- they’re your typical siblings, after all. Some days they laugh together and bond over silly and fun things, and other days they can’t stand each other. But at the end of the day, their love for each other runs so deep, and their ferocious protection of each other is incredible to witness. I know the day will come one of these days where I won’t be here anymore, but I take comfort in knowing that they have each other and no matter what, they will always take care of each other.