April 2 is Autism Awareness Day.
My brother, Mitchell, was born a little more than two years after me. My parents and doctor knew there was something wrong. He would not bond with my mom and wasn’t meeting the developmental milestones expected of an infant. At that time, the word autism wasn’t even part of the medical field’s vernacular. The best thing that my parents could do, the doctor recommended, was to institutionalize Mitch.
My mother refused and with the tenacity that Cher showed in the movie, Mask, (seeing that movie made my mom an emotional wreck), she advocated and fought to receive the rights and resources for my brother.
As I said, no one knew about Autism then. Mitchell was late to develop – speaking late, taking longer to be toilet trained. He walked on his toes. He talked to himself and flapped his hands frenetically when he got excited. My mom would stand proud and stoic when Mitch displayed this behavior in public. Because of her, I was never embarrassed about or because of his behavior either.
He was placed in self-contained special education classrooms, went to a summer sleep away camp for those with mental retardation. (I was extremely disturbed dropping him off and seeing the other kids. I knew Mitch wasn’t like them, but my mom would do anything to help him develop to his fullest capacity.)
But my mom and a magical special education teacher, Mrs. Johnson, through their love and tough love pushed Mitchell to succeed. He graduated High School with the regular class. He learned to drive a car (never having a major accident). He cashiered at my father’s store prior to its closing.
Even when Mitch turned into any adult, my mother had to fight yet again, this time to get him social security disability benefits. After hiring a lawyer, the benefits were given, but my mother has to fill out yearly forms that ask if he has been cured yet.
I once went to a state mental institution to visit a young person with whom I was working. She was in the facility’s large gym. I looked over to the bleachers across from us to see older men sitting there, just staring off into space and rocking back and forth. I gasped in horror realizing that this could have been Mitchell if my mother had taken the doctor’s advice to institutionalize him as a baby.
Mitch is now in his adulthood and still living with my mom. He loves learning about the Civil War, World War II, and Giants football. He loves watching TV and reading about these topics. He drives to work out with a personal trainer at a local gym three times a week, to get food from fast food restaurants, to buy three daily newspapers to read, and to purchase his own toiletries. He has no friends, never had a girlfriend.
My father died February, 2012. In her state of grief she said to Mitchell, “Who will be my rock now?” Mitchell responded, “I will be your rock.” Mother’s Day 2012 came around. Mitchell had gone out to buy her flowers and a card. The significance in this is that Mitch never bought anyone a present his entire life. The empathy he showed my mother goes deeper than his words and mannerisms show. So who are the rest of us to judge or think we know what goes on in the minds and hearts of those who are different?
My mom wonders if Mitchell is happy. He seems happy to me. I told her that he is probably happier than any of her three children . . . that we cannot judge happiness for him based on our standards. I love Mitchell – the world needs to understand and love people like Mitchell, too.