‘Neurotypical’ is one word which could possibly be used to describe me. It is an abbreviation of neurologically typical, a neologism created and used within the autistic community. A quick Google search of the word throws up the definition “not displaying or characterised by autistic or other neurologically atypical patterns of thought or behaviour.” Put simply, it means that I’m what the world has socialised us to believe is ‘normal’ – although this term should be used loosely and with caution. Is anyone actually normal? What even is normal?
On the other hand, my 13-year-old sister is what you could call ‘Neurodiverse’ and she struggles every day with Autism. Although she is high-functioning and masks her differences well in public by mimicking the behaviour of those around her, everyday tasks are an internal battle.
Since her diagnosis last year, her strange actions and rituals started to make sense. Obviously, a diagnosis seems the desirable outcome of psychiatric appointments and examinations. It should make everything better. What I soon came to realise is that a diagnosis (which is heavily romanticised within the autistic community) doesn’t make everything go away. She still struggled, but now her struggle had a metaphorical label.
Growing up, I couldn’t wait for the days when my sister and I were old enough to go shopping together, watch awful romantic comedies and cry, paint each other’s nails…
I can’t do any of these things with my sister. Shopping centres are loud and overwhelming, too many people, bright lights and a constant murmur of chatter. Movies are confusing, unanswered questions frustrate her to the point of tears, flashbacks don’t follow the proper order of life and facial expressions are difficult to read. Her nails are bitten down to the flesh through daily panics and anxiety. I can’t even hug my sister because the slightest movement of a hand can either tickle or hurt depending on her mood.
Something I hear a lot within the autistic community is “I wouldn’t change them for the world”.
Although the sentiment of this phrase is poignant, I would perhaps argue that they are almost lying. If I could somehow take away my sister’s Autism, I would do it in a heartbeat. On one hand it is a large part of her personality, but it is a mental illness that consumes her and often makes her life a misery. Why wouldn’t I want to take all of that pain away?
On a more selfish level, my life would sometimes be a lot happier if my sister didn’t have Autism. Not only does it consume her life, but it starts manifesting and spreading until everyone around her is negatively impacted. Our house is loud and busy at all times, but I often feel alone. The time and attention my sister requires to meet her intense and often seemingly futile demands, meant that from a young age I learned to entertain myself and be happy in isolated situations. When living with an autistic person it can sometimes seem like the right thing to do to side-line yourself to make their life easier. Staying out of the way of their routines and meltdowns means a quieter life with less conflict.
Through doing this I have suffered through intense bouts of depression and anxiety, struggling to even get out of bed in the morning. Feeling absolutely no emotion at all is worse than just feeling a bit down because you can’t even explain the way you feel. What made it harder, especially when my sister had just received her diagnosis, was that I couldn’t even express to my family how I felt because it wasn’t her fault. Bottling up emotion is always how spells of depression start but I quickly learned that admitting that I’m struggling is not one of my strong points.
Ironically, one of the only people who can make me smile when I’m feeling depressed is my sister. Although she can be angry, violent and brutally honest, her quirks and bubbly personality buried deep inside shine out. Whether it’s a hilarious dance performance in the living room or stand-up comedy at my bedroom door, she always finds a way to cheer me up.
Being a sibling to someone with Autism is incredibly challenging but always seems worth it in little moments like a hug that doesn’t tickle or hurt her, a day out or holiday without a huge public meltdown, seeing her face when she saw the Disney castle for the first time. Those little moments that would usually be insignificant if she were to be ‘normal’ are memories that I will cherish forever, and perhaps I prefer it that way. She is different but she is my sister and I love her endlessly.