Okay, so now that I’m taking that first baby step toward 200 blogs, I keep hearing a silly song from my childhood: “100 bottles of beer on the wall, 100 bottles of beer, if one of those beers should happen to fall, 99 bottles of beer on the wall…” Remember singing that one on long bus trips to sleepaway camp or in the family car traveling for too many hours to what seemed like an endlessly faraway destination? I definitely don’t want The Never-Empty Nest to become a series of virtual beer bottles tumbling off the cyberwall each week. But instead of singing my way to zero, I’m writing my way upward to… who knows? So this week’s post is an invitation to my readers. What are your deepest concerns about your kids growing up and departing the family nest? I’ll tell you mine, if you tell me yours.
At last week’s autism conference at Adelphi, I attended an afternoon seminar, “Family Matters: Enhancing Parent and Sibling Relationships from Adolescence through Adulthood” with the sole intention of raising my most gnawing question. “Do you have any suggestions for how I can help my twins, age 24, improve their relationship? My daughter on the spectrum—usually very sweet—is so envious of her neurotypical brother’s popularity and success that she’s nasty or avoids him. We’re not going to be here forever and I’d feel a lot better if they could grow closer.” (Usually I try not to think about this because it makes my eyes burn). Maybe because I’m from such a small family—an only child of a mother who was an only child and missed out on having a sibling, I had a stronger-than-average yearning for my kids—especially twins—to grow up sharing a special bond. Yes, I KNOW from friends and family that plenty of neurotypical brothers and sisters grow up having very little to do with each other. But I also see families where siblings are close, and it makes me wonder what—if anything—I could have done (or could still do) differently.
My question was submitted (along with others) on an index card to the group of experts on the panel. The panelists included John Elder Robison, the brilliant Aspergian writer and speaker I described in last week’s post. Also on the panel and diagnosed with “atypical development and strong autistic tendencies,” was Stephen Shore, an assistant professor at Adelphi University who teaches courses in special education and autism. In addition, there were several neurotypical female panelists: a speech pathologist with an older adult brother on the autistic spectrum, a psychologist with a Ph.D. who specializes in diagnostic evaluation, and a college senior with a twin brother (in the audience) who has inspired her to pursue a degree in Special Education.
Mr. Robison decided that my question was “so compelling it needed to be answered first.” Unfortunately, the panelist who volunteered to answer was the one whose beloved twin brother was sitting in the row in front of me. Instead of offering suggestions for how to help my twins improve their relationship, she took the opportunity to describe the special and loving relationship she enjoys with her own brother—whom she invited to stand and receive applause. I’m happy for her and her twin brother; really I am, but I couldn’t help feeling deeply frustrated and resentful that she used up the precious time allotted to my question to wax on about her terrific relationship, without attempting to offer me any useful advice. I also couldn’t help thinking that although the sibling panelist was neurotypical, she droned on and drifted off topic, the way people on the autistic spectrum often do.
Thankfully, (and not surprisingly) it was Mr. Robison who had both the empathy and the intelligence to realize that my question had gone unanswered. He began his response by suggesting that sibling relationships are frequently over-rated. Further, trying to improve my twins’ relationship might not be the best idea because a sibling or family member isn’t always the ideal person to depend on in a crisis. Robison recommended that I try to help my daughter foster relationships with close friends who could look out for her after I’m gone.
Before he could finish, another mother in the audience jumped out of her seat. “I disagree completely,” she interjected. “Nothing is more important than family! As a mom, I drilled it into my children from an early age that they would one day be responsible for my son with autism. There was never any debate. I don’t have to worry about it now, because I know they’ll take care of him.”
Good for you. No useful suggestion there—only the painful-but-obvious observation that I’d missed the boat on insisting that my son be responsible for his sister. Was I wrong to hope that my son might one day look out for his twin sister out of love rather than obligation? I mouthed a silent thank you to Robison when he looked my way. Although my question had sparked a short-but-lively debate, I was disappointed and ready to leave. Only Robison had attempted to answer my question and provide some comfort—even if his answer wasn’t the one I’d been seeking.
Maybe I don’t need an expert panelist with a Ph.D. or another adult with an autistic sibling to answer my question. Instead I’m inviting all the parents in cyberspace to offer suggestions. What—if anything—can I do to help my twins build a better relationship going forward?
I’d also like to invite readers to challenge me with YOUR most pressing empty nest issues. I promise I’ll try to address your questions about family matters in blogs 102, 103 and beyond.