Dinner at Seven | Organization for Autism Research

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At my last reading for my book, Next Stop, a teenager came up to me for some advice. “I really love my little brother,” she said, tears springing to her eyes, “but his autism takes all of my parents’ attention. I know it sounds selfish, but what about me?”

There it was again, one of autism’s best-kept secrets: sibling neglect. The thing is, autism is never a story about a single child; it is also the story of the family who loves him. But the squeaky wheel gets the grease and that means the needs of neurotypical siblings sometimes get pushed into the background.

My youngest son David, now 27, has autism. When he was a child, the intense demands of parenting him had me so fragmented I didn’t realize I was creating a second vulnerable crew:

David’s two big brothers. As they grew into your average sweating, testosterone-fueled

teenage boys, too often the spotlight was not on them when it should have shone most brightly. 

The afternoon 15-year old Max broke four ribs playing football, I was in a long conference with David’s therapists. My cell phone was off, and for three hours somebody else’s mom worried over my oldest son in the ER. When I finally arrived, leaching guilt, Max stared back at me with cold, blue eyes.  He put up a hand to fend off my touch.

Of course, every child needs to be honored and I hadn’t managed to be present when he needed me to witness his valiant pain. He wanted to make sure I understood that. Although he never took it out on David, Max was right: concern for David’s needs now outshone everyone else’s light at our house.

My middle son, Eric, was my second pair of eyes. He was always there to protect his little brother from the bullies at school. I may have leaned on him a bit heavily when he was a teenager, adding too much obligation to what should have been happy go-lucky years for him.

Eric must have sensed my splintered kind of mothering. Instead of wondering where I was when he needed me, he found himself a second mother: his unwavering piano teacher. Whenever the noisy drama of high school got a stranglehold on him, his piano teacher was there to remind Eric where his music would one day take him. Patricia was his constant anchor, and I am still grateful for her help. From her, I learned it was okay to ask for and accept help when I needed it. I couldn’t do it all.

Homemade Therapy

Looking back across those tough teenage years, the one thing we did right was to have dinner together as a family, which happened almost every night at seven o’clock. I’m only a mother, not a doctor or a therapist, but everyone could count on a healthy meal, and it

allowed us time to praise each boy’s triumphs or help balance their setbacks. Sure, some nights were spent bickering back and forth while David flapped his hands and jostled the plates on the table, spilling the milk. We were pretty much your typical, messy family. But there were also those rare and wonderful moments when my older sons let us in on what it’s like to have a younger brother with autism.

My husband and I paid close attention whenever Max or Eric dropped hints of their conflicted feelings of love and loyalty, resentment and anger, guilt and embarrassment. It sounds simple, but listening carefully to their worries (then acknowledging without criticizing those feelings) helped us realize we were all in this together. Everyone at the table mattered. Dinner at seven became our homemade therapy.

As they grew older, we learned to value the right to self-determination for each one of our sons. In time, we included all three of them in developing the plans for David’s future. In separate conversations we discussed the older brothers’ concerns over their future caregiving responsibilities and how David’s special needs trust fund could be managed to give him a life of his own. Planning for the future of a child with autism is a daunting task, and our “Plan B” continues to be an ever-changing work in progress, but it’s deeply comforting to know David’s big brothers will be there for him when my husband and I are no longer around.

So I’ll tell you the same thing I told the sensitive teenager who approached me in tears after that reading. Conflicted feelings don’t make you selfish, they make you human. And all of us need the unwavering support of a good listener. Dinner at seven every night is a good start.

Glen Finland is a freelance journalist and the author of Next Stop: An Autistic Son Grows Up, a 2012 Barnes & Noble Discover Pick and Penguin’s Book Club choice for National Disability Employment Awareness Month. Her essays have appeared in The Washington Post, Family Circle, Revolution, Parenting, American Magazine, Wired, Babble, Autism Speaks and Washington Parents Magazine. A featured autism advocate on radio and TV, she is also the mother of three grown sons and a Visiting Writer at American University. Next Stop is now an audio book, recorded by the author for the National Library Services for the Blind. Read more about her at www.glenfinland.com.

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