And sometimes that line is dashed, dulled or moving.
She’s only two-years-old. And as often– and as readily– as I ask her to get her fingers out of her nose, I ask her to watch/teach/cajole her brother. The absurdity of it hit me yesterday in line at Target. Francie played at the petri dish of germs (a.k.a., water fountain) near me as I waited for the cashier to finish totaling our usual order: frozen waffles (breakfast), frozen chicken nuggets (lunch) and fruit snacks (bribery). Will took off for the automatic double doors. Out came my matter-of-fact request, “Francie, please watch your brother.” A seemingly simple request. But so difficult that sometimes I can’t even manage it.
This is not an essay about how my devilishly handsome, 4-year-old son is broken. It’s not a “poor me” piece about how hard it is to raise a child on the autism spectrum. And it’s also not a one-sided praise piece of my daughter. If you spend any time with Francie and me you’ll know I make no secret of it that she was born to challenge me. My girl, my arch rival.
Will is not ‘neuro-typical’. Either is his sister. Her words, thoughts, comparisons are advanced. (This is where you mutter, ‘like mother, like daughter’. ha!)
I know that because of Francie I will be on a news clip in 30-years. The internet will show one of two things: Either me, beaming with pride, as she heads a crew of astronauts into space. Or me expressing shock– not that my daughter was able to orchestrate a multi-billion dollar drug ring out of Eastern Europe— but that she got caught.
She’s a dare devil and a cuddler. A fashionista who refuses to brush her hair.
And as capable as my Francie is… I know I’m asking a lot from a little girl who isn’t even three.
I am asking my daughter to understand what it means to be autistic. I am asking her heart not to break when Will (whom she calls, ‘Brother’– although from her mouth it sounds more like ‘Brudder’) ignores her frequent, pleading attempts to play. Right now, when she throws her arms around Will, and he doesn’t squeeze back, Francie just hugs tighter. But I can’t expect that she’ll never give up.
Francie and I talk about it. We have talked about it as long as the word “autism” entered our home. She has heard that Will’s brain works differently than her brain. She has been told that it isn’t that he doesn’t want to answer her, but rather that sometimes he can’t answer her. I remind her daily that Will loves her. I make them tell one another. She looks into his dreamy brown eyes and passionately declares, “I love you, Brudder!”. And Will, often avoiding eye contact and speaking flatly says, “I love you, Francie”.
I have started looking for children’s books that explain what it means to be on the autism spectrum. But yuckity, yuck, yuck… most of them show an odd, angry and withdrawn weirdo. And I can be certain that is not what Francie thinks of Will.
Francie thinks the sun shines because of Will. And when you hold someone up high, it makes you feel even more special when you can tell them what to do! ha. My girl loves to correct her brother. Many, many times each day, I remind her that I am the mother; she is the toddler. Francie knows the punch-line by heart: “Who likes a tattletale?”, I ask. “No one,” she says plainly.
And so here is where the parenting gets tricky: I ask her to take care of Will… but I can’t allow her to tell him what to do. I don’t want her reminding him that his prized possessions (stuffed animals, Lovey and Zoe) have been taken away because he refuses to use the potty. It infuriates me. He doesn’t need to be scolded twice or humiliated.
I ask her to stick by his side, but then expect her to disappear when it’s time for him to work. Francie loves his ABA (applied behavioral analysis) facilitators who are always (yes, it seems like always) at our home. And I realized I’ve been expecting a toddler to know how to politely excuse herself before she’s done having fun– so that she’s not in the way of her brother’s lesson plans.
But yet as honest as I am with Francie, I’m leaving out the truth. And that is: I need Francie. I need her help. I need her to make sure that she always takes care of ‘Brudder’. It’s a lot of responsibility to place on those tiny toddler shoulders. But hey, we’re talking about Francie here. It’s why she’s my confidant. It’s why she’s learning to communicate like me– with the crisp sharpness of sarcasm. It’s why I need to know that she can roll with the punches. Because I need to know that Francie can take care of Will.
And I pray that someday Brudder will take care of her…. because I’m hoping we’re preparing Francie for amazing adventures.