Feb 232011

By Barb Arland-Fye

There’s a scene in the movie “Rain Man” of two adult brothers — one an autistic savant — on a joy ride in a convertible with the top down. Over the years, my memory has replayed that scene time and again. 

It symbolizes bonding between the brothers that I dream of for my sons — Colin, an autistic man who is almost 24, and Patrick, who is 16 and received his driver’s license in January.

Growing up with an older brother with autism has brought conflicting feelings to the surface for Patrick. In his own way he loves Colin and is protective of him. But Patrick gets frustrated, and sometimes embarrassed, when Colin inundates him with questions or behaves in ways not deemed socially appropriate. From a young age on, Patrick has wondered why these behaviors can’t be eliminated.

As Patrick gains maturity, my husband Steve and I have offered him text book explanations of autism and our own understanding of this disability that affects a person’s ability to communicate and socialize effectively.

Recently, though, I realized that children really do learn what they live. Patrick became upset, out of embarrassment, when Colin overreacted to a power outage that rearranged our Sunday evening plans. Patrick responded to Colin in a way he’d seen me respond over the years. After dropping Colin off at his apartment, Patrick and I dissected the problem. Hopefully, we’ll both be more understanding and patient the next time around.

Among the changes that upset Colin is when Steve and I are both gone on Saturday night and can’t participate in our family’s tradition: Mass and dinner at home afterwards. That generally happens just once a month, when I’m in class.

Colin’s supervisor from the agency that provides him with self-help and living-skills services has graciously made arrangements for Colin to make it to Mass when we can’t take him. But he still frets about the break in routine, sometimes two weeks in advance.

Earlier this month we had a breakthrough, truly an answer to prayer. Patrick was able to drive our family vehicle to Davenport to pick up Colin at his apartment and take him to Mass at Our Lady of the River Parish in LeClaire. Afterwards, they had dinner together at our house and then Patrick drove Colin home. Colin was thrilled and I think the experience boosted Patrick’s self-esteem a notch.

I’m still at that stage I suppose most parents go through when they have a new driver in the house. But nervousness is mixed with elation at a new milestone in our family’s journey. And I thanked God profusely for this gift.

“Rain Man’s” brother struggled to understand his older brother’s disability, but in the end came to appreciate his older sibling for the man he was and the connection they had because they were family.

My prayer is that Patrick will grow in his ability to appreciate the man who Colin is and remain connected because they are members of a family God created.

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